SUICIDE-BOMBINGS MORALLY DEFENSIBLE? A REPLY TO RICHARD WOLIN
by Ted Honderich
The Chronicle of Higher Education, widely read in American universities, published a discussion of my book After the Terror on 24 October 2003. You can and should turn to this discussion before reading my reply below.
There are great goods, six by my way of counting. The lack or denial of them makes our lives bad or wretched. One of these goods is freedom and power, first of all of a people in a homeland. By our human natures we all desire these fundamental goods. Our equally inescapable rationality commits us to the principle of securing the goods for those who lack them when the alternative is improving lives that are already good.
This principle judges the omissions and acts of states, organizations and individuals in terms of whether they have the requisite consequences. There are in fact no moral reasons that do not have to do with such consequences at some level. Those reasons that seem otherwise, and are said not to have to do with consequences, say reasons of relationship or intrinsic good, are pretences in the aid of self-interest, sometimes vicious.
In the last quarter of the 19th Century, there were about 50 times as many Palestinians as Jews in Palestine. After World II, when the United Nations rightly resolved to make a place for the Jews out of a part of Palestine, there were equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in that part, and 80 times as many Palestinians as Jews in the other part. There is now a Jewish state violating the remaining homeland of the remaining Palestinians. The wrong or evil of this is not reduced by selected pieces of recent history, let alone the absolute irrelevance of ancient history.
It would be wanton not to give to terrorism that name, its awful name. It is as wanton not to see that it may also be self-defence, resistance to ethnic cleansing, a response to state-terrorism, a maddened hope of of safeguarding the existence together of a people -- terrorism for humanity. To proceed as if terrorism can be condemned by definition is as idle as supposing that profit can be condemned by definition. It forgets, for a start, the justified terrorism that was judged necessary to the justified founding of the state of Israel.
Consider two acts of killing now. The first is by a Palestinian suicide-bomber of an Israeli civilian. The second is by an Israeli in a helicopter-gunship, of a Palestinian civilian by chance near the car of a Hamas terrorist. Each killer says that if he could, he would have avoided killing a civilian in advancing the cause he supports. In place of our being selectively horrified, it is necessary to think of the decency or indecency of the two causes, of the nature of intention and double-intention, and of the categories of clear innocents, half-innocents, unengaged combatants, and non-combatants.
The preceding paragraphs summarize parts of an argument in moral philosophy that takes euphemism to be a greater damage to truth than propaganda. It is an argument for the conclusion that the Palestinians do have a moral right to something to which the state of Israel also claims a moral right, implicitly and explicitly. That thing is killing.
Richard Wolin's reply to the argument in The Chronicle calls out for attention.
It is inconceivable, against ordinary moral intelligence, to think that the argument can be dealt with by ignoring it, or by personal attack and insinuation, or by obiter dicta, although this appears to be Professor Wolin's view. There is no possibility of refuting the argument from a distance by considerations of law and the use of law. The law and uses of it, as every day demonstrates, are subject to moral question and judgement. There has never been any serious dispute about this in the history of philosophy or of anything else.
Nor is there a hope of a quick refutation of the argument in terms of innocents. The whole history of war and of the several kinds of terrorism has been the taking of somehow innocent lives among others in order to forward political ends. Reflection on war has been replete with acceptance of what has only lately been called collateral damage.
But leave this matter of Professor Wolin's general approach to my argument. Consider a selection of his particular propositions against me.
First, he says I refuse to acknowledge any cause of misery in the poor world, say a sample loss of 20 million years of living time, other than the policies and institutions of the rich world. Second, I elevate bin Ladin as if to the rank of a god, idolize him. Third, I offered £5,000 in royalties from my book to Oxfam only after its publication, to defuse the controversy about the book. Fourth, it is only in recent interviews that I have declared Israel's right to exist.
These propositions are literally, wholly, and absolutely false. This can be established by a look at my book or a subsequent article or the British newspapers The Guardian and The Independent in October 2002. Both papers and others, incidentally, carried censure of Oxfam for turning away the money. None carried support or excuse.
There is also Professor Wolin's sentence of uncertain sense but falsely implying the possibility that I wrote that the 2001 terrorist attacks on America can somehow be seen as a justifiable response to the misery of the world's poor. There is a sentence that implies that I could spare the £5,000 because I have had significantly more to live on than a university teacher's salary. There is the suggestion that I believe the Jews are present-day Nazis, a slur not removed by a slight and prudent qualification.
Professor Wolin adds omissions to absolute falsehoods and false implications. Professor Jurgen Habermas, the doyen of German philosophy, while as embarrassed as any German by an imputation of anti-Semitism in his neighbourhood, declared that my book is not anti-Semitic. Melzer Verlag is about to bring out a second German translation of this carefully read and allegedly anti-Semitic work. This is a Jewish publishing house.
Avoidance, falsehood, implication and omission are not a proper response to moral inquiry. Nor are they any other kind of inquiry. There is a want of reflection in saying or implying that political acts are not themselves matters of moral responsibility. So too with an explanation of the continuing Palestinian struggle for liberation that includes only martyrdom, emotional outlet and the shoring up of incompetent leaders.
It is not good, further, to give statistics only on one side of a conflict, and no comparisons. The acuity on which Professor Wolin prides himself is not shown by announcing a certain self-contradiction on my part. That is my support of a movement on grounds of certain anticipated consequences when other aims are said, even if rightly, to be assigned to it by other people. There are also my unspecified 'canards' about Israel. Do they include more than a confused sentence of mine about where immigrant Jews from Russia came to rest? It would be useful to know.
Professor Wolin says that I am not technically an anti-Semite. This is to say or imply that I am an anti-Semite in fact. His reason for this is that Palestinian suicide-bombings deliver a certain unambiguous message that flirts with genocide: all Jews are legitimate targets of political murder. It is patently obvious that what is claimed about the message of the suicide-bombings, if true, would not come within sight of establishing the proposition of anti-Semitism about me. In my view, my life defeats the proposition easily.
To write as Professor Wolin has done is not to have membership in the strong and continuing tradition of Jewish humanity in morality and politics, with so many noble men and women in it. It is not to be of that fine company, praised by me before I ever heard of my German accuser, Professor Brumlik.
Professor Wolin's essay, I take it, is simply engagement in and support for neo-Zionism, the taking of land beyond Israel's 1967 borders, the violating of another people. Neo-Zionism was the simple source, too, of the uproar in Germany over my book, the Oxfam matter, and the slight fuss at Brown University. If I may be as free in my speech as Professor Wolin, his endeavour is to forward a dirty politics, mainly by a dirty legalism. This is to give rise to or to contribute to anti-Semitism.
The Fall and Rise of a Book in Germany
Oxfam G.B., £5000, Neo-Zionism, After the Terror and Medical Aid for Palestinians
On Being Persona Non Grata to Some Palestinians Too
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