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Review-a-Day
The New Republic Online
Thursday, January 26th, 2006


 

Holy Terror

by Terry Eagleton

Maenads and Jihadis

A review by David Bromwich

The first and often the only thing one knows about a suicide bomber is that he is someone with more to die for than to live for. That such a person would make use of his readiness to suffer quickly, horribly, and finally is not a recent development in the history of nations. Nor does it exhibit a peculiarly modern form of radical evil. Terrorism, the murder of the innocent to achieve a political end, goes back at least to the Shia assassins of the twelfth century, and probably further back than that. It may occur wherever a religious or political ideal takes hold that has the power to absolve its believers of the wrong that they commit in its name. Suicide bombing is a more desperate and in some settings a more cunning adaptation of terrorism; but any terrorist is a hunted man who knows that his death may not lag far behind the deaths of his latest victims. Only a messianic politician, at the mercy of his own wildness and simplicity, could suppose it possible to conduct a worldwide purge of terrorism until one by one the guilty are subtracted and "all of the terrorists are dead."

Around the end of the Cold War, there arose a school of semi-official comforters who taught Americans that we were living at the end of history. They said that present-day America, with its magnificent free market, was the intended climax of human endeavor through the ages. A residue of this enthusiasm prompted many to look on suicide bombing, and more generally on terrorism, as a knot to be untied in the passage from the era of tyrannies to the everlasting age of the global market. As if these killings were something that wandered out of another script and into ours. As if, once they were removed, we could return to our promised ending.

But history is not the sort of thing that ends. It did not pause for long when a corps of grand strategists made the discovery that there was only one great power left in the world, and that the United States could now by force of arms dominate without fighting the lesser powers. That false dawn was darkened by the savagery of the attack on the World Trade Center. The hope was discredited a second time by the violence that greeted the American occupation of Iraq. Meanwhile, out of the failure of the end of history, a vast field of exercise has opened up for the philosophy of current events.

This new pamphlet literature, appearing at the rate of dozens of books each month, affords an echo of the pamphlet wars of the 1790s: the impressive debate about the principles of politics that emerged in Britain in response to the French Revolution. A significant difference is that the pamphlet writers today show little interest in reading one another. Written by lawyers, therapists, journalists, divines, moral philosophers, literary critics, and scholars-without-portfolio at think tanks, most of these books are easily forgotten, but memorableness is not a virtue prized in this genre. A world-terror pamphlet should make its readers feel thoughtful, panicked, and prepared. So an early pamphlet writer, Alan Dershowitz, argued that in the new world of stateless terrorism, Americans must learn to inflict torture, and that to square the barbarous cruelty with our legal conscience, "torture warrants" ought to be issued by judges. Dershowitz was careful to add that though a court-sanctioned torturer might justifiably harm a suspect, he must on no account use an unsterilized needle. This brought up a new set of questions, and we were ready for a pamphlet by a doctor.

Terry Eagleton is a literary critic with strong political and theological interests, whose first writings were contributions to radical Catholicism in the wake of Vatican II. He now lives for most of each year in Ireland. Eagleton has thus been exposed, from more than one angle, to the motives, the methods of operation, and the intellectual and political climates of terrorism. In view of these commitments and experiences, the odd thing about his new book is its lack of political specification. Holy Terror is concerned with appetites or attractions that may lead to terrorism, and it sketches various ideas of the sacred, the sublime, sexual ecstasy, the end of the world, and the relationship between unchecked oppression and lawless revenge. The aesthetic dimension of terror seems to be what Eagleton finds most compelling. This means, above all, the desire for extreme sensations. More particularly, the aesthetic attraction of terror relates to the wish -- fed by religion and itself a cause of religion -- to experience emotions of awe and transport to the point of revelation. This was not an emphasis to be expected from a writer mainly known as a political critic of literature.

