The motives of pagan-slayers

>> Saturday, January 09, 2010

I really like Glenn Greenwald: even if I suspect nobody except hardcore lefties like me ever pays any attention to him at all, I think he mostly does a good job of being a bit of a gadfly, harping on issues that need to be harped on--Gitmo, Federal surveillance, civil liberties in general, our handling of the wars we're in.

But his posting today, "Helen Thomas deviates from the terrorism script," while well-meant, is, I think, off the mark. The gist of what he has to say today is that White House press correspondent Ms. Thomas (who is, by the way, truly the awesomest member of the White House press corps, with nobody close to even touching her coattails) raised a good point this past Friday when she pointed out during a press conference held by Secretary Of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Deputy National Security Adviser John Brennan that the White House never addresses the motivations of terrorists. Greenwald goes on to say:

Brennan's answer--they do this because they're Evil and murderous--is on the same condescending cartoon level as the "They-Hate-us-For-Our-Freedom" tripe we endured for the last eight years. Apparently, if Brennan is to be believed, Islamic radicals, in their motive-free quest to slaughter, write down the names of all the countries in the world and put them in a hat and then stick their hand in and select the one they will attack, and the U.S. just keeps getting unlucky and having its name randomly chosen. Countries like China, Brazil, Japan, Chile, Greece, South Africa, France and a whole slew of others must have really good luck. That Al Qaeda is evil and murderous and perverts Islam is a judgment about what they do, not an answer as to what motivates them.

The evidence of what motivates Terrorism when directed at the U.S. is so overwhelming and undeniable that it takes an extreme propagandist to pretend it doesn't exist. What is Brennan so afraid of? It's true that religious fanaticism is a part of their collective motivation, but why can't he just say what's so obviously true: "they claim that the U.S. is interfering in, occupying and bringing violence to their part of the world, they cite things like civilian deaths and our support for Israel and Guantanamo and torture, and claim that their terrorism is in retaliation"? Indeed, Brennan's boss, the President, has often claimed that things like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib help Al Qaeda recruitment (and it seems clear it was part of Abdulmutallab's hatred for the U.S.), so clearly U.S. actions are part of the motivation. Yet Brennan is afraid to acknowledge that not just past actions, but current ones, fuel the desire to target the U.S. for attacks. Speaking of fear of acknowledging reality, note how Charles Krauthammer in yesterday's column--when mocking Obama's (obviously correct) view that Guantanamo helps fuel Al Qaeda recruitment--describes the first two grievances cited in Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the U.S. (troops in Saudi Arabia and death to extremely high numbers of Iraqi children through sanctions) while completely omitting the third (U.S. support for Israel). [emphasis in original; internal links omitted]

Mr. Greenwald is right insofar as much of Deputy Secretary Brennan's answer is facile to the point of being glib, and he's correct to point out that our actions have often provided impetus to the responses of our enemies or aided in their recruitment, and must be judged in that light; certainly, policies that inspire al Qaeda or aid their recruitment must be evaluated and changed if possible or implemented carefully if they're courses that are impossible for us to avoid. And the first part of Mr. Brennan's statement does verge on the utterly vapid, "They hate us for our freedoms" nonsense we used to hear so often; that having been said, Mr. Greenwald glosses over the second part of what Mr. Brennan said--a clumsy, dodgy allusion to al Qaeda's religious beliefs.

It's notable that Mr. Greenwald, in quoting Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the United States jumps to bin Laden's list of grievances while skipping over bin Laden's very first paragraph:

Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: "But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)"; and peace be upon our Prophet, Muhammad Bin-'Abdallah, who said: I have been sent with the sword between my hands to ensure that no one but God is worshipped, God who put my livelihood under the shadow of my spear and who inflicts humiliation and scorn on those who disobey my orders. [emphasis added]

Whether bin Laden's interpretation of Islam is a mainstream or "correct" interpretation is immaterial, of course--this isn't about whether Islam is a more militant religion than Christianity, which has produced its own share of terrorists. The concept of "the clash of civilizations" is worse that moronic: it's an unsustainable framework for a rational, peaceable world. For that matter, it's also immaterial whether bin Laden actually believes his own religious rhetoric, although one presumes to take him at his word since otherwise he might, perhaps, happily be helping his family run their business instead of organizing the murders of a substantial number of his family's customers worldwide.

What is important, however, is that bin Laden begins his screed by announcing that, for whatever reason, he's in the business of slaying "pagans," which presumably means anybody who isn't a Muslim and quite possibly includes anybody determined not to be a proper Muslim, for that matter. In such a framework, the catalogue of American sins is almost irrelevant--the existence of powerful non-Islamic states itself is a poke in the eye to the worldview. If the United States withdrew from Iraq, ceased support of Israel, and/or acquiesced to every demand of al Qaeda short of conversion to an Islamic theocracy, that last would remain the dealbreaker. If additional reasons were needed, they would be sought and found.

