by Richard Wolin

This is a discussion by Prof. Wolin of my book After The Terror and the controversy about it in Germany. It appeared in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, widely read in American universities, on 24 October 2003. You can also look at my reply to Wolin and to various judgements by reviewers of the book.

In recent weeks a publishing scandal involving charges of anti-Semitism
has dominated the feuilleton sections of leading German dailies. The
debate has embroiled one of the nation's most respected publishing
houses, the Frankfurt-based, left-liberal firm of Suhrkamp Verlag. It
has also implicated the world-renowned philosopher Jürgen Habermas for
having made a controversial publishing recommendation. More generally,
the dispute raises an issue of fundamental importance concerning the
ground rules of the continuing, fractious debate over Middle East
politics -- an issue familiar to American academics: At what point does
vigorous criticism of Israeli policy dovetail with rank anti-Semitism?

At the center of the maelstrom in Germany is a slim volume by the
philosopher Ted Honderich, who until his retirement taught at University
College London. The book, After the Terror, is an attempt to reassess
global politics in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Written in
an offhand, chatty style, its main point -- unarguable, as far as it
goes -- is that first-world nations bear responsibility for third-world
nations' impoverishment. Yet the lines of clarity -- and reasonability
-- quickly blur when Honderich attempts to define the nature of that
responsibility and its consequences. At issue, in his view, is not just
political responsibility for the deleterious economic consequences of
American-backed globalization policies on the part of the World Bank,
the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, but
also a direct moral responsibility allegedly shared by all Westerners.
What makes that argument problematic is its blanket refusal to
acknowledge any indigenous causes of third-world poverty, be they
geographic, climatological, regional, sociological, or political. Rather
than promote intelligent reflection on the causes of global social
injustice, Honderich is interested in playing a simple blame game.
Because Westerners (or at least a good number of them) live affluently,
while most third-world denizens languish in squalor, the former are by
definition morally culpable exploiters.

Further suspicions about Honderich's acuity surface when one searches
for the connecting link between his nominal topos -- third-world misery
-- and his 9/11-inspired title. He endorses the perilous view that,
under certain circumstances, the 2001 terrorist attacks could be
construed as a justifiable response to global impoverishment. In various
passages, he apotheosizes Osama bin Laden as the avenging angel of the
wretched of the earth. Since the attackers proceeded without a
reasonable expectation that their crimes "would work to serve a
justifying end," their actions remain condemnable.

Conversely, had the perpetrators reason to believe that, in Honderich's
words, "the killing of several thousand people would in due course serve
the end of the principle of humanity," their actions would have passed
the Honderich test of justifiable political homicide. In the end,
Honderich derives considerable solace from the fact that the 9/11
assaults "were indeed attacks on the principal symbols of world
capitalism." Therein lies their partial moral legitimacy.

Of course, the major problem with this interpretation is that bin
Laden's agenda was explicitly couched in the language of fundamentalist
Islam rather than class injustice. His goal was not to liberate fellow
Arabs from capitalist oppression, but to enslave them under a
Taliban-style theocracy.

A more recent essay by Honderich, chillingly titled "Terrorism for
Humanity," reinforces the conclusion that he acknowledges few limits on
acts of violence committed in the name of the oppressed: "African
terrorism against our rich countries would be right," proclaims the
Canadian-born philosopher, "if it had a reasonable hope of success." But
from the standpoint of moral philosophy, it is not "instrumental"
criteria like success or failure that determine whether or not an action
is right; rather, it is the action's intrinsic qualities. Terrorism is
morally wrong because it targets innocent civilians. From a moral point
of view, the fact that it is practiced by a group with which one happens
to sympathize changes nothing. A history of political violence
demonstrates that numerous admirable causes have been vitiated by their
choice of murderous methods.

Many of the flaws in After the Terror had already surfaced at the time
of its initial publication, in 2002, by Edinburgh University Press. When
Honderich presented his ideas on "morally justifiable terrorism" in
lecture form to North American audiences, vigorous protests ensued. As
one Brown University student wrote to the campus newspaper: "It is
incomprehensible that a university professor would seek to rationalize
murder ... and grotesque that Brown would bring him to campus."

To defuse the controversy, Honderich, who hails from a wealthy
publishing family, agreed to contribute £5,000 in royalties to Oxfam.
But, to the philosopher's chagrin, the British relief agency pointedly
refused to accept the donation, on ethical grounds. As its statement
explained: "Oxfam's purpose 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."

Apparently, Suhrkamp Verlag was blissfully unaware of the commotion
surrounding the book when, on Habermas's recommendation last year, it
purchased the rights to a German translation.

The focus of the debate in Germany concerned Honderich's observations on
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the misdeeds of the German past,
unreasonable or excessive criticism of Israel has long been a fraught
issue. In the postwar era, Suhrkamp Verlag has been a beacon of moral
integrity. It has been the publishing home of Jewish authors, like
Walter Benjamin, who were persecuted by the Nazis. One of its major
subsidiary imprints is the Jüdischer Verlag, or Jewish Press.

