As U.S. President Barack Obama stubbornly proceeds with his deeply flawed resurrection of a “Two-State Solution” in the Middle East, he will bring substantial harm to the United States as well as to Israel. In this connection, Mr. Obama should quickly recognize that thecore rationale of Jihadist terror has little if anything to do with politics or with military strategy and tactics. Rather, this rationale is, and will surely remain, fundamentally, a sincere expression of religious sacrifice.
Unsurprisingly, this seemingly subtle point will be difficult to understand and acknowledge at the Obama White House. Yet, critically determinative links between religious sacrifice and politics have had a very long and altogether pertinent history. To appropriately respect chronology, President Obama and his many advisers should now look with real interest to ancient Greece. There, Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women revealed the exemplary female parent as one who reared her sons for civic sacrifice. This mother was always relieved to learn that a son had died “in a manner worthy of his self, his country and his ancestors.” Those Spartan sons who failed to live up to this bold standard of sacrifice were consciously and conspicuously reviled.
One woman, whose son had been the sole survivor of a disastrous military engagement, killed him enthusiastically with a tile. Culturally, it was the unambiguously correct punishment for his apparent cowardice. Later, the eighteenth-century Swiss (Genevan) philosopher, Jean Jacques Rousseau, citing Plutarch, described a certain citizen-mother’s tale as follows: “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.”
President Obama should take heed. The true roots of Jihadist terror originate, in part, from cultures that embrace similar views of sacrifice. In these cultures, however, the key purpose of sacrifice goes far beyond civic necessity. Here, sacrificial practice is a sacred expression of religion. In these cultures, sacrifice actually derives from a desperately hoped-for conquest of personal death. Above all, with such practice, the Jihadist terrorist hopes to realize an otherwise unattainable promise of immortality.
There is no greater power in world politics than the power over death. The Jihadist terrorist insistently claims to “love death,” but this is a complete lie. Paradoxically, he kills himself and innocent others only to ensure that he will live forever. The so-called “death” that he expects to suffer in “suicide” is merely a momentary inconvenience on every martyr’s fiery path to life everlasting.
The president should now consider the facts. “Martyrdom” operations have always been associated with Jihad. After all, unequivocal and celebratory invocations for such killing can be found in the Koran (9:111), and, even more explicitly, in the canonical hadith.
The survival implications of this doctrinal fusion of religion and violence now warrant very careful study in Washington. Convinced that Shahada (“Death for Allah”) violence against the United States will lead to martyrdom, the Islamist terrorist can never be deterred by ordinary threats of reprisal and retaliation. Falling outside the usual boundaries of “rationality,” Jihadist terrorism should now compel us to seek very different and far more purposeful measures of dissuasion. This means that to keep America safe, the U.S.will have to look far beyond orthodox military and political solutions to terrorism. Ideally, of course, President Obama would simultaneously abandon his ironically ill-fated plan to carve an anti-American Palestinian state from the still-living body of Israel.
It is precisely the Jihadists’ unique and overwhelming terror of death that leads them to “suicide.” Curiously, because dying in the act of killing “infidels” and “apostates” is presumed to buy freedom from the penalty of death, these terrorists aim to conquer mortality by “killing themselves.”
In the fashion of its Islamist enemies, America still imagines, for itself, life everlasting. But unlike these enemies, America does not see itself achieving immortality, individually or collectively, by mass killing of others. Rather, we generally see our national survival as the logical product of both mainstream diplomacy and traditional military power.
America and its terrorist enemies have decidedly different orientations to peace. This stark asymmetry puts the United States at a foreseeable disadvantage. While America’s enemies manifest their “positive” expectations for immortality, individual and collective, by the intended and doctrinal slaughter of heathen, the Obama administration has thus far remained unaware of these enemies’ particularly murderous decisional calculus.
Although usually preoccupied with other matters, the American president now faces a real and still-expanding mega-threat of unconventional war and unconventional terrorism. Faced with adversaries who are not only willing to die, but who also seek their own “deaths” – because this sacrificial death is presumed to yield personal immortality – Mr. Obama should quickly understand the critical limits of ordinary warfare, national homeland defense and deterrence.
The danger to America lies at two discrete but interrelated levels. First, it exists at the level of the individual Jihadist enemy who chooses martyrdom through a path of terrorism. Second, it exists at the level of states, the individual “self-sacrificers” in macrocosm, which may someday soon choose collective self-sacrifice through their frenzied initiation of chemical, biological or nuclear war against the United States. Such a war might not be fought for traditional military purposes, but for “liquidation” of “infidels.” Any such choice would represent the unholiest of marriages between aggressive war and genocide, two clearly codified crimes under international law.
The root problem here is Jihadist fear of death and the consequent compulsion to sacrifice certain despised “others.” This compulsion, in turn, stems from a widespread and doctrinal belief that killing unbelievers, and also being killed by unbelievers, is the path toward immortality. Terrorist unwillingness to accept personal death leads, then, to the killing of others to escape this death. The ironies are staggering, but the connections are real.
For so many of our terrorist enemies, both individuals and states, killing Americans offers an optimal immunization against death. The death fear of the enemy “ego” is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the infidel. This generic idea has been captured by Ernest Becker’s vivid paraphrase of Elias Canetti: “Each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good.
The Jihadist enemies of America do not intend to do evil. Rather, they commit to the killing of Americans and other “infidels” with conviction and purity of heart. Perversely sanctified killers, these enemies will gleefully generate an incessant search for “profane” victims. Though mired in blood, this search will be tranquil and self-assured, born of the presumption that its warrior perpetrators are neither infamous not shameful, but sacrificial.
Jihadist war and terror will be with us for a long time. To better ensure our national security, it would be best for us to quickly understand these interpenetrating threats as still-impending expressions of violence and the sacred.
President Obama, please take note, and begin by not sacrificing Israel at the bloody altar of Palestinian terror.
LOUIS RENÉ BERES 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 is also Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.