"The outrage of so many outraged people outrages me" - André Glucksmann
In my July 20 post titled Whose lives count more?, I emphasized that this question was not my question. It was posed on July 19 by the Prime Minister of Lebanon, Fouad Siniora, in a widely quoted statement:
Mr Siniora said: "Is the value of human life in Lebanon less than that of the citizens of other countries? ...." [Guardian - July 20, 2006]Both Siniora and many of the people who have quoted him appear to believe that the answer is yes. The lives and deaths of Lebanese are treated as being worth less than those of victims of violence elsewhere in the world. This is odd, since it's obvious that this picture turns reality upside down.
This is not an easy subject to address calmly or constructively, but when misleading or even delusional claims are constantly repeated and become part of taken-for-granted conventional wisdom, it is sometimes worthwhile to remind people of the hard realities of the situation. As I pointed out in my post on Whose lives count more?:
The relative values placed on the lives of people from different groups and countries is not a pleasant subject to discuss. However, since Prime Minister Siniora raised it, and since public discussion of the Lebanese/Israeli crisis and the world response to it has been full of the usual complaints from the Arab world about "double standards" and western "hypocrisy," his point is worth addressing.
Siniora's sense of anguish about the death and destruction in his country is understandable and appropriate. But his rhetorical question is quite ironic, because it is obvious that the answer is the opposite of what he (no doubt sincerely) suggests. On the basis of news coverage and public outrage during the past two weeks [now it's a month], it is very clear that on a person-for-person basis, the deaths of Lebanese civilians count far more than the deaths of civilians in Chechnya, Iraq, Darfur, and a range of other places. And the more specific answer to Siniora's question is that, as a rule, civilians who die in Middle East conflicts involving Israel, directly or indirectly, count far more than civilians killed in other conflicts. I'm not saying that this is either right or wrong--just noting the reality of the situation, which many people seem to ignore.
So, frankly, this is the wrong way to pose the question, and those who accept and repeat Siniora's implied answer are being misled. The life of every human being should be valued, and the violent death of any human being--especially an innocent civilian--should be cause for grief. This definitely applies to Lebanese (and also, incidentally, to Chechens, Russians, Kurds, Iraqis, Darfuris, and Israelis, among others).
Most of the responses I received after posting this item were broadly in agreement, and some disagreed strongly (not with the factual accuracy of what I said, which was hard to deny, but with my overall perspective) but they did so without flying off the handle. On the other hand, a few of the responses I got were somewhat hysterical (I'm afraid no other term fits), and in some cases I was surprised by the people who sent them. One correspondent, a genuinely wise and humane person whose judgment I generally respect very deeply, and who is normally impatient with any form of sentimentality or mindless pseudo-moralizing, startled me by denouncing the "hyperintellectualism" of my discussion.
=> I appreciate that facing reality is sometimes unpleasant or distressing. But to reiterate what I said before, when certain obvious realities are constantly ignored, dismissed, or turned on their head, it is sometimes necessary to state them explicitly. Here are a few of them.
(People who are distressed by hearing inconvenient or unfashionable truths are warned not to proceed further, or to keep aspirin handy.)
Over the decades, the overwhelming response by Arab public opinion to the killing of civilians in wars and other political conflicts has been strikingly consistent (with occasional exceptions, to be sure, but very few). This pattern has three main parts.
(a) When Arab civilians are killed, deliberately or accidentally, by Israel--or in situations where Israel is indirectly involved, such as the Sabra & Shatila massacres carried out by Lebanese Christian militias during the 1982 Lebanon war--the response is always intense outrage. This is understandable.
(Of course, the Falangist militia commander whose men actually carried out the Sabra & Shatila massacres, Elie Hobeika, who later became a Syrian client, went on to serve for many years as a Lebanese member of Parliament and government minister, was treated as a perfectly respectable citizen, and was eulogized at his funeral by Lebanese ministers and clerics, including the reading of a letter of sorrow from the Maronite Patriarch in Rome. By order of the President of Lebanon, the medal of the Lebanese Commander of Merit was laid on Hobeika's coffin. There was no hue & cry against him.)
