Of the variegated forms of murderous assault that the Palestinian Arabs have unleashed against Israel since they began the Al-Aqsa Intifada (the Oslo War) in September 2000--pogroms, lynchings, roadside and drive-by shootings--none has proved so cruel or lethal (or so perfectly embodied evil absolute and entire) as suicide bombings; and none has exercised so hypnotic a spell upon the "learned classes."
Between the beginning of Arafat's campaign (to soften Israel up for concessions even more far-reaching than those of Oslo) on 28 September 2000 and 5 January 2003, there were 170 suicide bombers; 97 succeeded in detonating themselves in 84 separate attacks--in crowded buses, crowded cafes, crowded university cafeterias, at a Passover seder, and almost anyplace where children could be found in sizable numbers.
These human bombs act out of a superabundance of hope: hope of driving the Jews out of Israel, hope of making their families wealthy with the enormous bonuses guaranteed by Iraq and Arafat; above all, hope of heaven. And so, of course, professors imprisoned in Marxist cliche and socio-economic determinism have concluded--on the basis of no evidence whatever--that the suicide bombers, mostly products of middle-class families, act out of poverty, hopelessness, and despair. But Islamic Jihad has itself declared: "We do not take depressed people [to become suicide bombers]."
This particular form of atrocity has not only failed to disturb the equanimity of our heavily petted professors but has elicited from many of them a stream of rhapsodic admiration, sympathetic identification (with the murderers, not their victims), and high-toned apologia. A few examples, among many--a philosopher, a literary critic, and a theologian--should illustrate the pattern.
Ted Honderich, a Canadian-born philosopher who became a British subject and spent his career in England, has been a popular speaker on North American campuses recently because he seems to appeal powerfully to the new bloodlust among the learned--especially where it is Jewish blood that is in question. Although his speciality is Mind and Logic, Honderich's itch to be clever has often led him to stentorian pronouncements about politics, especially violent politics. In 1980 he published an "ethical" defense of violence and mass murder called Violence for Equality, a title that calls to mind Dickens' encapsulation (in A Tale of Two Cities) of the Reign of Terror: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death."
Not long after 9/11 Honderich decided to shine the light of pure reason and moral philosophy upon that day's horrific massacres in a book called After the Terror. The essence of his argument was that there is no moral distinction between acts of omission and acts of commission. Since the West has failed to eliminate the poverty that its capitalist system brought to the world, it was collectively responsible for 9/11. Did Osama bin Laden decide to bomb the World Trade Center in order to get America to feed more Africans? Or, as Honderich rhetorically puts the question: "Is it possible to suppose that the September 11 attacks had nothing at all to do with...Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Sierra Leone?" He stops a hair short of saying that bin Laden and his fellow idealists were justified in murdering thousands of people in order to feed millions. Such an action would have been "irrational" because highly unlikely to achieve its intended noble effect.
The philosopher was far less cautious about the "moral right" of Palestinian Arabs to blow up Jews, a right he defended vigorously: "Those Palestinians who have resorted to violence have been right...and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves." In an interview the eminent logician explained the distinction between suicide bombings in Manhattan and in Jerusalem: "The likely justification depends importantly on the fact that the suffering that is caused does have a probability of success." In other words, if Palestinian terrorists should succeed in their goal of destroying Israel, their practice of mass murder will have been justified; if they fail, it will not.
Upon finishing After the Terror, Honderich (a socialist millionaire) offered to donate 5000 pounds from his advance on royalties to Oxfam. But, to his astonishment (and indeed that of many who have observed England's moral debacle of recent years), Oxfam refused the money, which it viewed as morally tainted by what old-fashioned people call incitement to murder. "Oxfam's purpose," said the charity's spokesman, "is to overcome poverty and suffering. We believe that the lives of all human beings are of equal value. We do not endorse acts of violence."
But Honderich's North American audiences have been far less squeamish. Palestinian Arabs, he told a receptive crowd in Toronto in September 2002, have a "moral right" to blow up Jews, and he very much wanted to encourage them to exercise that right, i.e., to do still more abundantly that which uninstructed minds thought they were already doing quite adequately. "To claim a moral right on behalf of the Palestinians to their terrorism is to say that they are right to engage in it, that it is permissible if not obligatory."
Honderich spent his academic career at University College in London. Those familiar with that institution know that it houses the nicely-dressed skeleton (and Madame Tussaud wax head) of Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who measured morality according to quantity of pleasure: if the greatest happiness of the greatest number of citizens could be arrived at by 29 of them deciding, because they had the power to do so, to feast upon the thirtieth, then it was right and proper for them to do so. If Dostoevsky's idealistic utilitarian Raskolnikov was Bentham with an axe in his hand, then Honderich is Bentham with a bomb in his brain.
