Once upon a time Americans could discuss the present danger to Israel—tragically, a permanent feature of the state—from a safe, if concerned, distance. The permanent danger to the Jewish nation under permanent siege by its Muslim neighbors was something deeply troubling, dastardly and unconscionable, but physically and metaphysically removed from our own national experience.
Then came 9/11. The attack, and maybe more important, the seemingly permanent threat of attack that has been with us ever since, quite suddenly, if rather improbably, brought our national condition closer to that of Israel’s than ever before.
In most measurable ways, our super powerful state of being does not compare with tiny Israel and its daily experience with Islamic terrorism and war. But we have begun to display some of the same psychic signs of a nation under siege—delusional thinking about the nature of our enemy, and delusional thinking about the nature of ourselves.
Harvard psychiatric instructor Kenneth Levin has given us the template for this kind of thinking in his book The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege. He examines what he characterizes as two delusional experiences: the Israeli experience, in which Israel entered into concessionary negotiations with a so-called “peace partner” openly dedicated to Israel’s destruction and the historical Jewish Diaspora experience, in which Jewish populations identified with their tormentors and even echoed their anti-semitism.
According to Levin, these interactions, engendered by a permanent condition of siege mentality, rely on delusional thinking.
There are two kinds: One is delusional thinking about the intentions of the aggressor (be it Arab Muslim or European Christian); the other is delusional thinking regarding the victim’s ability to change the aggressor’s intentions. Such thinking, he writes, is common to victims of chronic abuse, particularly children. They like to fool themselves into thinking that they, the victims, control the abuser, by, in their own minds, linking the abuse they suffer to their own behavior.
In other words, in their delusional mode of thought, they see their own behavior as the cause of their own abuse. This mind game, Levin says, gives victims a vital sense of control over situations that are expressly beyond their control—an abusive parent, for instance, or neighbors—“peace partners”-- committed to the destruction of one’s state. Thus, they avoid the devastating alternative of helplessness and despair.
At least, that’s the diagnosis from the psychiatrist’s couch. I, for one, welcome it, because it explains my own rather less eloquent hunch that such behaviors are, and have always been, quite nuts.
But then what? Playing mind games to deny the culpability and intent of one’s tormentors or battlefield foes is not playing to win. But rather than change the strategy, the victims continue with this tortured reasoning, and the same game goes on and on.
We continue to respond to Islamic terrorism—and in this case, by “we,” I mean both Israel and the United States, along with most countries identified with the West—with more flights of fancy—seeking a refuge of sorts in our natural abhorrence of terrorism itself. Trapped as we are in Levin’s siege mentality, we have failed to turn this abhorrence into an engine that drives us to confront and destroy Islamic terrorism—which I prefer to think of as the resurgence of age-old jihad. We have instead used our abhorrence to contrive what might be called “coping strategies”—strategies to shape ourselves and our response to the danger of permanent jihad, strategies that emphasize the distinction between ourselves and the jihadists—as though this were an end in itself.
Emphasizing the distinction isn’t difficult. The ideal of justice for all is the fruit of Judeo-Christian civilization, not Islam. But again—emphasizing the distinction is not a winning strategy; in fact, it calls into question whether victory is the goal. Facing off against an enemy that strikes at non-combatants at the heart of civilized society, we take enormous pride—self-satisfaction, even—in our efforts to spare non-combatants at the heart of terrorist society—whether in the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan or Iraq—no matter the cost to civilized society. To me, this overarching concern for the Other—at the expense of the Self--seems like another terrible manifestation of the delusional behavior of the victim trying to affect or appease his abusers by displaying ever more extreme feats of virtue and blamelessness.
We can see an example of this terrible manifestation in the failed attempt by the Israeli military to destroy the senior leadership of Hamas in 2003. It was then, at an apex of the Palestinian terror war against Israel, that Israeli intelligence discovered that eight of the most senior Hamas leaders--jihadis responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis and also, not incidentally, Americans as well--had gathered in an apartment to plan new terror attacks. Among them were Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who would eventually be assassinated, and Ismail Haniyeh, who would be elected prime minister of the Palestnian Authority.
Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, Moshe Yaalon, who, at the time of the failed attack, was chief of staff of the IDF, summed up: “We knew a one-ton bomb would destroy the three-story building and kill the Hamas leadership. But we also knew that such a bomb would endanger about 40 families who lived in the vicinity. We decided to use a smaller bomb that would destroy only the top floor of the building. As it turned out, the Hamas leaders were meeting on the ground floor.”
According to our delusional coping strategies, according to our delusional siege mentality, this strike might be seen as a partial success: No terrorists were killed, but then no innocent lives were lost either.
Or were they? As Yaalon reminds us, all of these murderers lived to kill another day. In sparing noncombatants on the enemy side--noncombatants who very, very likely supported the jihadis in their midst--Israelis were condemning some incalculable number of their own to pain and death, noncombatants who abhor and are victimized by jihad terrorism.
How does such a moral calculus work out?
