In these pages, I have written occasionally about dangerous cartographies. Oddly, even now, the so-called road map to peace will not go away quietly. If implemented, President Barack Obama’s plan for a “Two-State Solution” in the Middle East will sorely degrade both U.S. and Israeli security. This is because the twisted roadmap to Palestinian statehood still misses a decidedly crucial understanding: Jihadist terror has little to do with territory or politics or military strategy or tactics. In essence, it is a ritualistic and longstanding expression of religious sacrifice.
My readers already know that Hamas, with its still-growing ties to al-Qaeda, would quickly dominate any Palestinian state. In keeping with its primary commitment to terror, this Islamic Resistance Movement would soon launch visibly expanded forms of “freedom fighting” and “national liberation.” Because such violence would express Shahada, or Death For Allah, there would be no room for any further negotiations over “Palestine.” To be sure, there would be absolutely no serious attention to Palestinian demilitarization, whatever Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama might have been expecting in pre-state diplomacy.
Fundamental links between sacrifice and political violence have a genuinely pertinent history. To begin, President Obama could look with real benefit to ancient Greece. There, Plutarch’s Sayings Of Spartan Mothers revealed the exemplary female parent as one who had reared her sons for civic sacrifice. This mother was always relieved to learn that her son had died “in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors.” Significantly, those Spartan sons who had failed to live up to this standard were very conspicuously reviled.
One woman, whose son had been the sole survivor of a military engagement, killed him with a tile. Culturally, it was the only correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing Plutarch, described another citizen-mother’s tale: “A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot (slave) arrives trembling; she asks him for the news. `Your five sons were killed.’ `Base slave, did I ask you that?’ The slave responds: `We won the victory.’ The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods.”
The roots of still-impending Jihadist terror from Palestine originate, in part, from cultures that embrace similarly primal views of sacrifice. In these cultures, the purpose of sacrifice always goes beyond civic necessity. Here, sacrificial practice becomes a genuinely sacred expression ofreligion. More precisely, such sacrifice always derives, ultimately, from a deeply hoped-for conquest of personal death, that is, for immortality.
There is no greater power in world politics than power over death. Considered carefully, this point is not really difficult to understand, as more or less compelling promises of immortality underlie great varieties of human religious belief. Strangely, however, this plainly core point is not truly understood in either Washington or Jerusalem.
The Jihadist terrorist claims to “love death,” but this claim is a boldfaced lie. Paradoxically, he (or she) kills himself/herself and innocent others only to ensure that he/she will not die, that he/she will live forever. The so-called “death” that he/she expects to suffer in “suicide” is anything but final. It is, instead, a merely momentary inconvenience on the unstoppable trajectory to glorious life everlasting.
Martyrdom operations have always been connected with Jihad. These planned spasms of violence are based upon a long-codified scripture. For example, unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such operations can be found in the Koran (9:111), and, even more explicitly, in the canonical hadith.
For the U.S. and Israel, the security implications of any enemy doctrinal fusion involving religion and violence warrant careful consideration. Convinced that Shahada violence against the U.S. or Israel will lead to martyrdom, the Hamas or al-Qaeda terrorist will never be deterred by ordinary threats of military reprisal or retaliation. It follows that our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as calculated forms of counter-terrorism, are literally and incontestably beside the point.
Truth can sometimes emerge from paradox. It is the Jihadists’ terror of death that leads them quite “logically” to suicide. It is precisely because any short-term “dying” in the act of killing infidels and apostates is presumed to buy their freedom from the penalty of real death that these terrorists aim to conquer mortality by self-immolation.
In the end, America’s and Israel’s terrorist enemies have very distinctively different orientations to peace. This stark asymmetry puts us at a foreseeable and grievous disadvantage. While these enemies manifest their expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the doctrinal slaughter of heathen, our own leaders remain unaware of these enemies’ systematic fusion of violence and the sacred.
We now face a steadily expanding mega-threat of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with adversaries who are not only willing to die, but who paradoxically seek their own “deaths” in order to live, President Obama should promptly understand the inevitable limits of military remediation and homeland defense.
For our common Palestinian Jihadist enemies in West Bank (Judea/Samaria) and Gaza, killing Americans and Israelis offers them an optimal reprieve from personal death. In psychological terms, the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. Generically, this idea is best captured by Ernest Becker’s famous paraphrase of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.”
Our Jihadist enemies do not intend to do evil. Rather, they commit to the killing of Americans and Israelis with an absolute purity of heart. Though mired in blood, their search for infidels is always tranquil and self-assured, born of the certain knowledge that the immutable goals of Holy War are never shameful, but always heroic.
To weaken and defeat Jihadist terrorists, the president must first acknowledge that any Palestinian state would be contrary to our national interest. For the sake of indispensable and interpenetrating American and Israeli security, it is now high time to replace the self-defeating cartography of a road map to nowhere with a more thoughtful and culturally-informed route to effective counter-terrorism. At its starting point, this promising path should direct followers toward a sober understanding of violence and the sacred.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES, Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and publishes widely on world politics, terrorism and international law. Born in Zurich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, and also of articles in Parameters: The Journal of the U.S. Army War College; Special Warfare; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; International Security (Harvard); The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; World Politics (Princeton) and The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. Professor Beres’ columns have also appeared in The New York Times; Christian Science Monitor; Washington Times; Washington Post; Boston Globe; Chicago Tribune; Los Angeles Times; U.S. News & World Report; The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz (Israel).