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Religious Extremism And International Legal Norms Perfidy, Irrationality And Preemption (Conclusion)


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Based upon the author’s March 30, 2007 lecture at a conference on ‘Sacred Violence, Religion And Terrorism’, held at: Case Western Reserve University, School of Law, Cleveland, Ohio.

Another term that appears in the title of my remarks is “irrationality.” I have noted before − per Rene Girard − that violence need not necessarily be irrational. Usually, from the standpoint of strategic studies, we define a rational state as one that values its continued existence more highly than any other preference of combination of preferences.

What if, in the near future, a state such as Iran were willing to “die” in order to achieve a particular religious outcome − in essence, to become a suicide-bomber in macrocosm?

This is not a silly question. On the contrary, Iran’s current president is a believer in the return of the missing 12th Imam, and in the idea that such coming must take place in the context of an apocalyptic war against the unbelievers.

I have done some looking into the idea of apocalypse (it has interested me since I first wrote a book with that word in the title in 1980) and it seems certain that both the Jews and the Christians drew some of their eschatology (“last things”) from ancient Persia (modern Iran).

Indeed, there is substantial evidence that the Jews (I think especially of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the particular document called “The War Of The Sons Of Light And The Sons Of Darkness”) – who passed along their apocalypse in some form, to the Christians – were themselves deeply influenced by the earlier Persian Zoroastrians.

The latter were distinctly Manichean and subscribed to a stark dualism between Good and Evil. Not much has changed in the world of “sacred violence.” It is − to various Islamic terror groups and states − still a constant war between “us” and “them.” In this war, as I had mentioned earlier, there can be absolutely no possibility of compromise.

As for international law, it is little more than a tactical expedient; to be used and manipulated, only according to the presumed “will of Allah.”

Conceptually, my remarks have sought to link “sacred violence” with international law, perfidy, irrationality and preemption. The links here are tentative, but worthy of a continuing and much deeper examination. [In this connection, I hope that some of you here today will be inspired to look further into these particular linkages.]

At the most obvious level, virtually all of the violence that we now face as a civilization is “sacred violence,” and essentially all of this threatened violence (which could soon include mass-destruction terrorism) has its roots in acute death fear and systematically repressed sexuality.

It is also rooted in those elements of an Arab/Islamic civilization that positively loathe the individual (making it diametrically opposite to the individualism that we have learned to value in our own societies) and that make membership in the group (the so-called sacred group) the very highest kind of expectation.

Finally, “sacred violence” draws upon the universal human need for ecstasy, a need that cannot be readily fulfilled in portions of the Arab/Islamic world, and which therefore needs to be sublimated into very destructive forms of individual and collective behaviors.

Citing to fifth-century Greece, to Euripides’ Medea, Rene Girard reminds us of another fundamental truth about “sacred violence:”

“If left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area. The role of sacrifice is to stem the rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into ‘proper channels’.”

WE, [ladies and gentlemen] are those “proper channels.”

It follows that we must now work – with vastly more imaginative approaches to international law – in order to curtail the place of religious sacrifice in certain parts of the Arab/Islamic world. This means exploring paths for remediation that have never been explored before – indeed, have never even been imagined or understood.

In principle, we could try to think of ways to move from a no longer useful Westphalianism to a new global cosmopolis, but – in fact – this would never work in time. In principle, we could try to think of ways to limit certain Arab/Islamic death fears and institutionally repressed sexuality, but – in fact – that would take centuries (if ever) to work.

Much as I would prefer to end on a hopeful note, “sacred violence” will likely propel the planet toward mega-terrorism and apocalyptic war in the next several years unless we can fashion certain appropriate near-term solutions.

Recalling the legal implications of perfidy for anticipatory self-defense, and understanding the potentially dreadful fusion of enemy irrationality with weapons of mass destruction, our only immediate remedy appears to lie in preemption.

It is an imperfect remedy, to be sure, one with substantially damaging consequences, one that does not get even close to the heart of the problem and one that is necessarily partial and transient. Nonetheless, all options presently before us are manifestly unattractive, and our only rational choice is to select the least unattractive option.

“All those who are merciful to the cruel,” warns the Talmud, “will come to be cruel to the merciful.”

C’est beau, n’est-ce pas, la fin du monde?

Copyright The Jewish Press, May 11, 2007. All rights reserved

LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of ten books and several hundred articles dealing with military strategy, counter-terrorism, international relations and international law. He was born in Zurich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945, and is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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