Yaalon, writing during the summer’s war in Lebanon, was using this missed opportunity to defend Israel against world opprobrium by avowing Israel’s adherence to what he said boiled down to the “central principle” of the rules of war: the need to distinguish combatants from non-combatants.
But is that really the central principle of the rules of war? I would prefer to think the central principle concerns saving your people from annihilation, slow or sudden, and protecting your society from the crippling, disfiguring torment of fear. But from the standpoint of the West, there really is something more important at this stage of warfare. And that is what the Israeli general isn’t alone in calling “high moral standards.”
Such standards, Yaalon continued, are expressed in “every effort to avoid harming civilians. We have dropped fliers, sent telephone messages and broadcast radio announcements so that innocents can get out of harm’s way.”
But is warfare targeting buildings and bad guys—which, it’s important to note, has also become the American policy of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan—truly warfare on the high road? I would argue that it is not, because, whatever its intentions, it is also a sure-fire recipe for warfare unending. Without one victorious side—hopefully ours—defeating the other, there can be no peace, no safety, no security—no civilization. There can be only more war--fear, terrorism, blood, broken lives. As Yaalon also notes: In warning of pending Israeli attacks, “we imperil our own citizens since, by losing the element of surprise, we invariably allow some of the enemy to escape with their missiles.”
I fail to see in this mindset—sparing “them” at the expense of “us”— evidence of a more advanced stage of human enlightenment. In fact, I am afraid, it signals the End Stage of human enlightenment. That’s because in fighting to win this morality war, we—the West, and that of course includes Israel--will surely lose the fight to survive.
It is a fact of war through the ages that if a more civilized society is to prevail over a more barbarous one, it will necessarily and tragically be degraded by the experience as a vital cost of victory. Partly, this is because civilized war tactics are apt to fail against barbarous war tactics, thus requiring the civilized society to break the “rules” if it is to survive a true death struggle. Then there is the clash itself—the act of engaging with the barbarous society—which forces civilization to confront, repel and also internalize previously unimagined depredations. This, too, is degrading.
During World War II—arguably the last war fought to a concluding victory--the more civilized world of the Allies was necessarily degraded to some intangible extent by what it took to achieve victory over barbarous Nazism. For example, bombing cities, even rail transportation hubs, lay beyond civilized conventions, but this was one tactic the Allies used to defeat Hitler. However justifiably, civilization crossed a previously unimagined and uncivilized line to save, well, civilization. Then there was Hitler’s Holocaust—an act of genocide on a previously unthinkable scale and horror. Who in the civilized world ever imagined killing 6 million people before Hitler? And who in the civilized world retained the same purity of mind afterward? Civilization itself was forever dimmed.
The question is, did, for example, bombing Dresden to defeat Hitler or, in the Pacific War, dropping two nuclear bombs to force Japan to stop fighting, make the Allies into barbarians?
I think most people would still say, Of course not, and argue that such destructive measures were necessary to save civilization itself—and certainly hundreds of thousands of mainly American and Allied men’s lives. But if this argument continues to carry the day, it’s because we still view that historic period from its own perspective: namely, as one in which Allied lives—our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons--counted for more than Axis lives, even those of women and children.
How quaint. That is, this is not at all how we think any more. If we still valued our own men more than the enemy and the “civilians” he hides among—and now I’m talking about say, Israelis fighting in Jenin, or Americans fighting in Fallujah—our tactics would be totally different, and, not incidentally, infinitelymore successful. We would drop bombs on city blocks, for example, not waste men in dangerous house-to-house searches. We would destroy enemy sanctuaries in Syria and Iran, not disarm “insurgents” at perilous checkpoints in hostile Iraqi strongholds.
In the 21st century, however, there is something that our society values more—more!--than our own lives—and more than the survival of Western civilization itself. That something may be described as the kind of moral superiority that comes from a good wallow in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, or even the confoundingly tortured decision as to whether to obliterate the leadership of Hamas. But this concept of moral superiority—which I would describe as delusional--doesn’t win wars. And it won’t save civilization.
That’s because it masks a massive moral paralysis. The morally superior (read: paralyzed) don’t really take sides, don’t really believe or, at least, act as if one culture is qualitatively better or worse than the other. Many don’t even believe one culture is just plain different from the other. Only in this atmosphere of politically correct and perpetually adolescent non-judgmentalism could anyone believe, for example, that compelling, forcing, or torturing a jihad terrorist to get information to save a city in any way undermines our “values.” It undermines nothing—except the jihad.
Do such coercive tactics diminish our inviolate sanctimony? You bet. But so what? The alternative is to follow our precious rules and hope the barbarians will leave us alone--or, perhaps, not deal with us too harshly. Fond hope. Consider the 21st-century return of (I still can’t quite believe it) beheadings. The first French Republic aside, who on God’s modern green earth ever imagined a head being hacked off the human body before we were confronted with modern manifestations of Islamic jihad? Civilization itself is forever dimmed—again.
And maybe that in itself is the present danger. The danger for all time--for the United States as for Israel—is that we don’t seem to know or want to know what it will take for civilization to shine again.
Diana West gave this talk at the AFSI national conference on December 3rd. She is a nationally syndicated columnist.