April 5, 2002

Suicidal Truths

Under the especially revealing title "Suicidal Lies" (31.3), Thomas Friedman of the New York Times gives his distorted version of Middle East realities. Friedman's short essay is full of flaws, but since he shouldn't be taken all too seriously, I won't bother to address his endlessly recycled legend about the so-called "generous offer" rejected by the Palestinians (refuted long ago by President Clinton's special assistant Robert Malley, see New York Review of Books, 9.8.2001), nor his smug futile fantasy about a "non-violent Palestinian struggle a la Ghandi": anyone who has been following the Palestinian struggle closely knows that every Palestinian nonviolent demonstration is automatically answered by ruthless Israeli fire.

What I do wish to address is the crux of Friedman's manipulation, which consists of focusing on the Palestinian suicide attacks. Friedman writes: "The Palestinians are so blinded by their narcissistic rage that they have lost sight of the basic truth civilisation is built on: the sacredness of every human life, starting with your own."

Now this is vicious demagoguery. The "sacredness of every human life" may start with many things, by it definitely does NOT start with your own life. It is not the "Palestinian narcissistic rage" exposed here, but the blind narcissism of Friedman himself, who seems to selfishly care about himself more than anything. This may be nice for him, but such a person has no right to preach morality to anybody.

As for the life of others, things cannot be clearer. No moral system allows murder. It is not up to you to end someone else's life. This is one of several reasons why only very few backward countries still practice death penalty: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States. Except for such few exceptions, all other countries have integrated the "sacredness of every human life" into their legal system and forbid taking the life of any person by another person.

On Suicide

But who is the master of one's own life? Unlike the absolute ban on murder, the question of suicide is morally and philosophically controversial. The three monotheistic religions usually forbid suicide but remember the biblical suicide-bomber Samson, adored as hero in Christianity and Judaism, opening a long tradition of martyrs.

It was the great English philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) whose defence of suicide became most famous. In his essay "On Suicide" (1757) he proves that suicide violates no duty to God, self or others. His argument goes roughly like that: God has given humans the liberty to alter nature for their own happiness; Suicide is an instance of altering the course of nature for our own happiness; Therefore, suicide does not violate God's plan. (Click here for details.)

Do Palestinians possess a special inclination towards suicide? Probably not more than the English. Here is what the French philosopher Montesquieu wrote in 1748: "the English are apt to commit suicide most unaccountably; they destroy themselves even in the bosom of happiness () among the English it is the consequence of a distemper, being connected with the physical state of the machine, and independent of every other cause..."

Anyway, almost all liberal people nowadays would agree that suicide is not a crime. Though some legal systems still formally forbid it, I've never heard of someone punished for a suicide attempt. In fact, a burning issue in modern legislation is euthanasia for terminally ill people, where the question is not their right to commit suicide (which is usually acknowledged), but rather the right to be assisted in it by medical staff.

Sixteen centuries before Hume, philosopher Epictetus (60-120 CE) also endorsed suicide, showing deep understanding for its causes. There may be limits to what we can endure in this life, he argued, and so, when things get too intolerable, we may wish to end our lives. "Is there smoke in the room? If it is slight, I remain. If it is grievous, I quit it. For you must remember this and hold it fast, that the door stands open." This may not be the case with the bombers of September 11th, but it is precisely the case of the Palestinian desperation. Palestinian rooms are now filled with smoke, and tear gas, and tears, and blood. May Thomas Friedman never experience even a tiny fraction of the Palestinian desperation, which he so heartlessly puts between hyphens.

On Bombing

Once we agree that suicide in itself is irreproachable, that the life of every Palestinian belongs to him- or herself (not to Thomas Friedman), and that people are allowed to do with their life whatever they wish, including ending it, what's left of Friedman's argument? Not much. If you re-read his column bearing this in mind, you see how Friedman's balloon is shrinking to trivialities. Suicide bombing is just another weapon, not better and not worse than any other. Friedman is right: Palestinians have found Israel's weak spot. But finding the enemy's weak spots is what fighting is all about; not quite a New York Times scoop.