Eagleton identifies terrorism with the wholly irrational -- an intuition that may be close to common sense but is not therefore infallible. This choice of a theme dictates his choice of texts, and the most substantial part of Holy Terror is an interpretation of a single work, The Bacchae. Other works of imagination are treated in passing -- Measure for Measure, Women in Love -- but it is the strangely ironic tragedy by Euripides that matters most to Eagleton's analysis of terror. The play turns on a dramatic standoff between the legitimate king of Thebes, Pentheus, a keeper of public order, and the god and guru Dionysus, who knows that people love to be out of their minds. You can get a fair idea of the drift of his argument from a string of sentences like these:

The Bacchae insists on the deep affinity between terrorism and injustice. Pentheus is destroyed because he refuses to welcome the stranger, closing his gates to an alien power which is both subversive and redemptive. Authoritarians like him can see dissidence only as anarchy, and by stamping on it as hard as they do they become self-fulfilling prophets.

"Self-fulfilling" is the word that delivers the message. We are asked to wonder whether a more imaginative Pentheus might have held back the maenads, or at least cooperated with their rapture in such a way as to preserve himself.

"Anarchy and absolutism," Eagleton says, "are the recto and verso of each other. Both suspect that chaos is our natural condition. It is just that absolutists fear it, whereas anarchists revel in it." This familiar truth Eagleton varies a little by calling the two current manifestations of the verso "Texan" and "Taliban" fundamentalism -- names that already sound glib and dated. Still, he is right that the absolution guaranteed by religious fanaticism has smoothed the way for the killers of innocents. Fanatics in every major faith "have their dreams, wherewith they weave/A paradise for a sect." A man who believes himself to be the chosen instrument of God is capable of infinite mischief and infinite destructiveness. He will always forgive himself, and will always believe himself forgiven by God. So much for the political ambitions that underwrite the failed attempt by Pentheus to secure order. But to what forces in the present world does the "anarchist" of the above description correspond? Who now plays the part of Dionysus, the god who revels in disorder?

The nice balance of anarchy with absolutism strikes me as a literary man's conceit. Or possibly Eagleton is a victim of his sense of propriety. He has striven by indirection to avoid "relevance": it would have been easy to write on this subject armed with Dostoevsky and Sartre. But the burden of the philosophy of current events is that relevance must be paid off. The cost is evident when the author comes to discuss resentment as a motive of terror. He says that Jesus is a hero of self-sacrifice. Meanwhile, God the Father is this hero's tormentor, the authority figure who demands propitiation. Such a view of the relationship between the Father and the Son comes less from the Bible than from a reading of Paradise Lost: God is too satisfied to be counted as a hero, or even as a worthy object of admiration. Eagleton speaks of the poisonous emotions that the story may evoke if read too literally: "God is a terrorist who demands the blood of his son as the price for having been mortally offended." Simple and submissive minds, then, will read theology in an orthodox way and cultivate belief in a fearful God who asks for human sacrifice. Simple and rebellious minds will revolt against that God. So, too, with reactions to later secular authorities who make comparable demands. Some people resent God in the same way that they resent a social order that claims an absolute warrant. They are, says Eagleton, "bound to see him as an unholy terror, rather as those who deny justice in political affairs are likely these days to provoke carnage and chaos." Thus, orthodox theology issues in orthodox counter-theology. Each is linked to a politics that cuts down charity and mistakes revenge for atonement.

Buried in this truism is a partial truth. Political violence comes from above as well as below -- from those, that is, who have power and aim to keep it, and from those who crave power and will do anything to get it. A plan of national security designed to preserve a nation and the insurgent imperative to create a nation are antithetical alibis for such acts. The common feature is the idea of the nation; and George Orwell in "Notes on Nationalism" performed a great service to intellectual clarity when he applied the word "nationalism" to religious and political phenomena alike. People endow the nation with the power to absolve them of guilt for crimes they commit on behalf of the nation. As for the broader psychology of nationalism, Orwell calls it "power hunger tempered by self-deception" -- a disease to which every state is susceptible.