Nor is he the only academic luminary whose lucubrations on suicide bombing demonstrate the explosive power of boredom. There is also Columbia University's Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. What philosophy has become in the hands of Honderich, the opaque pseudo-jargon of literary postmodernism has become in the hands of Spivak. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that in our time "political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." His crowning example was "a comfortable English professor" defending Soviet totalitarianism and mass murder with polysyllabic gibberish and Latinized euphemism. Already in 1989, Spivak had "explained" Edward Said's call for the murder of Palestinian Arab "collaborators" as "words for Palestinian solidarity."
In June of 2002, speaking at Leeds University, this celebrated tribune of "international feminism" outdid even herself: "Suicide bombing--and the planes of 9/11 were living bombs--is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing oneself as other, in the process killing others....Suicidal resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means will get through. It is both execution and mourning...you die with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on. Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees [sic] in suicide bombing...It is a response...to the state terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure of hospitality." Here is what Lionel Trilling called the language of non-thought employed to blur the distinction between suicide and murder, to obliterate the victims--"no designated killees" here!--metaphysically as well as physically.
By bringing America into the range of her imperial intellect, Spivak goes beyond Honderich. Although he blamed America itself for the Arab massacres of 9/11 he stopped short of moral justification for the attack; like many other English academics he is hesitant about biting the hand that he hopes will feed him. But Spivak, already comfortably ensconced at Morningside Heights, has no such compunction.
The third member of my trio of academic apologists for suicide bombers is Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun who specializes in comparative religion, has written a best-selling book called Understanding Islam, and played a key role in the (scandalous) recent PBS series celebrating the life of Muhammed. In a lengthy interview with Al-Ahram Weekly (4-10 July) she recounted how during her time in Israel in the mid-eighties working on a documentary about St. Paul she herself had a revelation: she heard some Israelis refer to "dirty Arabs" and she instantly recognized that today's Israelis are to today's Arabs what Nazis were to Jews in the thirties and forties, and that "the Israelis can do what they want because America will always support them." Vigorously insisting that there is "nothing... anti-Western" about Islam, she calls for a reinvigorated jihad by her Muslim friends, whom she advises to "march down the street at Ground Zero in New York, call it 'Muslims against Terror.' [Muslims] need to know how to manage the media." Palestinian suicide bombers cannot possibly be motivated by religion because "this is not how religion works"--QED--but by "absolute hopelessness." Armstrong's justification for suicide bombing grows out of her fine sense of equity in military struggle. These poor people, she complains, "don't have F-16s, and they don't have tanks. They don't have anything to match Israel's arsenal. They only have their own bodies." In other words, murdering innocent people is a permissible, indeed praiseworthy grab for equality by an "occupied" people.
It goes without saying that Armstrong overlooks the little fact that occupation arises from Arab aggression and not aggression from occupation; that Arafat and Co. are backed militarily, financially, and politically by 1.2 billion Muslims, by twenty-one Arab nations (as well as the non-Arab nation of Iran), and by the European Union; or that the massacres of 9/11 have revealed just how powerful and "equalizing" a weapon in the hands of radical Muslim Arabs is the total disregard for the sanctity of human life, their own included: nineteen technically competent barbarians attacking two American cities, killing thousands of people, causing billions of dollars of property damage, shattering whole industries, and throwing a half-million people out of work. But for Armstrong the only thing 9/11 revealed was the "intolerance" of Western society (and perhaps the need to create strategic equity for disadvantaged Muslims by giving them nuclear bombs).
Armstrong has for years taught Christianity and comparative religion at London's Leo Baeck College. As if mindful of the irony that she should be employed by a school named after a scholarly, mild-mannered Jew who was forced into a tragic leadership role during the Nazi period, she has bared her teeth in a gesture of mean spite towards her occasional employers by alleging that Jews who kick up a fuss over the resurgence of antisemitism all over Europe as well as in the Arab world are "stuck in the horrors of the Nazi era." Her only qualm about suicide bombings is that they may tarnish the glorious image that Palestinian Arabs currently enjoy in England. For ethical temperaments like Armstrong's it is detection, not sin, which is criminal.
Honderich, Spivak, and Armstrong offer variations on a single theme. But they all treat the dead and mangled bodies of innocent people as if they were so much fertilizer to fuel diseased imaginations. If these professors of terror looked upon Jews as human beings they could not possibly justify the mass murder of based upon political and historical ignorance so vast that they would shock an ordinarily attentive sixth-grader.
Hitler's professors were the first to make antisemitism academically respectable and criminally complicit. They have now found their continuators in Arafat's professors, busily reminding us that knowledge is one thing, virtue another. If you expect moral nourishment from professors, try getting warmth from the moon.