Sunday, August 24, 2003

Not too long ago, it would have seemed highly improbable for a group blog of leftish transatlantic academics to angrily denounce as "odious" the claim that suicide bombings by Palestinian terrorists are justified. Indeed, a little more than a year ago, I remarked on the disturbingly widespread popularity, in certain circles (the pages of The Times and the British Prime Minister's family, to name two), of moral arguments in defense of suicide bombings.

Yet here is Crooked Timber's Chris Bertram passing just such a judgment on British philosopher Ted Honderich, whose "After the Terror" asserts that "probably a majority of humans who are half-informed or better, now at least find it difficult to deny" that "[s]uicide bombings by the Palestinians are right." Moreover, judging by the comments generated in response to Bertram's posting, moral embrace of Palestinian terrorism--though it has by no means disappeared as a position--appears by now to have sunk in popularity to the level where its opponents can forcefully condemn it with dismissive confidence.

It's hard to pinpoint any particular event that might have precipitated such a shift in educated opinion over the past year or so. In fact, I would argue that nothing of significance "on the ground" has changed between then and now. Rather, what we are observing is a kind of cumulative delayed effect from the Palestinian rejection of the Oslo accord, the subsequent three-year terrorism campaign, and Israel's (eventual) vigorous response.

Politically engaged people often find it difficult to abandon a political allegiance--whether to Soviet Marxism, Southern segregationism, or Palestinian nationalism--all at once, as soon as its moral credibility falls under suspicion. Rather, as developments render a particular political position more and more untenable, individual adherents tend at first to redouble their efforts to reconcile fealty to their cause with embrace of "mainstream" opinions. For example, few idealistic Soviet sympathizers heard about the show trials, or the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, or Kruschev's "de-Stalinization" speech, or the invasion of Hungary or of Czechoslovakia, and immediately lost faith in a moment of sudden clarity. Rather, each of these events would have provoked at least some amount of self-doubt in many true believers, which was either eventually satisfactorily resolved or else inspired the slow development of a grudging disillusionment that ultimately led to a decisive break.

One characteristic of this process is increasing polarization, as the dissonance between loyalty to the cause and common sense or common decency grows sharper. Thus, those who continue to adhere to their political alignment are forced to grow, if anything, more extreme in their conviction, while those who defect often become vigorous critics of their former comrades. Perhaps that helps explain the bizarre moral obtuseness of a Ted Honderich, Matthew Parris or Cherie Blair.

It's also worth noting that Israelis themselves hardly abandoned faith in Oslo as soon as the violence broke out in September 2000. On the contrary, it was another year and a half--and hundreds of bloody deaths of terrorists' victims--later before the internal political consensus allowed prime minister Sharon to launch a serious military effort against the terrorist organizations. It's not surprising, then, that Western opinion is lagging behind Israel's in recognizing the ugly implications of the past three years of Palestinian terrorism.

No comments: