Latest update: December 12th, 2012
How shall we truly understand what happened on the last day of March one year ago, when an Iraqi mob burned, desecrated and hanged four American contractors from a bridge in Fallujah? Utterly jubilant in their orgy of mutilation and murder, the members of this frenzied mob seemed to be acting in ways that were only marginally human. In fact, however, their behaviors were not only decidedly human, they were also tied intimately to certain distinct and long-enduring forms of religious worship. I refer specifically to the undiscarded practice of ritual sacrifice.
To find plausible comparisons with what happened at Fallujah, we needn’t go back to medieval times. Rather, only a few years earlier, a similar mob in Palestinian Ramallah tortured, gouged out the eyes, disemboweled and burned two entirely defenseless human beings. The sacrificial victims of that particular day, two Russian-speaking Israelis who had gotten lost on the roads, were not in any way identifiable to the mob as individual persons. For the sacrificers, it was more than enough that they were “Jews.” For that reason alone, Vadim Norjitz and Yossi Avrahami were ripped apart with a measure of bliss and cruelty that seemed to defy all rational conduct.
“Truly I live in dark times,” says the poet Bertolt Brecht….”The man who laughs has simply not yet heard the terrible news.” The “news” here is that those who mete out brutality in places like Fallujah and Ramallah act with premeditation, conviction and purity of heart. Presuming their barbarism to be both enviable and sanctified, an incontestably worthy fulfillment of divine expectation, they revel in the literal dismemberment of “G-dless” enemies. Though mired in blood, their joyous discovery of victims is always self-assured and firmly reinforced by religious faith. Such discovery is born of the deeply felt knowledge that the death they are dealing is not in any fashion evil, but is instead genuinely heroic.
The American military authority in Iraq had pledged one year ago to “find and punish” the perpetrators of Fallujah. This is well and good, to be sure, but it misses a much more important point. There are certainly tens of thousands of others in the area who are potential perpetrators, entire legions of others whose only regret is that they were not there this time, but who would surely participate robustly if another opportunity arose.
We can’t fight this sacrificing enemy with guns and rockets alone. We can’t even fight it effectively with improved intelligence and targeted killings of lead terrorists. We must fight it also by first understanding how to “delink” mob violence from religious sacrifice throughout the Arab/Islamic world.
To understand what happened at Fallujah we can go back to the prior events at Ramallah. There the torture-killing of the two Israelis exhibited clear signs of ritual sacrifice. When one of the overjoyed murderers appeared before the crowd of thousands smeared in the victims’ blood, the mob roared a collective orgasm of satisfaction. The victims, after all, were “unbelievers,” Jews, not true humans deserving of care and compassion. Even more importantly, their violent elimination was a signal to allah of the sacrificers’ own worthiness and a clear promise of divine reward.
America and Israel must soon understand that terrorism in the Arab/Islamic world is only a tactic and that murder by mutilation in this world is related directly to religious sacrifice. Until now, this understanding has lent itself only to very insubstantial theorizing. Now, immediately, Arab/Islamic terrorism must be recognized, at least in part, as a bloody and sacred act of mediation between sacrificers and their deity. To be sure, the killers who take visible delight in mutilation-centered forms of terror are also enjoying themselves immensely, but this does not in any way deny the religiously sacrificial quality of their unforgivable barbarisms.
Religious sacrifice always serves to quell growing violence and hatreds within a primitive community. Left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines, flooding the surrounding areas. A firm principle of sacrificial behavior, then, is that it stems a rising tide of random and intracommunal harms, redirecting it into “proper” and socially productive channels.
The two “Jews” in Ramallah, as expressions of an already-despised other in Palestinian society, were more than a proper channel. They were altogether perfect victims for ritual killing. So, too, for the same reasons, were the “Americans” in Fallujah.
An intended function of religious sacrifice is to restore harmony to the primitive community, to strengthen a fragile social fabric. The murders in both Ramallah and Fallujah offered exactly such restoration. Having stumbled upon vulnerable surrogates for their own overflowing violence, the perpetrators in both cases revealed that their surface affinity for mutilation was part of a much deeper passion for “sacred” sacrifice of despised “others.” In both cases, the sacrifices were approved widely by Islamic clerics round the world.
We can also learn more about all this from the world of ancient Greece, from the myth of Dionysus described by Euripides in The Bacchae. Idyllic at first, the Bacchantes’ celebration quickly evolves into a bloodthirsty nightmare. The delirious women of Thebes hurl themselves indiscriminately on men and beasts. They are reportedly in the midst of a “strange illness,” one that we can now recognize unquestionably as a sacrificial crisis.
It is futile, it seems, to try to restrain the still-growing tide of violence and mayhem in parts of the Arab/Islamic world. The Dionysian outbreak prevails over all. So it was that terrible morning in Ramallah, and again – several years later – in Fallujah.
The murderous mutilations of Ramallah and Fallujah are strikingly similar to the sacrificial violence of Dionysian ritual practice. We can better understand the contemporary events by looking backward to ancient Greece. In Dionysian ritual, “Sparagmos, or dismemberment, is always included. Moreover, as many of the Bacchantes as possible take part in the collective frenzy. This is meant to satisfy the requirement of unanimity, which figures importantly in sacrifice.
Significantly, few or no actual weapons are used in Dionysian practice. The victim is always torn apart by the killers’ bare hands. This dismemberment of a living victim, by multiple assailants – each participating wholly in the act – assumes a clear religious meaning. A mob rapidly comes to a high pitch of mass hysteria, then throws itself on a fragile individual or individuals – victims who serve thereby to polarize all the fears, anxieties and hostilities of the profane assembly. Finally, the victims’ death provides the desired outlet for mass frustration while it simultaneously restores intracommunal peace.
Fallujah, like Ramallah before it, must be understood in America and Israel as much more than an explosion of passionate hatreds. It was, more than anything else, a selected venue for primal sacrifice. We shall now need to better recognize this religious dynamic before we can prevent its intermittent recurrence in Iraq, Israel, the United States or elsewhere.
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LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism, war and international law.
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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