(b) When Arab civilians are killed, even deliberately murdered, in much larger numbers by other Arabs--for example, when the Syrian Ba'athist regime of Hafez al-Assad flattened the city of Hama in 1982 to put down a Muslim Brotherhood uprising and slaughtered over 10,000 civilians in the process, or when over 100,000 civilians were murdered by Islamist rebels or government troops during the horrifying Algerian civil war of the 1990s, not to mention the many other massacres of civilians by all sides during the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s where Israel was not even indirectly involved, in places like Tel al-Zataar, Damour, and the Shouf mountains--the indignation is much more muted, when it is even discernible.
(c) And when non-Arab civilians are slaughtered by Arab regimes, even when these civilians are Muslims, and even when these killings reach the scale of genocidal mass murder, these atrocities are largely ignored--or worse. When Saddam Husein's Iraqi Ba'ath regime received some feeble western criticisms for the 1988 Anfal genocide in Iraqi Kurdistan, there was considerable Arab outrage against this criticism (not against the genocide), and if I recall correctly, the Arab League voted to declare its "unconditional solidarity" with Saddam. The slow-motion genocide in Darfur is by far the largest ongoing mass murder of Muslims in the world today, with some half a million civilians already murdered and millions more forced into refugee camps where they are being exterminated at leisure. This genocidal mass murder is being carried out by a regime that is a member of the Arab League. But not only has there been almost no protest against this atrocity anywhere in the Arab world (here is one of the few exceptions, which helps to prove the rule), in the diplomatic arena the genocidal Khartoum government has been actively supported and shielded by other Arab League governments, which have consistently opposed any serious international efforts to stop the carnage. (In 2005 Joseph Britt drew some depressing but accurate and illuminating conclusions in "The things we think and do not say" and "Arab Genocide, Arab Silence".)
Leaving aside "hyperintellectualism" for simple common sense, it is hard to see how this pattern of response could be regarded as anything but hypocritical and morally despicable (to put it mildly). But apparently this is not obvious to everyone. On the contrary, the standard conventional wisdom in much of the rest of the world increasingly tends to swallow this world-view uncritically and to echo its astonishing hypocrisies, flagrant double standards, and breathtaking distortions of reality. Such is life, I guess.
=> Well, André Glucksmann makes no pretense to unemotional "hyperintellectualism" in his response to all these delusions and distortions. In an August 8 Figaro article (translated into English by the German on-line magazine sign and sight, below), Glucksmann comes out swinging.
The outrage of so many outraged people outrages me. On the scales of world opinion, some Muslim corpses are light as a feather, and others weigh tonnes. Two measures, two weights. The daily terrorist attacks on civilians in Baghdad, killing 50 people or more, are checked off in reports under the heading of miscellaneous, while the bomb that took 28 lives in Qana is denounced as a crime against humanity. Only a few intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy or Magdi Allam, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera, find this surprising. Why do the 200,000 slaughtered Muslims of Darfur [actually, it's closer to 500,000 so far --JW] not arouse even half a quarter of the fury caused by 200-times fewer dead in Lebanon?Of course, Glucksmann (unlike Siniora) is completely right. This bizarre, almost surrealistic "disproportionality"--to borrow a term constantly used by critics of Israel for the past month--has become so normal that people have stopped noticing how absurd, misleading, and morally indefensible it is.
Some people I know (mostly other Jews who, like me, favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian dimension of the Arab/Israeli conflict) have argued to me that this "disproportionality" is appropriate and justified. Among other things, as Jews they feel responsible for deaths and suffering caused by Israel in a way that they do not feel responsible for crimes committed by other countries. I think that in practice this mode of thinking often (not always, but often) runs the risk of leading to a moral and intellectual perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict that is unbalanced, unrealistic, and one-sidedly biased against Israel. Nevertheless, I confess that I have some sympathy for the sensibility and moral concerns that underlie such a position--as long as it doesn't wind up, in practice, giving everyone else in the world an ethical free ride when they commit large-scale atrocities, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity.