If a constitution is the work of a moral imagination, the idea of the nation is in large measure the work of a non-moral imagination. The power of imagination is dangerous and cannot be trusted to contain itself. The emergency state of mind tends to suppress our awareness of this truth. And to the extent that Eagleton's strictures on theology are an extension of Orwell's, his warning is salutary. Yet his additional idea that the image of power itself is what "provokes" the powerless is facile. It reduces to cause and effect a more elusive fact about the relationship between hardened enemies. Where enemies do to each other all that hatred allows, terrorism and war have in common a passion that stops at nothing short of death.

Unbounded passion is Eagleton's real subject. He takes what may seem an academic turn by dealing with it under the heading of "the sublime," but he is pointing to a fact that less pretentious writers have noticed, too. What disturbed many people about the phrase "shock and awe" was that it suggested aesthetic admiration for a spectacle of destruction. Eagleton has this in mind when he puts into the category of the sublime everything "perilous, shattering, ravishing, traumatic, excessive, exhilarating, dwarfing, astonishing, uncontainable, overwhelming, boundless, obscure, terrifying, enthralling, and uplifting." Attracted by such moods and excitements, military planners and freelance killers feel at liberty to forget themselves.

The suicide bomber who imagines he can blast himself up to God is thrilled by an aesthetic idea that does not know its name: he may call it fame, or paradise. This seems a fair reading of one motive shared by some recent terrorists who have left a record of their intentions. Yet as Eagleton goes on, he seems to have in mind a much more special case:

By freely submitting to ineluctable failure, he reveals a boundlessness in himself which is at one with the august powers against which he struggles. Only a power from beyond the hero's creaturely existence could enable him to relinquish that existence. The act of drawing a limit to one's own capabilities must somehow spring from beyond them. On the battleground of his body, then, two kinds of infinity fight it out, and are shown to be secretly one.... The act of free assent by which he makes his destiny his choice allows him to rise above that destiny, demonstrating that it is not, after all, the last word.

This is metaphysical trash. And when the argument turns to the domain of theology proper, it keeps to the same abstract register: "The true terror at the heart of reality is the human subject, which for Augustine is a kind of nothingness. Fearful of this gulf in being, the fundamentalist seeks to stuff it with absolute values and unbending principles." Eagleton sums up the terrorist as a reductive interpreter who evades a true confrontation with nothingness. His intellectual preoccupations at this point trivialize and thoroughly depoliticize the argument. A theory about "the battleground of the body" may be impossible to disprove, but it does not bring us close to understanding the passage from thought to violent action in the mind of a single person.

Eagleton looks to get some help in explaining the motives of terrorists from Edmund Burke on the sublime. Yet Burke wisely stayed out of these depths. He paused, instead, at the implications of a surface phenomenon. The feeling of the sublime comes from something we fear, something distant enough for the fear to be experienced without practical risk. The satisfaction that follows an explosion from a shell you fire, or from the devastation of a city, which you look upon without a thought of the inhabitants -- these partake of the emotions of the sublime. The feeling that your own house is about to be bombed, or that you are about to blow yourself up, belongs to a different category. It puts the spectator too close to be entertained.

That most of humanity much of the times admire violent effects for no reason is among the puzzles of human nature. It shows the extent to which right and wrong do not inhabit our most elemental motives of action; and the strength of Burke is to serve as a no-nonsense guide to these limited truths. But Eagleton misses the point by trying to pump it up: "Burke thinks that we need a therapeutic dose of terror every now and then to prevent society from growing enervated and effete." But hygiene is not the point. We are drawn to scenes of violence and ruin not as therapy, but in obedience to an appetite. Yet the appetite is compelling only so long as we are out of danger. This goes some way to explain the vogue of American pilgrimages to Ground Zero -- a journey undertaken by many who would have been content never to see those buildings in their glory. It gives a clue as well to the emotions of the bombardier who dropped the atom bomb on Nagasaki, who spoke later of the terror of the explosion but added that dropping the bomb was "my greatest thrill of my life." It would be absurd to suppose an identity between the minds of such spectators and the person who ignites the fuse on a suicide bomb. Such a person at such a time is a paralyzed will in motion.

