Thursday, December 02, 2004

They Are Only Human

Last month the following article that I wrote was published in the Jerusalem Report. In the JR's last issue a letter by Jeff Peri from Los Angeles refers to the article. Interestingly enough Mr Peri not only appears to view the occupied territories as a country, he also firmly believes that Ariel Sharon can match himself against George W. Bush when it comes to establishing democracy and supplying "unparalleled sources" to Afghanistan, Iraq and the territories.
Mr Peri's letter is the first published reaction to one of my articles in English, and I am grateful to him for that, even though we appear to have very serious differences of opinion and I am not sure whether he understood what I intended to say with the article. Of course people have been giving me feedback by e-mail or in person, but few of my twenty-something articles that were published were honored with published reactions. Could that be because I am often stating the obvious? Should I become more insulting or aggressive? The first published reference to something that I wrote in Dutch was an article by rabbi Evers in het Reformatorisch Dagblad, which followed an article that I wrote for the same newspaper ( I reacted to rabbi Evers' article with a letter to the editor of the RefDag, which was published ).

They are only human

The world tends to react with disgust, shock and anger to terrorist acts such as the hostage drama in Beslan, the beheadings in Iraq, and bomb attacks in Taba, Bali, Be'er-Sheva, Madrid or elsewhere. Few people can imagine how human beings are capable of taking children hostage, tormenting and killing them, and of killing innocent civilians on purpose in the most brutal ways imaginable. In responses given on the internet, television, radio and in newspapers the men and women responsible for those crimes are often called animals or monsters.

It is wrong and dangerous, and unfair to animals, to deprive those fanatics of their human character. As far as I am aware animals do not cause pain and agony to other animals just to fill them with pure fear and to disturb their daily lives, yet that is exactly what terrorists are aiming at: fear and chaos. Islamist terrorists find their inspiration in a mixture of nationalism and religion, two elements that for all I know are not a part of the animal realm. Although we are talking about incomparable phenomena (historical comparisons are always problematic), it is interesting to note that also those who devised and carried out the horrors of the Third Reich have been described as monsters and beasts. By seeing mega-murderers as inhuman we appear to try and grasp incomprehensible crimes: these atrocities are so extraordinary in dimension and nature, and their perpetrators so far removed from the way we view human beings, that we simply call them unique and inconceivable, which enables and allows us to return to our daily lives. However, especially with horrifying and extraordinarily large crimes we should try to fathom the men and women responsible for those atrocities.

Such an approach is not only right if we want to create a picture of the gruesome deeds that is as historically accurate as possible. We also owe it to the victims, and it might enable us to prevent such deeds in the future, or to stop them in an early stage. The most human reaction to (Islamist) terror would be a call for revenge. After all, the devastating passion of men such as Bin Laden seems to be irrational, and a primordial response appears to be the logical thing to do. Nevertheless, we should not think that something is illogical when it runs against our sense of logic. In the inescapable fight – without compromises – against terrorism an utmost effort ought to be made to understand the line of thinking and the ratio of the terrorists. We have to see them as the human beings that they are, and to fight them accordingly. What motivates Islamists and other religious zealots is a combination of destructive nihilism, hatred, and degenerated versions of religion and nationalism. Some – prominent among them are George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon – confront that nihilism with a totally negative non-policy: we are told time and again that we and the rest of the world face a common enemy, and that enemy has to be destroyed. Hence Days of Atonement and the raids in Falluja. We are never really told what kind of world our leaders want to offer us after the promised victory over evil.

Although the impression should be avoided that the pseudo-motives of the terrorists are taken seriously, it is short-sighted to believe that terror can be eradicated through military means alone. In their war against terror the West and its worldwide allies have to disseminate a clear, positive message, not only as a tempting and convincing counterbalance for the misanthropic world that Bin Laden offers us, but also as an alternative to the negative and hopeless view of Bush and Sharon. People who feel oppressed, humiliated and left behind – in Chechnya, the Westbank, Gaza, Iraq, but also in other parts of the world – have to be convinced that they do have a real chance of getting a better, more prosperous, free and promising life, and that the West can and wants to help them make that perspective come true. Only if and when we are able to gain their confidence and make them and their children truly believe that it is worthwhile to exchange a narrow, dead-end but familiar worldview for the prospect of an uncertain but hopeful future, will the most important breeding ground for terrorism disappear. In order to succeed in doing that we, the voters in the West, first have to make clear to our leaders that we do not want to know only against whom we should fight, but also for what: nothing dispels the ‘forces of evil’ better than the ‘forces of light’. It is time for Sharon, Bush, Kerry, Putin and all other chosen and potential leaders to tell us in what light they view our future.

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