How to Make Terrorists and Influence Radicals

How to Make Terrorists and Influence Radicals

How long can one degrade another before the latter accepts that situation and sees himself as barely human? That his violence is justified because he believes that he is degraded, even if he can’t—or won’t—admit it?

I’m not talking about Iraq and the current uproar over the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. I’m talking about Palestinians and the Israeli occupation. I’m talking about a situation that never seems to change no matter how far in time we get. It’s all become blurred—the reasons for action and reaction meld together as the years melt by. And slowly, the degradation has taken root, burrowing its way to the heart of Palestinian society.

I was once asked to give a talk to a church group about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My task was to take up the Palestinian side, since the presentations were structured that way. The previous week, the group heard from the Israeli point of view. I agreed to do the presentation, thinking of how I would look at the problem of the occupation from an angle that was not my own.

So I thought I would approach it from what I’ve always considered to be the real issue: who controls the land? In my speech, I tried to explain that an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza really only amounted to 22% of historic Palestine, and a settlement that seemed to preclude territorial contiguity. I talked about the settlements that litter the West Bank and the zones of control that make it difficult to travel from one village to another -- trips that should take a quarter of an hour wind up taking several hours because of checkpoints.

I wasn’t indignant. I didn’t rehash old laments that the Zionists “stole our land,” but I did make note of the current land appropriation by the Israeli government. I talked about grinding poverty and desperation, but I made sure to stay way clear of implying that desperation makes suicide bombing a natural conclusion

I’ll try not break my arm patting myself on the back, but I think I did a decent job. I’ve given similar presentations before, and each time, several people have noted that I manage to not lean one way or the other—a feat not always easy to achieve when it comes to this topic. But at the end, this old woman comes up to me visibly enraged and she asked me, “Where does it say in your Quran that you can blow up people?”

I was taken aback, but I didn’t lose my composure. I simply informed her (before the horrified coordinator of the talk could) that I was neither Palestinian nor Muslim. I just was asked to give a talk from the Palestinian side because nobody else would do it. (And now it appears I did someone a favor.)

But that woman’s reaction got me thinking: just what is our perception of Palestinians? That they’re nothing more than debased “Islamaniacs” just looking to blow someone up? That Arabs in general are incapable of being civilized or automatically resort to violence and beating women? Or even more broadly, that the position of women in the Arab world is the only barometer of judging that society?

And then I thought, what does it feel like living with this presumed debasement as an Arab and a Muslim? Do you start to accept it on an unconscious level, especially when you’re living under occupation? Would I start to believe that the situation required ever more outrageousness in order to remedy the injustice? That no act of violence is too gruesome or unacceptable because I am in a position of utter powerlessness?

I’m merely asking these questions: I don’t know if anyone really has an answer the can boil it down in a neat summary. On one side, we see images of Palestinians being degraded by the occupation, and some of us believe they deserve it. If only they would give up the violence, we gently say to ourselves, then the peace process could proceed. If there was only a Palestinian Gandhi or Martin Luther King, someone we could connect with, then we could start a dialog. Until then, so the reasoning goes, there’s nothing but violence and nothing to talk about.

On the other hand, some of us think of Palestinians as debased to the point of incapacitation, and we must treat them as such, as if they’re dumb animals with no voice of their own. It’s such a deeply condescending attitude about Arabs but we’re so oblivious to it. We somehow think we can tame them and by removing the “root causes” of their oppression, thinking that afterwards, all will be right and the love will flow. We argue that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip must end; that Israel’s policies are the prime cause of Palestinian terror and the settlements are the single biggest obstacle to peace. Cut these out, we say, and the debased Palestinians will start to behave. Both attitudes reek of parochialism, yet both viewpoints often sail right past one another.

Let’s leave that aside for a moment. What do we do if a people begins to believe it is debased and starts to revolt using methods we find repugnant? Can we logically argue that we are against the violence but find the bigger crime in those who brought it about, namely the occupiers? It seems we’ve contributed to the problem by shrugging that such violence as inevitable. We’ll shake our heads and deplore the violence, yet invariably, requisite condemnations are qualified with the ever popular “but...” It’s merely a few steps away from claiming that the victims of an attack deserved it, or that his government is to blame for its terrible policies: so much for victim sympathy. (And I am not suggesting that empirical data exist declaring that Palestinians do believe they are debased and define themselves as such. Rather, it’s illogical to suggest Palestinians are not disenfranchised to varying degrees by the Israeli occupation and this affects their self-perception and identity.)

If we create intolerable conditions of oppression, poverty and alienation, we are creating new problems for ourselves. Individuals who can be talked into strapping an explosive belt laced with nails dipped in rat poison to attack a mall, a sidewalk café or bus travelers. People who are willing to attack a government at its weakest point: civilians. By the same measure, if we keep insisting that a people is debased and has no other recourse, we’re encouraging acts of vileness and destruction. We’re saying, “We deplore those actions, but we understand them. You’re weak and doing the only thing you can to defend yourself.” That attitude is itself debased, but it’s symptomatic of a thinking disorder wherein Palestinians are the new Noble Savage in search of a civilized voice to argue their case better than they ever could. Enter the far left.

Such an atmosphere surely just perpetuates creating new terrorists and influencing radicals to step in and seize the subtext: what you do is wrong, but we know you just can’t help it. Worse, it lends itself to exploitation from within, a phenomena resulting in young, educated men becoming human weapons of mass destruction. In turn, it escalates reprisals and new round of butchery culminating in that lazy, oft repeated phrase “the cycle of violence.” And our perceptions of who is at fault harden and before you know it, another thirty years of occupation is upon us.