Too many of Eagleton's digressions, like his pages on Burke on the sublime, are seduced by a love of sheer plausibility and marred by a fatal glibness. He cannot stand on the brink of a true perception without drawing it into a chain of glamorous inferences that destroy its precision. Thus he compares suicide bombers and hunger strikers -- an interesting analogy at first, because the strikers may be the allies of terrorists; and yet the moral content of their actions differs sharply. The latter do not aim at self-sacrifice, they aim at murder. That they have to die themselves is a regrettable but necessary side effect.

This distinction is slurred over by Eagleton's view of the killers as bearers of a quasi-theological prestige: "In destroying their own flesh and blood, hunger strikers and suicide bombers bear witness to a power which is in their view even more formidable than the state." Now the idea of bearing witness seems to me important enough to avoid turning it into claptrap; but the transfer of moral idealism from the striker to the suicide bomber does just that. Having assimilated the two kinds of action, Eagleton then treats their unity as a fact: "The death of the suicide bomber is likely to prove far more significant an event than anything in his life. It becomes, in fact, the only truly historic occurrence in the careers of the dumped and disregarded, the point where -- having torn small children to shreds and vaporized the blameless -- they can feel most intensely alive." Such a passage is disgusting in a number of ways. First, because the vaporized killer cannot be "most intensely alive" at the moment of death, when he is not feeling anything. There is also something callous about the automatic value placed on "significance" and "the historic" -- a usual fascination of those whose morality turns with changes in the exhibited forms of power.

A fairer analogy for suicide bombers might be found among "just assassins" like the Russian revolutionists of 1905, the killers of the Grand Duke Sergei, who preferred hanging to clemency toward themselves when the world's injustices had been augmented by their own acts. But this analogy also misses the mark. Suicide bombers may resemble just assassins in that they kill and choose to die. But the just assassins were not suicide bombers: they loved life and parted with it only to condemn their own deeds. They chose their target and wished him dead, and, even so, felt remorse and a need for expiation. They did not contrive to be absolved by the Absolute.

Partly because of this severe belief in the moral law, it is hard to imagine a party of just assassins serving as the vanguard of a movement of popular resistance. If recent suicide terrorists have found popular support in Sri Lanka, Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere, a reason may be that they embody the only highly visible protest against a hated authority. Eagleton speaks of "the lack of organized political resistance to the present system [of global capitalism], of the kind to which socialists have traditionally been dedicated, which encourages it to trample upon the weak, thus stimulating the growth of terror." But the disappearance of an international party for social justice is probably a minor cause of the outbreaks of the past twenty years. More telling, as Robert A. Pape suggests in Dying to Win, are such local causes as religious enmity, linguistic difference, a rebellion in progress, and an army of occupation.

On these matters, Eagleton is again the captive of a curious mixture of romantic politics and common sense. His common sense is driven by socialist sympathies, whereas the common sense Americans have grown used to is driven by the "globalizing" sympathies of market propagandists such as Thomas L. Friedman. Such journalists and journalistic historians command today much of the audience that once looked to statesmen for practical wisdom. But the statesmen have proved to be fragile prophets. Speaking of the American money that subsidized Osama bin Laden against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who initiated the support, remarked some years later: "What was more important in the worldview of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" He was so sure. And Brzezinski is a relatively sober example. The fatuousness of the comment could be paralleled in the writings and speeches of many other luminaries of the policy elite.

