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Murderous fantasies

Woensdag, Februari 11, 2004 / Last Modified: Zondag, Januari 14, 2018

Suicide bombers come from a neighborhood of make-believe.

By Bret Stephens, February 11, 2004.

In Israel, where I live and work, suicide bombings are commonly understood by
the foreign press as acts of desperation by a people who have lost all hope for
a better future. Ease the economic hardships of Palestinians and end the
occupation, so the thinking goes, and terrorism will be deprived of its motive.

It’s a convenient notion, which more or less excuses mass murder as the deeds
of men who have been robbed of their property, pride and patrimony.

But is it right? What if suicide bombings aren’t an act of despair at all
but something approaching the opposite: a supreme demonstration of contempt
for everything Westerners hold dear, not least life itself? What if, too, suicide
bombers are no poor-man’s F-16 but a robust expression of confidence that the
Palestinians are infinitely more ruthless than Israelis in what amounts to a
zero-sum game?

Lee Harris believes that these are exactly the sorts of questions that we should
be asking today, and not only about the war in the Mideast. In “Civilization and
Its Enemies,” he argues, brilliantly at times, that if you want to understand your
enemy, you must understand him on his terms, not yours.

Take 9/11. Everyone from George W. Bush to Noam Chomsky agreed that the
attacks were acts of war, even if they disagreed about exactly which political
aims the acts were meant to further.

But Mr. Harris takes a different view: 9/11, he says, was “a spectacular piece
of theater.”

“The targets were chosen by al-Qaeda not for their military value — in
contrast, for example, to the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor — but entirely
because they stood as symbols of American power universally recognized on
the Arab street. They were gigantic props in a grandiose spectacle in which the
collective fantasy of radical Islam was brought vividly to life.”

In other words, 9/11 was “a pageant designed to convey a message not to the
American people but to the Arab world.” This insight helps to explain why the
U.S. wasn’t afterward beset by a series of small-scale attacks.

Such attacks, Mr. Harris observes, would have been easier to carry out and had
a more destabilizing effect on the American economy. But they would have
lacked the glamour and stylishness that was Osama bin Laden’s trademark;
indeed, they would have put him on a par with lesser terrorists.

So it was with bin Laden’s predecessors, Mussolini and Hitler, also in the grip
of what Mr. Harris calls “fantasy ideology.” The essence of such ideologies
isn’t just a particular kind of make-believe — e.g., fascist Italy as the
reincarnation of ancient Rome — but a conviction that the very act of making
believe is enough to bring about the make-believe world itself, if enough people
can be persuaded to play their part in the drama.

Such fantasy ideologists are the “enemies” of Mr. Harris’s title. They are unlike
the more common types of enemy known to man, who vie for land, prestige or
plunder as ends in themselves.

The fantasists, by contrast, have only a loose connection to the world as
it really is. They may conquer land in the fulfillment of their fantasy, but the
land is uninteresting to them except for the role it plays on the stage of their

Yet paradoxically, says Mr. Harris, it is the very absence of a “sense of the
realistic” that makes the fantasists so dangerous, because they are willing to
take fantastic risks. So it was with Hitler’s march into Rhineland in 1936, a
foolish gamble by rational standards that succeeded because the French high
command was unwilling to prick the Fuhrer’s fantasy of invincibility — thereby,
of course, driving the fantasy to catastrophic proportions.

There are lessons here for us today. If, for example, you think the Palestinian
national movement headed by Yasser Arafat seeks only to form a state within
the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, then the answer to the problem is to get the
Israelis to make way.

If, however, you think Palestinians are in the grip of a fantasy ideology,
acting as the vanguard for a Muslim counterattack against a latter-day Crusader
state, then granting a Palestinian state becomes a bit like allowing Hitler to
march into the Rhineland: It perpetuates a fantasy that deserves to die.

This is something the world needs to hear, and Mr. Harris makes his case well.

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