But be that as it may, it is hard to see how this logic can be used to exonerate the moral "disproportionality" of people who do not (in some sense) identify with Israel, but who instead are hostile to Israel, and in some cases even hysterically anti-Zionist and/or anti-semitic.
=> Glucksmann begins by pointing out the existence of this striking bias and moral "disproportionality" and denouncing it--which, as I noted, is an essential first step.
But he is mostly interested in trying to understand the underlying causes of this pervasive and emotionally charged anti-Israel bias, particularly in much of western European public opinion, and to explain them. Obviously, this is a large and complex question, for which the answers also have to be complex and multi-faceted. The element that Glucksmann highlights in this piece (and it is offered as a tentative explanation, though it is expressed in the dramatic and indignant idiom characteristic of the discourse of French political intellectuals) is summed up in the subtitle of this English translation (which is close to the title of his original Figaro piece: "From surrealistic geopolitics to apocalyptic delusion".
Haven't legions of experts - for decades now - identified the Mideast conflict as the centre of the world's chaos and the key to its pacification? [JW: While, in effect, shrinking "the Mideast" or "the Middle East conflict" to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict] Is there any diplomat who does not repeat ad nauseum the formula about the gates to a hell of future wars versus the gates to world harmony, all of which open in Jerusalem? A never-changing script haunts 21st century minds. The script maintains that everything is decided on the banks of the Jordan. In its most grim version, that means: As long as four million Israelis and as many Palestinians are facing off against one another, 300 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims are condemned to live in hate, bloody slaughter and desperation. And the rosier version: We just need peace in Jerusalem to put out the fires in Tehran, Karachi, Khartoum and Baghdad and to set the course for universal harmony.I'm afraid the available evidence suggests that they really do believe these fantasies.
Have our sages gone crazy? Do they really believe that sans Israeli-Palestinian conflict nothing bad would have happened, neither the deadly Khomeini Revolution, nor the bloody Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq, nor the decade of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, nor the Taliban in Afghanistan, nor the angry warriors of God the world over?
I think that Glucksmann's discussion in this piece definitely captures an important part of the picture, though only one part of it. And while he's certainly not the first person to have made the points emphasized in this article, he expresses them clearly and forcefully--and the issues he is raising are quite crucial ones that deserve more attention and consideration. So I advise you to read his piece fully and carefully.
Yours for reality-based (and morally serious) discourse,
sign and sight
August 10, 2006
The Jerusalem Syndrome
André Glucksmann on reactions to the war in Lebanon: From surrealistic geopolitics to apocalyptic delusion.
The outrage of so many outraged people outrages me. On the scales of world opinion, some Muslim corpses are light as a feather, and others weigh tonnes. Two measures, two weights. The daily terrorist attacks on civilians in Baghdad, killing 50 people or more, are checked off in reports under the heading of miscellaneous, while the bomb that took 28 lives in Qana is denounced as a crime against humanity. Only a few intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy or Magdi Allam, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera, find this surprising. Why do the 200,000 slaughtered Muslims of Darfur not arouse even half a quarter of the fury caused by 200-times fewer dead in Lebanon? Must we deduce that Muslims killed by other Muslims don't count - whether in the eyes of Muslim authorities or viewed through the bad conscience of the west? This conclusion has its weak spots, because if the Russian Army - Christian, and blessed by their popes - razes the capital of Chechnian Muslims (Grosny, with 400,000 residents) killing tens of thousands of children in the process, this doesn't count either. The Security Council does not hold meeting after meeting, and the Organization of Islamic States piously averts its eyes. From that we may conclude that the world is appalled only when a Muslim is killed by Israelis.