All the differences notwithstanding, there is a strong continuity between acts of terror and war. A soldier shooting at soldiers is a different moral entity from a terrorist who smuggles a bomb into a restaurant. Yet so long as the incantation of war, terror, mission, evil, world, freedom, and humanity invites our acquiescence by those cadences that thrill the blood, sanity requires that we subdue the glow around the words. All but the most insensate terrorists believe that their victims include as many as possible of the guilty. They even make up stories to prove this to their own satisfaction, such as the story that everyone who worked in the World Trade Center was an agent of American imperialism. All but the most wanton soldiers believe that they are killing as few as possible of the innocent. The innocent dead in both cases are equally dead. To the person who has lost a husband or wife or child or friend, revenge is equally tempting if the killer was wearing a dynamite pack or seated in a cockpit at twenty thousand feet and aiming at the next building. Reckless killing is the purpose of the suicide bomber. Targeted killing -- with some untargeted almost sure to be hit -- is the purpose of the bomber pilot. It is no use trying to drive the two cases further apart with a piece of euphemistic phraseology like "collateral damage." This is an area in which elaboration soon becomes casuistry. It may be plausible, but it is not morally credible to praise war as a perennial necessity and one of the glories of life, in the manner of Victor Davis Hanson, while denouncing terrorism as a barbarity that must be fought tooth and nail.

The motives for suicide terror may be roughly divided into (1) religious fulfillment; (2) revenge; (3) founding a state; and (4) resistance to occupation. Holy Terror, when one looks at the details, is concerned rather narrowly with (1) and (2). Dying to Win suggests that the terrorism of the past two decades, and especially the suicide bombings, has emerged saliently as instances of (4), with (3) often a discernible secondary motive. (1) and (2) in Pape's view are possible and always exacerbating causes, but as he reads the evidence, they have not excited vengeful or ecstatic persons to the length of killing others by killing themselves.

A restless habit of combing the evidence is one of several qualities that distinguish Dying to Win from Holy Terror. Where the latter is speculative and rhapsodic, the former is prosaic and matter-of-fact. If there is a singleness of emphasis that allows the argument to miss a dimension, it comes from the assumption that terrorists may be analyzed as rational actors. Yet our tendency has been to assume the opposite without proof: that they act out of blind resentment, indifferent to circumstance, consumed by a generalized hatred of the West. Vice President Cheney in recent statements has plucked a word of menace, "Caliphate," from an antiIslamist primer, Mary Habeck's Knowing the Enemy, and has used the word to suggest that a Caliphate is in hailing distance of circling the globe from Jakarta to Manhattan. By contrast, Dying to Win touches on the known extremes of a recognizable world.

Pape's discussion also supplies the instruments to test his own hypothesis. If people tend to become suicide terrorists because they want to resist a foreign occupation, and if they use the tactic only where they think it has a strong chance of success, we should be able to understand the logic of their acts inductively. It will be written all over what they say and do, and interpretable from what they do not say or do. The idea that a terrorist hopes to merge with God is not susceptible to proof. Who knows what they think of what they read and chant? Marching orders are a different matter. We will learn in the next few years, or whenever the United States no longer keeps thousands of troops on Muslim soil, whether Pape is right that suicide terrorists mainly act for a community with which they identify themselves; that they press hardest against a foreign army of occupation from a country whose religion is different; and that they direct their attacks at democracies and not at less tractable regimes -- as the Kurdish suicide bombers hit Turkey but spared Iraq under Saddam Hussein. It must be added that occupation is a matter of fact as well as a matter of belief. Five thousand American troops, left over after the first Gulf war on sealed-off bases in Saudi Arabia, did not seem to Americans (if we remembered them) an army of occupation; but to those who hated them simply for the knowledge that they were there, alternative explanations were unlikely to carry conviction.

The almost colorless language of Pape's account has its own limitations, but it serves as a counter-irritant to the rhetoric of the pamphleteers. His purpose, he says, is to work out a strategy for eliminating the present generation of terrorists without supplying the political and imaginative soil for another generation to grow. Admittedly, this is a strategy that lacks the emotional satisfaction of pledging to kill until you have killed them all. But that pledge is a fantasy. It takes the enemy to be a natural kind -- as if our actions exerted no influence on their numbers of new recruits. The problem any society faces about such people is how to be rid of them, but it is not forbidden to understand who they are.

