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  Suicide Bombers and Professors
by Professor Edward Alexander, University of Washington
January 2003

Professors imprisoned in Marxist cliche and socio-economic determinism have concluded--on the basis of no evidence whatever--that the suicide bombers, mostly products of middle-class families, act out of poverty, hopelessness, and despair. Professor Alexander discusses three of these academic apologists.

Of the variegated forms of murderous assault that the
Palestinian Arabs have unleashed against Israel since they began
the Al-Aqsa Intifada (the Oslo War) in September 2000--pogroms,
lynchings, roadside and drive-by shootings--none has proved
so cruel or lethal (or so perfectly embodied evil absolute and
entire) as suicide bombings; and none has exercised so
hypnotic a spell upon the "learned classes." Between the
beginning of Arafat's campaign (to soften Israel up for
concessions even more far-reaching than those of Oslo) on 28
September 2000 and 5 January 2003, there were 170 suicide
bombers; 97 succeeded in detonating themselves in 84 separate
attacks--in crowded buses, crowded cafes, crowded university
cafeterias, at a Passover seder, and almost anyplace where
children could be found in sizable numbers. These human bombs act
out of a superabundance of hope: hope of driving the Jews out of
bonuses guaranteed by Iraq and Arafat; above all, hope of heaven.
And so, of course, professors imprisoned in Marxist cliche and

socio-economic determinism have concluded--on the basis of no
evidence whatever--that the suicide bombers, mostly products of
middle-class families, act out of poverty, hopelessness, and
despair. But Islamic Jihad has itself declared: "We do not take
depressed people [to become suicide bombers]."

   This particular form of atrocity has not only failed to disturb
the equanimity of our heavily petted professors but has elicited
from many of them a stream of rhapsodic admiration, sympathetic
identification (with the murderers, not their victims), and high-
toned apologia. A few examples, among many--a philosopher, a
literary critic, and a theologian--should illustrate the pattern.

Ted Honderich, a Canadian-born philosopher who became a British
subject and spent his career in England, has been a popular
speaker on North American campuses recently because he seems to
appeal powerfully to the new bloodlust among the learned--
especially where it is Jewish blood that is in question. Although
his speciality is Mind and Logic, Honderich's itch to be clever
has often led him to stentorian pronouncements about politics,
especially violent politics. In 1980 he published an "ethical"
defense of violence and mass murder called "Violence for Equality,"
a title that calls to mind Dickens' encapsulation (in "A Tale of
Two Cities") of the Reign of Terror: "Liberty, Equality,
Fraternity, or Death."

Not long after 9/11 Honderich decided to shine the light of pure
reason and moral philosophy upon that day's horrific massacres in
a book called "After the Terror." The essence of his argument was
that there is no moral distinction between acts of omission and
acts of commission. Since the West has failed to eliminate the
poverty that its capitalist system brought to the world, it
was collectively responsible for 9/11. Did Osama bin Laden decide
to bomb the World Trade Center in order to get America to feed
more Africans? Or, as Honderich rhetorically puts the question:
"Is it possible to suppose that the September 11 attacks had
nothing at all to do with...Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Sierra
Leone?" He stops a hair short of saying that bin Laden and
his fellow idealists were justified in murdering thousands of
people in order to feed millions. Such an action would have been
"irrational" because highly unlikely to achieve its intended
noble effect.

The philosopher was far less cautious about the "moral right" of
Palestinian Arabs to blow up Jews, a right he defended
vigorously: "Those Palestinians who have resorted to violence
have been right...and those who have killed themselves in the
cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves." In an
interview the eminent logician explained the distinction
between suicide bombings in Manhattan and in Jerusalem: "The
likely justification depends importantly on the fact that the
suffering that is caused does have a probability of success." In
other words, if Palestinian terrorists should succeed in their
goal of destroying Israel, their practice of mass murder will
have been justified; if they fail, it will not.

Upon finishing "After the Terror," Honderich (a socialist
millionaire) offered to donate 5000 pounds from his advance on
royalties to Oxfam. But, to his astonishment (and indeed that of
many who have observed England's moral debacle of recent years),
Oxfam refused the money, which it viewed as morally tainted by
what old-fashioned people call incitement to murder. "Oxfam's
purpose," said the charity's spokesman, "is to overcome poverty
and suffering. We believe that the lives of all human beings are
of equal value. We do not endorse acts of violence."

But Honderich's North American audiences have been far less
squeamish. Palestinian Arabs, he told a receptive crowd in
Toronto in September 2002, have a "moral right" to blow up Jews,
and he very much wanted to encourage them to exercise that right,
i.e., to do still more abundantly that which uninstructed
minds thought they were already doing quite adequately. "To claim
a moral right on behalf of the Palestinians to their terrorism is
to say that they are right to engage in it, that it is
permissible if not obligatory."