And supposing the United States were an al Qaeda-approved Islamic theocracy, does Mr. Greenwald then really suppose that the "luck" of states like China and Greece and France would hold out--they have "pagans," too. One also, I'm afraid, has to point out that the United States has attractions beyond our admitted missteps, misdeeds and even outright crimes: one has to wonder exactly how successfully a Saudi terror cell could embed itself in China, for instance. (They certainly couldn't do it by heading to China to participate in an open society with relatively permeable borders in which a small clot of religious eccentrics would be relatively protected from suspicion by legal safeguards and social customs.)

I think one is forced to suggest only two ultimate motives for al Qaeda. First, that the leaders and/or members of al Qaeda subscribe to an exclusionary, extremist religious dogma that seeks the elimination of all rival creeds as God's work. The second is that bin Laden and/or other leaders of their movement enjoy the power they hold and exercise, and a cynical deployment of an exclusionary, extremist, eliminationist religious dogma that they may not actually believe in suits their ends perfectly. In neither case does it actually make any difference what we may or may not have "done" to "provoke" their actions; we exist, we are essentially a secular state, to the extent our diverse culture holds religious traditions, they are historically post-Enlightenment Protestant Christian traditions. If al Qaeda is truly animated by religious revolutionary deal, they will exist until destroyed or we have all converted at swordpoint; and if they are motivated by power, they would need to create an enemy somewhere--if they wanted it to be us, we would never be able to convert sufficiently to satisfy.

That is not to say that Mr. Greenwald's concern about the conduct of our foreign and (sadly, now) domestic policies aren't or shouldn't be a concern: the fact is that Gitmo, for instance, has given al Qaeda's mission statement a credibility it wouldn't have had otherwise. Collateral damage from military strikes, however accidental and sincerely regretted, provokes people into strapping bombs to themselves who might otherwise be satisfied complaining about us from within the glow of their computer monitors.

But the approach to that is, perhaps, one of our own self-awareness, as opposed to one of trying to determine "what motivates 'them'." I'm not sure that's the right way to put it, either: I think any rational person ought to try to put himself into everybody else's shoes and try to think about what motivates others. But in the particular and peculiar case of al Qaeda, I think such efforts come up short because al Qaeda's motivations are essentially irrational--saying "they exist to destroy" seems awfully cartoony, but what else does "fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them" mean, exactly? bin Laden's endorsement of that statement is the exact antithesis of a post-Enlightenment, rationalist worldview as expressed, say, by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes On Virginia: "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." If they're the least bit serious about what they say they believe, aside from whether they really believe it or not, their existence is incompatible with all the rest of humanity so long as they have the power to act according to that ethos.

Which, since all they have to do to act on this ethos is convince somebody to put a bomb in his pants, they evidently do.

This strikes at the heart of what I think is the single most-bewildering aspect of the recent underwear bomber's attempt to blow up an airplane: what on Earth did he think he was going to accomplish? What was blowing up one more airplane going to do at this point had he been successful? If al Qaeda's secret agenda is to make travel more unpleasant, then they really are a spectacularly successful organization. But if they're actually trying to do something...?

The terrorism of the Christian terrorists in the IRA made sense, for instance, in that it was expressly tied to driving the British out of Northern Ireland by making their tenure there as dangerous, expensive, unpleasant and unpopular as it could be. I'm not trying to defend what they were doing, which was mass murder, merely pointing out that there was, at least, a rationale. Similarly, the terrorism of the Islamic terrorists in the PLO was expressly tied to the "liberation" of lands claimed and occupied by Israel to the exclusion or disadvantage of the Palestinian population; one can understand the aims of the terror campaign even as one disapproves. But al Qaeda's acts of violence only sometimes seem to be connected in any way to the occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan; much of the time, we seem to be looking at disconnected acts of violence that don't seem to be intended to do anything other than blow the crap out of something. The answer to "what was the crotchbomber trying to accomplish?" is, I'm afraid, that he probably didn't have a clear idea himself, he was just a crazy person who was encouraged in a very bad idea by people who are either insane religious zealots or who get off on their ability to move crazy people to-and-fro and drive the American press into a media frenzy, i.e. for basically the same reason Britney Spears sometimes "forgets" her underwear when she goes out for a night on the town.

Regardless, I think I've personally reached the point where I stop looking for evidence of rationality on the part of people whose project is to blow up their own members as quickly as possible but hopefully while they're standing next to somebody else or are riding in some kind of mass transit. Rational people have rational motives for the things they do. Irrational people....

Not so much.

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