Terrorism has been a tactic chiefly adopted by partisans or by resistance fighters or by an insurgency that sees itself as a nation struggling to be born. The acts are done to achieve a political end, and they are evil -- a word that should be used sparingly lest it lose much of its force. Acts of terror, then, are an aberration that must not become a pattern. And the acts are performed by human beings. These separate facts need to be held in a single thought; and the whole truth is even stranger. A terrorist began life as a person and may go back to being a person. It happened in France, after the terror of les armées revolutionnaires, and in Santo Domingo after the rebellion of the Black Jacobins. It happened in America after Bloody Kansas and the Missouri raids of the James brothers. It happened in Israel with independence and in South Africa with full emancipation. It may be happening now in Northern Ireland. Human beings do such things, but sometimes they stop doing them, and sometimes they stop and regret.

Pape teaches political science at the University of Chicago and has also taught at the U.S. Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies. Over the past several years, he has compiled an exhaustive database on suicide terrorists. At the writing of his book, it contained all that was known about 315 suicide attacks from 1980 through 2003. His research into the motives, the agents, and the circumstances of the attacks has convinced him that nationalism is the leading motive of suicide terror. The attackers are not for the most part religious, nor, he says, particularly Islamist. They cover a wide range: some college-educated, some illiterate; some well-off, others poor; the youngest fifteen, the oldest fifty-two.

The picture of Islamist terrorism as the offspring of a unified ideology Pape believes to be essentially false. You may arrive at that view by reading their theology and taking to heart their ugly promises, but this is to proceed by the a priori method, whereas Pape works from the data to a conclusion. The various fundamentalist movements do not recognize one another's authority, and their collaborations thus far have been episodic and expedient. All are anti-Western in some way, and several call for imitation of the Islam of the Prophet. But politically, as movers of violent action and self-sacrifice, they have waited for moments when they could appear as the conspicuous opposition to an imperial threat made vivid by a foreign army of occupation. The way then lies open for their soldiers to become martyrs in a cause of national liberation. This posthumous fame is all-important. "An individual can die," observes Pape. "Only a community can make a martyr."

An important case study for him is the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. News reports at the time made much of the Islamic identity of the attackers, and it was widely supposed that Islamic fundamentalism had driven them. After a year of going over the evidence in detail, Pape found that twenty-seven of the forty-one suicide attackers "were communists or socialists with no commitment to religious extremism; three were Christians. Only eight suicide attackers were affiliated with Islamic fundamentalism." The common motive of those willing to take their own lives was fear of "a religiously motivated occupier," and the actions are mainly intelligible as "extreme self-sacrifice to end the occupation." A similar result emerged from his examination of Al Qaeda suicide terrorists. Among the seventy-one who killed themselves in the years 1995-2003, twice as many came from Muslim countries with a significant fundamentalist population as from those without it, but an Al Qaeda suicide bomber was ten times more likely to come from a country occupied by the United States than from an unoccupied country. A coercive foreign presence intensifies the injured pride, rage, and indignation that lead to suicide attacks. For this reason Pape concludes that the United States has made a mistake "by embarking on a policy to conquer Muslim countries." That is not, of course, the stated policy of the United States; but the evidence of the senses tells a story that few in the region doubt, and Pape will not presume to correct them until the evidence changes.