Once we drop the flawed "accusation" of suicide, the moral fault of suicide bombers becomes obvious: killing innocent people. This is morally reprehensible under any circumstances. Not all suicide bombers kill innocent people, though: many of them explode next to Israeli occupation soldiers. Others target settlers, whose innocence is questionable. But true: many suicide bombers have killed and injured innocent civilians, and this is unforgivable.

Unforgivable yes, just like the American bombing of Hiroshima (but compare the numbers). Just like the American bombing of the shelter in Baghdad in 1991, killing 400 Iraqi civilians. Just like the Israeli bombing of Kafr Kana in 1996, killing 100 Lebanese civilians. Unforgivable just like so many of the present Israeli actions in the occupied territories, in which innocent civilians are killed. Just like so many of the American actions in Afghanistan and Iraq (and elsewhere), in which countless innocent civilians are killed and injured. The question of intention is a poor refuge: if you enter Ramallah with 150 tanks, cutting water supply and medical aid, if you drop tons of bombs on Afghanistan or Iraq, don't tell me you never intended to harm civilians.

On Dehumanisation

Friedman's bias is now clear. He could have reproached Palestinians for targeting innocent people. This would have been a sound accusation, though it applies just the same to Palestinian hit-and-run snipers. But he didn't. He preferred picking the suicide bombers, who are morally not different from any other who kills innocent. Why?

Naturally, Friedman is frustrated by the fact that American-Israeli might still has some limits. The world would be so much better if might could altogether abolish right! Alas, the smartest bombs cannot defeat the human spirit. The weapons of the poor may not be as clean and photogenic as ours, but they can still hurt. Capitalism isn't perfect. Destruction profits are sometimes independent of the investment: if you're run over by a cheap scooter or by an expensive limousine, you won't always live to tell the difference. A sad fact for a globalisation fan like Friedman.

But it's more than that. Friedman's focus on suicide bombers is intended to dehumanise the Palestinians. By blaming Palestinians of carelessness towards "the sacredness of every human life, starting with your own", Friedman is claiming that they do not care about their own life. He is then patronizingly pretending that he does care about their life (more than they do!), and now, having assumed responsibility for the Palestinians, Friedman has a suggestion: "First, Israel needs to deliver a military blow". Bravo. Look how easily the great moralist Friedman is translating "the sacredness of every human life" into "a military blow". All in the name of "the basic truth civilisation is built on" – what else?

So hit those non-humans, says the enlightened humanist. And what then? Obviously: then, "Israel must tell the Palestinian people that it is ready to resume talks". I devoted an entire column, Against Negotiations, precisely to this false consciousness: both to the dangerous idea that bloodshed may lead to peace, and to "talks" as a code-word for perpetuating the occupation. I won't repeat it here.

Text-only printable version of this article

Ran HaCohen was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel" appears occasionally at Antiwar.com.

Archived columns

Suicidal Truths
4/5/02

The Auschwitz Logic
4/1/02

Against Negotiations
3/28/02

Occupation Vs. Democracy
2/26/02

Terrorism Vs. Occupation
2/15/02

Peace Now. Now?! Well, Maybe Later
2/8/02

David Horowitz Rewrites the Past
1/23/02

Say No to a Palestinian 'State'
11/13/01

Who Cares About the Palestinians?
10/16/01

Dancing in the Streets
9/21/01

The Ideology of Occupation
9/4/01

The Chosen Pariah
7/31/01

Mideast War Really Imminent?
7/24/01

The State of the Army, Part Two
6/22/01

Building Settlements, Killing Peace
5/26/01

The State of the Army, Part 1
5/8/01

Israeli Left Sells Out Peace
4/13/01

Barak's Legacy
3/23/01

To Sum Up

Suicide bombing is on the same moral level as any other bombing. Harming innocent people is morally intolerable; but suicide in itself cannot be condemned. The Palestinian struggle is morally justified, even though some of its manifestations are unjustifiable. Reducing this struggle to the issue of suicide bombing is just another way of dehumanising and thus legitimising the killing of Palestinians, instead of removing the reasons for their horrifying desperation (remember Epictetus). Dehumanising an entire people in the name of the "sacredness of every human life", as Thomas Friedman has done, is an especially repulsive example of demagoguery.

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