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The ‘War of Good Against Evil’

Raimond Gaita on racism, religion and the motives of suicide bombers.

They don’t value the individual the way we do. After September 11 there was a lot of talk like that. Who values individual life in the way ‘they don’t’? We of the civilized nations, it would seem. Who are ‘they’? Presumably the kind of people now routinely targeted for security checks at American airports and sometimes held for months without charge – people with dark complexions who live in poor, overpopulated countries. Protestations, especially those by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, that Operation Enduring Freedom is not against Islam or more generally against the dark-skinned poor of the world were sincere, I’m sure. Even so, Blair could not hide his condescension when he lectured the Islamic world on the difference between good and bad Islam.

I knew a woman when she was grieving over her recently dead son. She said of Vietnamese mothers she saw on television grieving over their children, killed by American bombing, “It’s different for them, they can just have more.” In A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love & Truth & Justice, I call her ‘M’ and I will do the same here. James Isdell, protector of the Aborigines in Western Australia, thought much the same about Aboriginal women whose children were taken from them. “They soon forget their offspring,” he said, explaining why he “would not hesitate for a moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be.”

Isdell and M could not see that the victims of their racist denigration could be individuals in the sense in which we mean it when we say that all human beings are unique and irreplaceable, not just to those who care for them, but unique and irreplaceable period. ‘Our’ children are irreplaceable, but ‘theirs’ are replaceable more or less as our pets are. That is what M and Isdell thought.

Remarks of the kind made by M and Isdell show how far racist denigration reaches: it reaches to everything ‘they’ say and do. Nothing – not their loves, their griefs their joys their hatreds – can go deep in ‘them’. Someone who sees a people that way cannot believe that ‘they’ can be wronged in the ways ‘we’ can be or as deeply as ‘we’ can be. In the most natural sense of the expression they see ‘them’ as ‘less than fully human’.

We have no reason to believe that there are peoples or races who are as M and Isdell perceived the victims of their denigration to be – incapable of the relationships that in part condition and in part express our sense that every human being is unique and irreplaceable as nothing else we know in nature is. Acknowledgment of that is the most important aspect of the acknowledgement that all the peoples of the earth share a common humanity.

Often people say that if only we could see, and having seen remember, that at bottom all human beings are the same, then we would have reason to hope for a just world. There is truth in that, but only insofar as our perception of what we have in common goes beyond what M and Isdell conceded they had in common with the victims of their denigration.

They knew that, like them, Aborigines and Vietnamese form attachments, are mortal and vulnerable to misfortune, that they are rational, have interests, that indeed, they are persons. But although the grief of the women who had lost their children was visible and audible to them, they did not see in the women’s faces or hear in their voices grief that could lacerate their souls, mark them for the rest of their days. They could not see that sexuality, death and the fact that at any moment we may lose all that gives sense to our lives can mean to ‘them’ what it does it us. But to see just that capacity in a people is a condition of seeing that their humanity is defined, like our own, by the possibility of ever deepening responses to the big facts of the human condition. It is that acknowledgment that lies behind the hope that the knowledge, full and in our hearts, that all human beings are alike, would bring with it a desire for justice for all. Sadly, even when it is achieved, acknowledgment of a common humanity is not secure. Often it can wax and wane, vulnerable to racism and to the many ways we dehumanize our fellows.

Soon after the collapse of the towers, we saw television pictures of men and women at the wreckage with photographs of their loved ones, still missing. Before the collapse we heard heart-rending phone calls from the buildings, not hysterical nor self-pitying, by people desperate to tell their partners and their children, this last time, that they loved them. Those pictures and phone calls expressed as movingly as I have seen or heard what we mean when we say that human beings are unique and irreplaceable. One can be suspicious of and even despise – as al Quaeda seems to – the kind of individuality celebrated by liberal democracies, yet lack nothing in one’s appreciation of the kind of individuality that is interdependent with our sense that those who possess it are precious. In fact, there are ways of valuing the former that can subvert the latter (by according too much and the wrong kind of value to autonomy, for example). M and Isdell did not believe that the victims of their racist denigration could feel such grief. It would be terrible if we fell into the same attitude towards those against whom we have mounted ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’.