He dismisses cult suicide and anomic suicide -- the action of the brainwashed and the psychologically adrift -- as irrelevant to most of the cases he studied. Team suicides are the rule: an expression of solidarity, for the killer martyrs are signaling their loyalty to a small community that stands for a larger one. "Members of the group typically go to great lengths to deepen their social ties, to participate actively in social institutions, and to adopt customs that display communal devotion." Thus, beginning in 1982, Hezbollah drew much sentimental gratitude for its 130,000 scholarships and aid to 135,000 families, along with the granting of interest-free loans. The organization also paid for sewing courses to enable the self-support of the handicapped, and, through a cover charity, it built two hospitals. Hamas has taken up the same pattern of subsidy, "deeply embedded in the surrounding society, supporting an extensive network of more than forty social welfare organizations"; and with the Tamil Tigers again one sees a philanthropy that is at once unselfish and cynical: "food, water, resettlement housing, health services, and interest-free loans." Bin Laden's humanitarian offshoots have names like Human Concern International and Mercy International as well as the Islamic International Relief Organization. They do what they say they do, while they remain bin Laden's creatures. Concerning the Benevolence International Foundation and the Global Relief Organization, the 9/11 Commission found (in its own words) "little compelling evidence that either of these charities actually provided financial support to al-Qaeda." The profit they yielded was moral prestige.

Together with the heterogeneous profiles of suicide killers, something new that emerges in Dying to Win is the alternation of moral postures among those who order the acts of self-destruction. You have, on the one hand, a spirit of reverential glorification suitable to heroes of sport and war: a Tamil Tiger discourse says that the martyrs "die in the arena of struggle with the intense passion for the freedom of their people," a field where "the death of every martyr constitutes a brave act of enunciation of freedom." Equally marked is an almost opposite trait, a calculating single-minded discipline: the Ayatollah Fadlallah, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, observed once that "the self-martyring operation" should never go forward unless "it can convulse the enemy." A more refined calculus now and then appears, by which "the believer cannot blow himself up unless the results will equal or exceed the loss of the believer's soul." The grotesque trade-off of charred bodies for lost souls turns into a question of pure utility when an interviewer asks a Hamas spokesman why they do not just plant a bomb and run, and the spokesman answers: "There are more fatalities in a suicide attack." Calculation drives not only the choice of the place for dealing death, but the acceptable ratio of self-sacrifice to the duration of the contest: "Tamil Eelam [the Tamil homeland] can be achieved in 100 years. But if we conduct Black Tiger [suicide] operations, we can shorten the suffering of the people and achieve Tamil Eelam in a shorter period of time." President Bush believes that democracy is something every people wants, because the God of all has put a wish for democracy into every person on earth. The documentary testimony of Pape's killers suggests that what everybody wants is something cruder and less definite: a nation.

"War on terror" is a stirring phrase. There was a time last year -- two days, maybe three -- when it seemed that the Bush administration had stopped talking of a war on terror. The office of Donald Rumsfeld spun out a few substitutes that were duly found wanting in salt and savor. How absurd to expect them to give it up. Three words bristling sharp and bright that make the listener who intends to do nothing feel manly and remarkable; feel, in fact, that by speaking or hearing the phrase, he has done something like kill a terrorist. An administration of strutting warriors who stand firm in the conviction of their own innocence are scarcely equipped to fight without a phrase like this. The belief, meanwhile, that "we are good" (as the president has said all Americans are good) is a sign that the person who says it is forever absolved in his own eyes. Why do we feel such a person is apt to leave bodies strewn all around?

Carl Schmitt observed that the division of friend and enemy defined the political; the only people who would deny this, he guessed, were liberals -- in the largest sense of the tradition that includes America. Liberals, Schmitt thought, believe that all people are potentially their friends and that their party encompasses nothing less than all of humanity. But if that is so, their enemies cannot be mere enemies. After all, who could oppose someone who fights for the human? Only the inhuman. But if I am fighting against the inhuman, there is no limit on what I am permitted to do to my enemy -- or to my own country in order to get at the enemy. In this sense, liberalism, or, to give a name closer to home, evangelical democracy, is a genuinely apocalyptic faith.