After the Terror is suffused with what can only be described as
anti-Israel canards. Whether these observations qualify as anti-Semitic
is another matter. Early on in his narrative, Honderich observes that
"having been the principal victims of racism in history, Jews now seem
to have learned from their abusers" -- implying that Jews are
present-day Nazis or, at the very least, employ Nazi methods. He goes on
to say that Zionism "has rightly been condemned as racism by the United
Nations." But he omits to mention that in December 1991, the U.N., in
its infinite wisdom, repealed the same declaration, by a vote of 111 to

But the claim that brought matters to a head concerned another one of
Honderich's attempts to legitimate the political use of terror, which he
euphemistically praises as "liberation-terrorism" or "Terror for
Humanity." The disputed passage reads:

"I myself have no serious doubt ... that the Palestinians have exercised
a moral right in their terrorism as certain as was the moral right, say,
of the African people of South Africa against their white captors and
the apartheid state. Those Palestinians who have resorted to necessary
killing have been right to try to free their people, and those who have
killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified
themselves. This seems to me a terrible truth, a truth that overcomes
what we must remember about all terrorism, and also overcomes the
thought of hideousness and monstrosity."

In August, Micha Brumlik, a professor of education at Goethe University,
in Frankfurt, who is also director of the Fritz Bauer Institute for the
Study and Documentation of the History of the Holocaust, read
Honderich's book and became alarmed. Claiming that the passages in
question evinced an "anti-Semitic anti-Zionism," Brumlik requested that
Suhrkamp withdraw After the Terror from circulation. The press complied,
avowing that it would refrain from republishing the text once the
initial print run of 2,000 copies was exhausted. Brumlik's protest,
which appeared as an open letter in a German daily, put Habermas on the
spot. The German philosopher restated his rationale for having
recommended publication -- the book's exploration, in the aftermath of
9/11, of the roots of global social injustice -- while explicitly
distancing himself from Honderich's sanguinary political fantasies.

In retrospect, it seems that the German handling of the "Honderich
affair" was unfortunate and maladroit. Brumlik appears to have
overreacted. Honderich's political judgment might be extremely
questionable. But his statements are hardly anti-Semitic in the
technical sense of the term. In any event, the merits of his claims
should be assessed and debated in the public sphere. By suggesting that
the book be removed from circulation, Brumlik showed insufficient trust
in the reasoning capacities of the German public. He thereby missed a
golden opportunity to educate his fellow citizens on why the political
use of terror is morally reprehensible. Banning books, or refusing to
reprint them on political grounds, sets an unfortunate precedent. It
also has the unintended consequence of allowing Honderich to claim that
his ideas are being unfairly suppressed -- by Jews and their
sympathizers, no less.

The question of political uses of terror has been brought to a head by
the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in the aftermath of Ariel
Sharon's provocative September 2000 visit to Jerusalem's Temple Mount,
site of the al Aqsa Mosque. The legitimacy and efficacy of those
bombings have been intensely debated by Arab intellectuals in the Middle
East and the United States. Increasingly, they have been a topic of
heated discussion on university campuses across North America,
discussion not often characterized by patience and reasoned argument.
See, for example, the public statements of New Jersey Solidarity, a
Rutgers University-based, pro-Palestinian organization that opposes the
existence of Israel. Its members have justified suicide bombings with
the claim that "Palestinians have a right to resist occupation. It is
not our place to dictate the forms and practices the Palestinians must

Honderich does not, as one might expect of a philosopher, evaluate such
rhetoric. In fact, he seems strangely unaware of, or uninterested in,
the continuing dialogue regarding Palestinian terrorist tactics. Rather
than offer a considered analysis of the dominant arguments on both
sides, he shoots from the hip, his endorsement of political terrorism
seemingly designed merely to provoke.

Dating back to the Hague Conventions of 1898 and 1907, one of the
mainstays of international law is the imperative that warring parties
distinguish between combatants and civilians. Those precepts were
vigorously reaffirmed by Additional Protocol I to the 1977 Geneva
Convention, which representatives of the Palestine Liberation
Organization attended. The distinction is widely recognized as a
linchpin of international human-rights law. By intentionally targeting
civilians, suicide bombings deliberately contravene those precedents.
More insidious still, some of the recent bombings seem to have
intentionally targeted young Israelis -- to wit, a June 1, 2001, bombing
at a Tel Aviv discoth`eque that killed 21 and wounded 120, and an August
19, 2003, Jerusalem bus bombing that killed 5 children among the 18
dead, and wounded 40 children among the 100 wounded.

According to an October 2002 report by Human Rights Watch, "Erased in a
Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians," which
condemned the intentional and systematic massacre of innocents, the
suicide bombings qualify as a crime against humanity. In international
human-rights law, the fundamental precedent was set by the 1945
Nuremberg Charter. The Nuremberg precepts were recently reaffirmed by
the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which defines
crimes against humanity as the "participation in and knowledge of a
widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population," and "the
multiple commission of [such] acts ... against any civilian population,
pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to
commit such attack." According to the Rome Statute, both individual
perpetrators and the organizations that sponsor them bear criminal
accountability for such acts. They are crimes of universal jurisdiction
and are subject to no statute of limitations.