Should we thus presume that the public at large implicitly endorses the ideas that Ahmadinedjad shouts at the top of his lungs? And yet so many of those sceptics who display consternation over bombings in Lebanon seem shocked if you suspect them of anti-Semitism. I want to trust them. We don't want to imagine that the entire planet is mired in anti-Jewish paranoia! But then the matter becomes even more puzzling. What is the source of this hemiplegia? Why is the world frightened by Israeli bombs alone?
Perhaps the reason why the deaths in Lebanon are so disproportionately shocking as compared with the starving people of Darfur and the ruins of Chechnya is that they are seen as a surrealistic geopolitical signal. Anyone who follows the news in Gaza or Qana does not simply count the dead on a particularly violent day - rather, the coffins of these victims encircle the aura of a fatal promise - a promise that the hundreds of thousands of corpses from Africa and the Caucasus have no chance of approaching. Haven't legions of experts - for decades now - identified the Mideast conflict as the centre of the world's chaos and the key to its pacification? Is there any diplomat who does not repeat ad nauseum the formula about the gates to a hell of future wars versus the gates to world harmony, all of which open in Jerusalem? A never-changing script haunts 21st century minds. The script maintains that everything is decided on the banks of the Jordan. In its most grim version, that means: As long as four million Israelis and as many Palestinians are facing off against one another, 300 million Arabs and 1.5 billion Muslims are condemned to live in hate, bloody slaughter and desperation. And the rosier version: We just need peace in Jerusalem to put out the fires in Tehran, Karachi, Khartoum and Baghdad and to set the course for universal harmony.
Have our sages gone crazy? Do they really believe that sans Israeli-Palestinian conflict nothing bad would have happened, neither the deadly Khomeini Revolution, nor the bloody Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq, nor the decade of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, nor the Taliban in Afghanistan, nor the angry warriors of God the world over? The sad, reverse hypothesis is seldom posed, but it is actually much more likely: Every truce along the Jordan is fleeting, as long as the palaces and streets, the majority of the intelligentsia and the officials of the Muslim world hang on to their anti-western passion. Globalization (which entails the dismantling of economic barriers but more importantly all social and mental barriers) necessarily leads to tough and terrible defensive reactions. The development of anti-western ideologies in Germany, from Fichte to Hitler, does not depend on the foundation of the Zionist state. The anti-western affect is constantly renewed in Russia, from the tsars to Stalin and on up through Putin. And it would be naive to presume that the Iranian lust for power, in search of its Khomeinistic force de frappe, uses the "Jewish question" as anything more than a pretence for a universal Jihad. Does anyone think that the green subversion, after erasing Israel from the map, will mark its success by laying down its weapons?
A hypocritical geopolitics, which ordains the Mideast as a basic pillar of the world order, has become the religion of the European Union, the belief of the unbelievers and of the doubters of the west. Post-modern thinkers have no justification in proclaiming the end of all ideologies. In fact, we are swimming in an ideological illusion and have secretly exchanged our deceptive hopes for a final battle with a fearful incantation conjuring a catastrophe to end all catastrophes, that is just as absolute. While our head swarms with surrealistic ghosts, our heart perceives, in every photo from Lebanon, the death of humankind. Jerusalem is only the centre of the world because it is considered the centre of the end of the world. Our illusions feed on apocalyptic notions.
And so every Mideast conflict is like a rehearsal for the end of days. Just look at the undefinable war of cultures, if you need convincing. And anyone taking that position is resigned to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The years of bombing of Israeli cities by the rockets of the Party of God become a foretaste of the Iranian godfather's promised destruction. And so, as Clausewitz already noted with irony, it is not the aggressor who starts the war. Instead it is he who steps in to stop the aggression. So Israel is guilty. Guilty of a collectively fomented fantasy of the end of days. From surrealistic geopolitics to delusion - just one step.
This article first appeared in Figaro on 8 August, 2006.
André Glucksmann is a French philosopher and writer.
Translation: Toby Axelrod.