BY: Nicholas Guariglia
It isn’t smart to walk alone late at night on the outskirts of Newark, New Jersey. I discovered this for myself last October, when I was returning home from a friend’s house. Just 100 yards from my apartment, and ironically just 200 yards from a police station, a man jumped out of some dark bushes near the side of the road and attacked me.
His first swing simply grazed my chin, thankfully, so I was able to remain even-footed and upright. I instinctively dropped my bag, put my hands up to cover my face, and backpedaled to the center of the street – where the orange city lights illuminated the scene – to avoid the ensuing punches being thrown.
Just then a car promptly pulled up to the two of us. The vehicle was not full of good Samaritans coming to my assistance, as my original impulse had hoped. No, this intuition was wrong; four males leaped out of the car to assist the original assailant in the attack, literally skipping over to the altercation, yelling and taunting, surrounding and cornering, and, let’s just say, making it known that they did not have my interests at heart.
Somehow I managed to go unharmed, losing only a measly history book and a few pens. The suspects were apprehended within the half-hour by the authorities and today stand trial for the murder of an innocent New Jersey man whom they later admitted to killing a week before my encounter with them.
When confrontations of this sort happen, one’s impulses and instincts become ever the more involuntary; your neurotransmitters race, making you feel events are moving both fast and slow; your adrenalin soars, making you feel both loose and stiff simultaneously, generating a surreal spontaneity in your thoughts and actions. It is a very strange feeling, hard to adequately articulate and put into words.
I have been involved in a few small scraps before, some lost and some won. They tend to be over meaninglessness; a dispute at a party or a misunderstanding. Counterparts during these types of altercations should not be considered “enemies,” in the philosophical sense, because such petty quarrels with no real purpose are able to be absolved away with a handshake or an apology issued.
It is one thing to get into a bar fight over a verbal insult. It is quite another to be encircled by five murderers on a city street just outside Newark. The former is stupid and involves inconsequential participants. The latter is a life-and-death collision between an innocent victim and irreconcilable foes; irreconcilable enemies – even if you do not know their character, even if their assault on you is impersonal in nature, even if you are unaware of their lethal intent. You are their enemy, and thus they yours, and they, not you, have made it so.
Welcome to the Middle East.
This simple distinction, complicated for so many to comprehend, is what separates the Arab Levant and Persian Gulf subcontinent from the rest of the world. This distinction between reconcilable and irreconcilable counterparts is what separates a perhaps cruel and cold-killing machine like the Burmese military junta from the likes of Khalid Mashal or Hassan Nasrallah.
I do not mean to suggest the dictatorship of Burma is similar to the “inconsequential participants” of a barroom brawl. Nor should we “reconcile” ourselves to the junta’s gross human rights violations. On any moral and level playing field, they too deserve a good whipping (particularly in light of recent events). But the irreconcilability of some adversaries stands in stark contrast to the reconcilability of others. In regards to some, coexistence is not possible and, depending on your frame of reference, not preferable either.
Do members of the Burmese junta awaken each morning with our utter destruction in mind? How many Burmese children have been indoctrinated and conscripted into becoming human missiles and human bombs, with Westerners as their targets, all on the false promise of afterlife promiscuity?
When it comes to our grievances with the Burmese junta, the international community can at least attempt to muster up the will and energy to compel the regime’s acquiescence, if for no other reason than the regime’s view of its own self-preservation.
Our Jihadist opponents in the Mideast share no such predisposition; to the contrary, rational self-preservation is viewed scornfully… which brings us to the recent hullabaloo about Hamas.
However inarticulate and hackneyed President Bush may have delivered it – which wouldn’t be something new, would it? – his speech in Israel was spot on and furthered the spirit of this historical lesson: some adversaries are irrational, do not think like us, and are thus irreconcilable. Mr. Bush stated, “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.”
Sen. Obama, ostentatiously, thought Bush was talking about him, becoming indignant overnight, claiming his opponents were politicizing foreign policy – never missing an opportunity to tie Sen. McCain to Bush – and in doing so politicized something himself that ought to be universally recognized and appreciated. But as we will see from various subsequent follow-ups and clarifications, this “something,” this recognition, is not appreciated in some quarters.
Philosopher Sam Harris examines the neuroscience behind propositions of this sort – some adversaries are irrational, do not think like us, and are thus irreconcilable – in his work, The End of Faith:
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition: Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home… Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between a belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably… Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people.
This may be a tough pill for a student of diplomacy to swallow. But the psychosomatic argument is valid. There is both a pragmatic difference, as well as a deeper psychological difference, between a pathological killer entering your home at 3 a.m. and an obnoxious drunkard at the other end of a bar challenging you to “take it outside.”
One scenario presents an adversary who, for whatever reason, is dangerously chemically imbalanced; the other presents an adversary who, for reasons quite well known, is hindered due to his state of inebriation. The drunkard’s intoxicated state of mind, and the belligerent actions it generates, is why he is your opponent at the moment; the psycho-killer is your natural enemy because of his natural state of mind.
Here again, we see irreconcilability clash with reconcilability. The drunkard can sober up, or be talked out of his antagonism by more clear-headed friends, whereas the intruder gets his deepest psychological, emotional, and perhaps sexual fixes off binding, torturing, and killing unknown and unsuspecting innocents. Both are your enemy, but they are different enemies, for different reasons, and in different constructs.
While each scenario might result in a varying consequence – perhaps the intruder is an unarmed weakling and can be physically restrained; perhaps the drunkard has a concealed pocket knife under his jacket – there is still an imperative distinction to be made between the two altercations, both in philosophical terminology and in real-world actuality. Namely, despite the multitude of possibilities each scenario presents, we would all invariably prefer the drunkard outside the bar than the pathological killer inside our home.