Honderich spent his academic career at University College in
London. Those familiar with that institution know that it houses
the nicely-dressed skeleton (and Madame Tussaud wax head) of
Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher who measured morality according
to quantity of pleasure: if the greatest happiness of the
greatest number of citizens could be arrived at by 29 of them
deciding, because they had the power to do so, to feast upon the
thirtieth, then it was right and proper for them to do so. If
Dostoevsky's idealistic utilitarian Raskolnikov was Bentham with
an axe in his hand, then Honderich is Bentham with a bomb in his

Nor is he the only academic luminary whose lucubrations on
suicide bombing demonstrate the explosive power of boredom. There
is also Columbia University's Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. What
philosophy has become in the hands of Honderich, the opaque
pseudo-jargon of literary postmodernism has become in the hands
of Spivak. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that in our time
"political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and
murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure
wind." His crowning example was "a comfortable English professor"
defending Soviet totalitarianism and mass murder with
polysyllabic gibberish and Latinized euphemism. Already in 1989,
Spivak had "explained" Edward Said's call for the murder of
Palestinian Arab "collaborators" as "words for Palestinian
solidarity." In June of 2002, speaking at Leeds University, this
celebrated tribune of "international feminism" outdid even
herself: "Suicide bombing--and the planes of 9/11 were living
bombs--is a purposive self-annihilation, a confrontation between
oneself and oneself, the extreme end of autoeroticism, killing
oneself as other, in the process killing others....Suicidal
resistance is a message inscribed on the body when no other means
will get through. It is both execution and mourning...you die
with me for the same cause, no matter which side you are on.
Because no matter who you are there are no designated killees
[sic] in suicide bombing...It is a response...to the state
terrorism practiced outside of its own ambit by the United States
and in the Palestinian case additionally to an absolute failure
of hospitality." Here is what Lionel Trilling called the language
of non-thought employed to blur the distinction between suicide
and murder, to obliterate the victims--"no designated killees"
here!--metaphysically as well as physically.

By bringing America into the range of her imperial intellect,
Spivak goes beyond Honderich. Although he blamed America itself
for the Arab massacres of 9/11 he stopped short of moral
justification for the attack; like many other English academics
he is hesitant about biting the hand that he hopes will feed him.
But Spivak, already comfortably ensconced at Morningside Heights,
has no such compunction.

The third member of my trio of academic apologists
for suicide bombers is Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun
who specializes in comparative religion, has written a
best-selling book called "Understanding Islam," and played a key
role in the (scandalous) recent PBS series celebrating the life
of Muhammed. In a lengthy interview with "Al-Ahram Weekly" (4-10
July) she recounted how during her time in Israel in the mid-
eighties working on a documentary about St. Paul she herself had
a revelation: she heard some Israelis refer to "dirty Arabs" and
she instantly recognized that today's Israelis are to today's
Arabs what Nazis were to Jews in the thirties and forties, and
that "the Israelis can do what they want because America will
always support them." Vigorously insisting that there is "nothing
... anti-Western" about Islam, she calls for a reinvigorated
jihad by her Muslim friends, whom she advises to "march down the
street at Ground Zero in New York, call it 'Muslims against
Terror.' [Muslims] need to know how to manage the media."
Palestinian suicide bombers cannot possibly be motivated by
religion because "this is not how religion works"--QED--but by
"absolute hopelessness." Armstrong's justification for suicide
bombing grows out of her fine sense of equity in military
struggle. These poor people, she complains, "don't have F-16s,
and they don't have tanks. They don't have anything to match
Israel's arsenal. They only have their own bodies." In other
words, murdering innocent people is a permissible, indeed
praiseworthy grab for equality by an "occupied" people.

It goes without saying that Armstrong overlooks the little fact
that occupation arises from Arab aggression and not aggression
from occupation; that Arafat and Co. are backed militarily,
financially, and politically by 1.2 billion Muslims, by twenty-
one Arab nations (as well as the non-Arab nation of Iran), and by
the European Union; or that the massacres of 9/11 have revealed
just how powerful and "equalizing" a weapon in the hands of
radical Muslim Arabs is the total disregard for the sanctity of
human life, their own included: nineteen technically competent
barbarians attacking two American cities, killing thousands of
people, causing billions of dollars of property damage,
shattering whole industries, and throwing a half-million people
out of work. But for Armstrong the only thing 9/11 revealed was
the "intolerance" of Western society (and perhaps the need to
create strategic equity for disadvantaged Muslims by giving them
nuclear bombs).

Armstrong has for years taught Christianity and comparative
religion at London's Leo Baeck College. As if mindful of the
irony that she should be employed by a school named after a
scholarly, mild-mannered Jew who was forced into a tragic
leadership role during the Nazi period, she has bared her teeth
in a gesture of mean spite towards her occasional employers by
alleging that Jews who kick up a fuss over the resurgence of
antisemitism all over Europe as well as in the Arab world are
"stuck in the horrors of the Nazi era."  Her only qualm about
suicide bombings is that they may tarnish the glorious image that
Palestinian Arabs currently enjoy in England. For ethical
temperaments like Armstrong's it is detection, not sin, which is

Honderich, Spivak, and Armstrong offer variations on a single
theme. But they all treat the dead and mangled bodies of innocent
people as if they were so much fertilizer to fuel diseased
imaginations. If these professors of terror looked upon Jews as
human beings they could not possibly justify the mass murder of
Israelis by speculative arguments and licentious moral equations
based upon political and historical ignorance so vast that they
would shock an ordinarily attentive sixth-grader.

Hitler's professors were the first to make antisemitism
academically respectable and criminally complicit. They have now
found their continuators in Arafat's professors, busily reminding
us that knowledge is one thing, virtue another. If you expect
moral nourishment from professors, try getting warmth from the

Edward Alexander is author of Irving Howe - Socialist, Critic, Jew

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