Are the bombings morally or politically defensible? The attempt to
morally justify suicide bombing seems especially specious. One of the
cardinal precepts of the just-war doctrine, dating back to the days of
early Christianity, has been the prohibition against the massacre of
innocents. In the 2,500-year-old canon of Western moral philosophy, I am
hard pressed to find a single thinker who accepts the taking of innocent
life to further political aims. Moreover, experts on the Middle East
have frequently pointed out that suicide bombing explicitly contravenes
three cardinal precepts of Islamic law: the prohibition against killing
civilians; the prohibition against suicide; and the protected status of
Jews and Christians. Here, too, the burden of proof is squarely on
Honderich's shoulders.

In the instance at hand, even the argument from political expediency
seems dubious. The military or strategic gains that have accrued from
the suicide bombings seem negligible. All evidence points to the fact
that their overall effect has been to bolster the political power of
Israeli hard-liners -- a regrettable outcome for Palestinians and
Israelis alike. A spate of suicide attacks by members of Hamas and
Islamic Jihad immediately before the 1995 Israeli elections played a
major role in facilitating the victory of the Likud Party candidate for
prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. From the standpoint of a
constructive and equitable resolution of Palestinian-Israeli territorial
disputes, the terrorist actions have been flatly counterproductive.
Palestinian opinion leaders worldwide have indirectly acknowledged as
much, believing that the wanton and bloody assaults on civilians risk
bringing the entire Palestinian cause into disrepute. In June 2002, 58
leading intellectuals and public figures published an "Urgent Appeal to
Stop Suicide Bombings" in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds. Honderich's
position remains distinctly behind the curve.

Interestingly, in recent interviews, Honderich has pointedly declared
his belief in Israel's right to exist. But then his defense of suicide
bombings as a legitimate political weapon is self-contradictory. For the
two main Palestinian militant factions responsible for the attacks,
Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have never concealed the fact that their
strategic objective is to expel all Jews from Palestine.

The groups' justifications of suicide bombings are a maze of confusing
and contradictory statements. The leaders have variously argued that:

--The suicide strikes are purely retaliatory. (That claim, starkly at
odds with the available evidence, leaves the question of the attacks'
moral or political legitimacy untouched.)

--Civilians are not the main targets. (A manifest falsehood.)

--Because all Israeli adults serve in the military at one point or
another, none are civilians. (The strictures of international
humanitarian law make clear that soldiers who are off duty and out of
uniform qualify as noncombatants.)

--Settlers in the West Bank and Gaza often carry weapons and are
illegally occupying Palestinian land; hence, they are fair game for
attack. (Under the terms of international law, the fact that civilians
are armed does not alter their status as noncombatants. Moreover, that
argument fails to account for the plethora of attacks that have occurred
outside of the West Bank and Gaza -- i.e., within Israel's pre-1967

--The Palestinians are at such a distinct military disadvantage
vis-à-vis Israel's sophisticated modern weaponry that suicide bombings
represent a great equalizer. (That claim is difficult to square with the
dearth of positive strategic military results. And other oppressed
peoples have successfully employed nonviolent methods of civil
disobedience to call attention to their cause. Why has the Palestinian
leadership ruled out those means?)

If the suicide bombings have provided the Palestinians with negligible
strategic or military gains, why have the attacks persisted? And why
have they been so popular among the Palestinians (according to a July
2001 poll, 58 percent of them approve of attacks against civilians
inside Israel)?

Here one of the keys is understanding the brand of religious
fundamentalism represented by the two main perpetrators, Islamic Jihad
and Hamas. For both organizations, and for fundamentalist Islam in
general, martyrdom represents a central article of faith. Muslim clerics
who seek to justify suicide attacks against Israel customarily argue for
a seminal theological difference between suicide and martyrdom. Whereas,
according to Islamic law, self-inflicted death is strictly proscribed,
militant mullahs have elevated martyrdom to the status of the most
glorious death. The suicide bombings are a lethal amalgam of
martyrdom-laced vengeance -- a consummate theological and strategic
outlet for Arabs in the region, who have been otherwise politically
impotent. (After all, from 1948 to 1973, the Palestinians lost four
wars.) Moreover, the bombings serve the functional end of shoring up
support for Arab leaders who have been slow to produce results, and
whose competence has been increasingly called into doubt in recent years.

Was Honderich's endorsement of Palestinian suicide bombing anti-Semitic?
Technically, no. Yet it could easily be construed in that way. For, in
addition to being a (disputable) military gambit, suicide bombings
constitute a highly freighted act of political symbolism. They deliver
an unambiguous message: All Jews -- men, women, children -- are
legitimate targets of political murder. Thereby the bombings flirt with
a discourse of genocide whose historical resonances are all too familiar
and disturbing.


Richard Wolin is a professor of history and comparative literature at
the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books
include Heidegger's Children: Hannah Arendt, Karl Lowith, Hans Jonas,
and Herbert Marcuse
(Princeton University Press, 2001).

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