A story about the descent into a war on the inhuman was recounted by Dexter Filkins in a remarkable essay in The New York Times Magazine on October 23, 2005. Filkins told of the rise and fall of valor in Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Sassaman, in action around Samarra in 2004. Sassaman, writes Filkins, who was "adored" by his superior officer Major General Raymond Odierno "for the zeal with which his men hunted down guerrillas," did what was expected and more. "He sent his men into the Sunni villages around Balad to kick down doors and detain their angry young men. When Sassaman spoke of sending his soldiers into Samarra, his eyes gleamed. 'We are going to inflict extreme violence,' he said." Notice the words "adored" and "gleamed," words that carry a religious and aesthetic charge, finely caught by a reporter who has seen firsthand the intoxication of battle. That adoration and that gleam are a high thing when applied to fitting objects; but something different happened here. This soldier, who had shown so much courage and efficiency, was ordered by superiors to "increase lethality" -- a vague command like "extract information" which has been used in Iraq both to induce atrocities and to screen the responsible from public view. Sassaman followed the cue of a half-defined categorical command. When his men abused two of the enemy, within the apparent allowable limits of torment short of death, by forcing them to jump into the Tigris River at night, this experiment in increased lethality seems to have miscarried. One of the victims disappeared, and it is probable that he drowned.

The pity of war -- that such adoration should be so misused -- is connected with the terror of war. Organized violence injures the virtues by contaminating them with vices that are their doubles -- as, for example, the aggression of brutality resembles the assertiveness of courage. This is in itself a reason why wars are to be avoided. But does not everyone wish to avoid every war? Nothing could be more false. War is a glut of exaltations. It always has been. In all of Shakespeare's plays that picture war, ordinary people are shown greeting the coming of war in a festive mood. It is the mood of people who do not guess that they will be hurt. A nation that feels omnipotent in arms is perpetually at risk from that mood.

Man is a self-justifying animal. The nadir of self-justification in recent memory was reached in the past few months with the barefaced apology for torture by Dick Cheney and the sophistical attempt to juggle definitions of torture by Alberto Gonzalez. And the justifications pile on: we are asked to agree that the threat of terror exposes the United States to perils more dreadful than any that the country has endured before; that in view of this unprecedented fact, we ought to trust our leaders to "protect" us even if it means suspending all previous understandings of civil liberty. But there have been times of the world worse than this for the United States. The Cold War was a great deal worse, if you take away the halo of nostalgia. These shuffling evasions may avert judgment for a while at the hands of a public even more confused than it is frightened. But when the architects of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib justify their savage actions as inevitable reactions to terror, we may wonder whether a free society is defined by any principle of action that stands above our reactions.

Terrorism, to repeat, is not the same as war, but war stands on an uneasy continuum with terror. It is said that American commanders in Iraq have watched The Battle of Algiers to help them understand what they are up against. They should tell their civilian chiefs to look at another work from the same time and place, an essay by a doctor who got to know the victims of torture, Frantz Fanon's "Colonial War and Mental Disorders." To have been "tortured night and day for nothing," Fanon wrote, "seemed to have broken something in these men," but there was another consequence for the survivors and their friends: total indifference to all moral arguments, indifference that closed in the belief that "there is no just cause. A cause which entrains torture is a weak cause. Therefore the fighting strength [of the FLN insurgency] must at all costs be increased; its justness must not be questioned. Force is the only thing that counts." Torture of the FLN in Algeria was the means by which state terror was integrated with state power in a war on terror. It was, of course, justified by the French as an emergency tactic. But in a time of perpetual emergency -- and the vice president has told us that we are living in such a time -- all tactics are emergency tactics and all are justified. And yet emergencies end, but memory does not die. Other eyes will see what our hands have done. There are practices that cannot be defended. Let us say it once and then without casuistry. The terrorist is one kind of criminal and deformity, the torturer is another kind of criminal and deformity. If the end we aim at is a world without both, the end must be present and legible in the means that we use to get there.


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