So when Sen. Obama states, unpretentiously yet rather naively, that the Hamas and Hezbollah Jihadist cartels have “legitimate grievances” – really, which ones? – and that there is little difference between negotiating with Islamist zealots and rational counterparts, we must dispense Occam’s razor. “There are rarely purely ideological movements out there,” Obama recently explained, continuing, “We can encourage actors to think in practical and not ideological terms.”
By under-appreciating how Hamas and Hezbollah, rather willingly, place themselves “beyond the reach” of peaceful means due to the extent of their beliefs, we are granted with yet another example whereby a sophisticated Westerner makes the sin of assuming his religious adversaries – who quote religious text and make the case for their killings in religious nomenclature – are simply saying what they are saying for propaganda purposes or for domestic consumption. “They don’t really – they can’t really – believe that stuff,” the assumption goes.
That the three-year Illinois senator might actually attest to this logic, or at the least articulates it in public, is more worrisome than either Hamas recently endorsing the Democrat candidate or Obama’s foreign policy “advisor” Robert Malley holding meetings with, and openly having very sympathetic views of, the Hamas gang.
People who are constantly being video taped and recorded are susceptible to inadvertently make some revealing admissions, especially off-the-cuff. But these quotes – “legitimate grievances,” “encourage actors to think in practical… terms,” etc. – were from a sit-down interview, and as such, paradoxically say more about Mr. Obama’s position than anything Bush, or anyone else, has or has not said about it on their own.
Would someone be so sanguine if they were tasked to convince David Berkowitz that his neighbor’s dog was possessed of no demon and was not, in fact, commanding him to kill people? Can anyone stare into the eyes of Charles Manson, or study his behavioral patterns, and not feel a sense of unequivocal derangement?
If Manson were to ascertain control of a large piece of territory somewhere far away, and called it a country, and then made bold and violent claims about the state of the world and what he intended to do to it, would Sen. Obama invite him to the White House, unconditionally, to tell him he ought to “think in practical” terms?
It is a sad truth that such crackpots, and their deranged theories, are not simply relegated to their individual enterprises. Sometimes these crackpots, and their theories, form crackpot theories, metastasizing and organizing into unified polities, political parties, and broad-based movements. We have that in the Palestinian territories with Hamas, and in Lebanon with Hezbollah.
To be fair, other than Jimmy Carter and some of Obama’s aides, most abstemious policymakers reject the idea of negotiating with movements like Hamas. Sen. Obama might have already stated – as he boasts on his website – that he would like to meet, without diplomatic preconditions and during the first year of his presidency, with the dictators of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. But why then did Sen. Obama feel Mr. Carter’s Gaza foray and wreath-laying with Hamas constituted a bridge too far? Sen. Obama explained:
We must not negotiate with a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction. We should only sit down with Hamas if they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements… Hamas is not a state. Hamas is a terrorist organization.
While seemingly different, these two concepts of diplomacy – one promoting dialogue with terrorists, the other promoting dialogue only with the states that support terrorists – showcase an underlying schism in theory, and provide for us a question of fundamental principle: Just where should the United States place a premium on legitimacy?
Is Sen. Obama against negotiating with Hamas because they are “intent on Israel’s destruction,” have not recognized Israel’s “right to exist,” and will not “renounce terrorism” – or because they have not yet ascertained the sovereign legitimacy of a state? If the answer is the former, then on what basis is Sen. Obama prepared to meet with the leadership of Iran, which is also intent on Israel’s destruction and obstinate in foreswearing terrorism? If the answer is the latter, then are we to assume an Obama administration will recognize and arrange a diplomatic relationship with Hamas if it were to, say, consume the West Bank (as it has overtaken Gaza), comprising itself as a state?
Are we to prepare ourselves for the State Department to start having direct dialogue with Hezbollah chieftains if Hassan Nasrallah’s followers kill off Lebanese democrats and rule over Beirut’s government apparatus, as they are so desperately trying to do? What if al Qaeda itself bifurcates into a militant wing and a newly formed “political wing” – and just so happened to declare al Qaedastan its own sovereign real estate?
Of course, not all talking is appeasement. Had the initial Newark mugger asked for my wallet, and had he given me time to concur before attacking, I probably would have concurred. Had I known that the assailants had weapons in their car, or had I been aware of their homicidal history, I certainly would have concurred. Had all of the five suspects attacked at once for a sustained period, rather than one at a time for brief moments each, I could have been killed.
But none of this happened. I was presented with a scenario where I was incapable of talking or negotiating; a scenario indeed where I was incapable of capitulating, of doing what they wanted, even if I tried.
Hamas and Hezbollah present to us similar scenarios: we are a disinclined participant, extraction from the region is impossible no matter how hard we persist in it, and the possibilities range from an intolerable status quo to an intolerable and irreconcilable confrontation. They are not just any old enemy; more home-intruder than barroom jerk, more Berkowitz with Kalashnikovs than Burmese junta.
To think of this irreconcilability simply as a matter of satisfying the “legitimate grievances” of Hamas and Hezbollah is to put ourselves – those of us who stand proudly on the other side of this struggle – in a horrible position. We should never concede any such grievances to any such people, in the manner that conceding bourgeois largess to the Bolsheviks, or a lack of Lebensraum and a raw deal at Versailles to the Third Reich, would be foolish, asinine, and indeed a form of self-imposed national suicide.
Nicholas Guariglia is a polemic and essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org