We Jews have experienced so much pain in our long and arduous history that the pain of Islamic terrorism seems to be just another episode of indescribable suffering. To an extent, this is certainly true. For the moment, we must endure, and – in the end – we shall prevail. So it has been before; so it will be again.
It is also true that, whatever its particular source – our pain is incommunicable. This fact is deeply rooted in the confining space of each individual human body. Very simply, no human language can ever really describe pain, an observation that has distinctly special and important implications for control of violence in the world. But with specific respect to Islamic terror-violence, this observation has the decidedly regrettable effect of reducing current Israeli suffering to an altogether anesthetized inventory of “casualties.”
Israel’s excruciating pain at the bloodied hands of Islamic terrorists remains subject to the very stark limitations of grammar and syntax. Of course, everyone who is human has suffered physical pain, and everyone who has suffered knows that bodily anguish not only defies language, but that it is also language-destroying. In the case of relentless Islamic terror against Israelis, this inexpressibility of pain now stands in the way of acknowledging such terror as pure barbarism. Shielded by the inherent limitations of language, suicide-bombers are now able to present themselves before the tribunal of world public opinion as honorable armed combatants. In fact, however, these murderers are anything but soldiers or “freedom fighters.” Rather, they are fearful and gratuitously destructive criminals, killers who combine a rare species of cowardice with a perverse commitment to inflict great harm solely for harm’s sake.
Significantly, there is, from the Islamic terrorist point of view, no reasonable hope of transforming Israeli pain into purposeful Islamic power. On the contrary, the Hamas/Islamic Jihad/Fatah/Hizbullah (it makes no difference) resort to carnage and mayhem may inevitably stiffen even the most liberation minded hearts. So why do these terrorists continue to enthusiastically inflict pain upon innocents, tearing up unprotected Jewish bodies with exploding razor blades and ball bearings and without foreseeable pragmatic benefit? Have these terrorists now abandoned the usual political playbook of policy advantage? Have they simply traded in Clausewitz for De Sade?
One partial answer to this question is that Islamic terrorists, in exactly the same fashion as their intended audiences, are imprisoned by the remorseless shortfalls of human language. The pain experienced by one human body can never genuinely be shared with another, even if these bodies are closely related by blood and even if the physical distance between them is short. Although widely unacknowledged, the split between one’s own body and the body of another is always absolute. For reasons that likely have more to do with Darwinian logic than the vagaries of compassion, the “membranes” between bodies are always stubbornly impermeable. This split, therefore, allows even the most heinous harms to “others” to be viewed “objectively.” Sometimes these harms can even be accepted as a distinctly pardonable form of “national liberation.”
For Islamic terrorists and their supporters, the violent death meted out to Israelis is always only an abstraction. As “infidels,” we hear again and again, their Jewish victims lack “sacredness.” For the terrorists, murdering these Jewish victims is not just a minor matter. It is always “the will of allah.” It is, for them, always a matter for loud family celebration.
Physical pain within the human body not only destroys ordinary language; it can actually bring about a visceral reversion to pre-language human sounds – that is, to those primal moans and cries and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the many Jewish victims of enemy terror writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws dipped ever so lovingly into rat poison, neither the world publics who bear silent witness nor the screaming murderers themselves can ever begin to experience the meaning of what is being suffered. This incapacity is, to be sure, not an excuse for the bystanders or for the perpetrators, but it does help to explain why even callous killing and mutilation by terrorists can sometimes be construed as rebellion. Moreover, the incommunicability of physical pain further amplifies Israeli injuries from terrorism by insistently reminding the victims that their suffering is not only intense, but that it is also understated. For the Jewish victims there is never an anesthesia strong enough for the pain, but for the observers and for the perpetrators the victims’ pain is always anesthetized.
For all who shall still learn about the latest Palestinian or Hizbullah attack upon a nursery school, a kindergarten van, a city bus, an ice-cream parlor, a pizza shop or a falafel stand, the suffering intentionally ignited upon Jewish civilians will never be truly felt. And even then, this suffering will flicker for only a moment before it disappears. Although it will be years before the “merely wounded” are ever again able to move their own violated bodies beyond immeasurable boundaries of torment, newspaper readers and television viewers will pause only for a second before progressing to less disturbing forms of discourse.
By its very nature, physical pain has no decipherable voice, no touchable referent. When at last, it finds some dimming sound at all, the listener no longer wants to be bothered. This human listener, mortal and fragile, wishes pathetically but understandably, to deny his or her own flesh-and-blood vulnerabilities.
All things move in the midst of death, and the denial of death is surely humankind’s basic preoccupation. As a result, the pain of others is necessarily kept at a safe distance and the horror of that pain is purposefully blunted by language. Islamic terrorists, therefore, are always much, much worse than they might appear (they are certainly not “freedom fighters”), and their crimes are not always recognized as unforgivable and repellent. This problem of justice can never really be solved, but the sources of any possible improvement lie nonetheless in suffering, blood and the inevitably common agony of extinction.
From the standpoint of Israel’s ongoing struggle for survival in an authentically genocidal region, the country’s leaders must soon come to admit that the time for pretend peace processes is over, that any political road map is an invented cartography of Jewish annihilation. Israel’s pain is infinitely more important than any diplomatic logic, and a deliberately targeted child’s cry of despair is always more important than even the most subtle strategic calculations, and freely-flowing human tears have far, far deeper meaning than learned smiles.
Copyright: The Jewish Press, October 27, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters and international law. He is Chair of Project Daniel, and is the Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.