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Why are we so unnerved by suicide attackers? It’s not, as we might at first think, because we cannot understand how they could murder innocent civilians so callously. People feel unsettled in similar ways by suicide bombers who throw themselves under Israeli tanks, and long before suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, many people were unsettled by Kamikaze pilots. What rattles us, I think, is the fact that suicide attackers know for certain that they will die if they achieve their ends, for they will achieve them only if the bomb explodes or if the plane crashes.

“What can one do if they are prepared to kill themselves?” we ask. Often, I think, that question expresses despair and bewilderment that goes beyond the fear that we cannot protect ourselves against such an enemy. People sometimes speak of suicide attackers as though they are an alien species. Because suicide attackers appear to be contemptuous of our natural fear of death – “Americans love Coca-Cola: we love death”, one of them said – they appear to undermine the conditions under which fighting can be humane. Whatever their cause, the disdain fanatics show to matters of ordinary human concern makes it hard for us to find our feet with them. They appear to put themselves outside the space of the common understanding of what matters that makes possible a sense of common humanity. And suicide bombers, we think, are fanatics to the nth degree. The difference between being prepared to die for a cause, even when it is almost certain that one will, and seeking certain death as the means to achieving a political or military end, appears to be for us the difference between heroism and something else that we refuse even to call brave. “Cowardly and senseless” is how we describe the deeds of suicide attackers. An explanation is called for when language loses contact with reality to that degree.

Suicide attackers, many people say, are brainwashed fanatics who believe that death by martyrdom is a passport to another world in which they are guaranteed infinite pleasures, albeit of an essentially earthly kind. Sometimes people speak as though suicide attackers think death is merely a means of travel to another place and that their desire to travel by such means is the same kind of desire that is possessed by desperate people who risk their lives in unseaworthy boats in the hope of a better life in wealthier nations. But if death were for suicide attackers only a means of travel to a destination where they will enjoy the infinite satisfaction of their earthly desires for (amongst other things) young virgins, it is hard to see how they or anyone else could believe that they had earned such happiness merely because they had found an opportunity to die a quick and (I assume) painless death – a death, moreover, that has earned them the earthly bonus of a hero’s reputation.

That is religion, some will say – nothing but vulgar superstition and confusion. I am not religious, but I think that it is not so. It is a conceptual truth – something one can see when one reflects on the concept – that a religion must claim to deepen rather than to cheapen what seriously matters to ordinary human beings. We don’t, of course, have to think it succeeds in this, but we would surely be bewildered by someone who said, “It’s cheap, banal, sentimental and does the dirt on life, but there it is, it’s my religion.” It is hard to see how a system of belief that treats death as merely a passport to infinite delights could deepen our sense of the awe, pity and fear that is part of our ordinary understanding of mortality.

I suppose, therefore, that in Islam, as in Christianity and Judaism, it shows ingratitude for God’s gift of life to throw it away in pursuit of heavenly virgins and an earthly reputation. Just as only those deeds that are done with no thought of reward count as charitable and therefore as deserving the rewards of heaven, so, I assume, someone counts as a martyr only if they do not seek death, but accept it as a necessary consequence of their devotion to a holy cause. The beliefs generally attributed to suicide bombers – cheap, banal and insulting to life – do not deserve to be called religious. Perhaps that is no accident. Attribution of such beliefs enables us to explain the actions of suicide attackers, to denigrate their courage and also to see in such a cheap and disdainful attitude to death (and therefore to life) reason for despising them.

Are suicide attackers really like that? It is, of course, often hard to know what really motivates some people. With the shadow of death upon him, only someone shallow or insensate almost beyond comprehension could believe that the journey from this world to the next is comparable to an earthly journey. One should therefore be wary of attributing to suicide attackers motivations comparable to someone who, in pursuit of a better earthly life, undertakes a journey beset by hardship and danger, leaving behind all friends and family. The routine attribution of such beliefs to suicide attackers and, more importantly, to the religions and cultures to which they belong, looks worryingly similar to the claim that the peoples of those cultures do not value individual life as we do, and as dehumanizing in its assumptions and effects.

© Prof. Raimond Gaita 2002

Rai Gaita is both a writer and a professor of philosophy. As the latter, he divides his year evenly between the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne and King’s College in London.

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