|April 13, 2002||atimes.com|
Live and let die
Spokesmen for the Palestinian Authority claim that Israel drove the suicide bombers to undertake acts of desperation. It is quite unfair to blame the Israelis, whatever one thinks of them. Blaming Islam is a cheap way to deflect the dissonance; supposedly the bombers die for a heavenly reward. Yet many other religions offered a heavenly reward long before the birth of Mohammed without encouraging suicide warriors. The only large-scale deployment of suicide warriors in the past century was, of course, the kamikaze of World War II.
On the contrary, political suicide is commonplace, indeed endemic, among populations who fail to adapt to changing circumstances. The popularity of suicide bombing among young Palestinians has much in common with other instances of large-scale suicide in recent years.
For example, this report in the London Telegraph of November 19, 2000:
"The largest tribe of Amazonian Indians, the 27,000-strong Guarani, are being devastated by a wave of suicides among their children, triggered by their coming into contact with the modern world. Once unheard of among Amazonian Indians, suicide is ravaging the Guarani, who live in the southwest of Brazil, an area that now has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. More than 280 Guarani have taken their own lives in the past 10 years, including 26 children under the age of 14 who have poisoned or hanged themselves. Alcoholism has become widespread, as has the desire to own radios, television sets and denim jeans, bringing an awareness of their poverty. Community structures and family unity have broken down and sacred rituals come to a halt."
And another report from the same newspaper, dated April 26, 1997:
"A tribe of 5,000 is threatening to commit mass suicide by leaping from a cliff unless Occidental Petroleum abandons plans to drill for oil in what the tribesmen claim is their territory.
"The semi-nomadic U'wa tribe of Colombia is sending its chief, Roberto Cobaria, to the United States next week to publicise the threat and meet environmental and rights groups. Legend has it that a group of U'wa tribe members committed mass suicide in the 17th century in protest against Spanish colonialism."
Similar reports have appeared recently, such as the case of an Inuit tribe so crippled by alcoholism that it asked the Canadian government to place all its children in foster care. Apparently one fourth of all adult members of the tribe had attempted suicide. This should not surprise us. Of the 6,000 languages now spoken on the planet, two or three become extinct each week. What does it mean for your language to become extinct? You are cut off in time, orphaned in eternity, wiped clean of memory, your existence reduced to the brutish exigency of the moment. Why not commit suicide?
On the surface, to be sure, Arab society bears little resemblance to the pathetic remnants of aboriginal culture in the Amazon or around the Bering Sea. Yet there is an important similarity, so glaring as to become obvious the moment we take notice of it. How quaint, we tell ourselves, that stone-age peoples still dwell in the Amazon, and we wonder: What are they doing in the modern world? Yet no one asks what 3.5 million Palestinian Arabs are doing on a small patch of land on the west bank of the Jordan, not to mention the 400,000 or so in camps in Lebanon and yet more in Jordan. They are an agrarian rather than an urban people, ill at ease with the economic pursuits of the modern world.
Mechanization of agriculture, rather than Zionist political aims, began displacing the rural Arab population in the 1930s, as a number of historians observe. This led to the 1936-39 Arab uprising against the British Mandate and Jewish settlement. Rather than disperse gradually like other agrarian populations, the Palestinian Arabs found themselves in refugee camps after 1947. Thanks to the relief efforts of the United Nations they obtained access to medical care and education, lacking in their old villages. The 700,000 Arabs who fled or were driven from Israel quintupled their numbers in two generations. For half a century they have nursed the dream of returning to a world which vanished long ago.
Suicide bombing cannot destroy the Israeli military, nor can it undermine Israel's body politic. It is an act of existential despair.
Many of the Palestinian suicide bombers do not fit the profile of Islamic fundamentalists. Yet as surely as teenaged Guarani see the end of their culture, these worldly young people from the Islamic world see the end of theirs. What some Western observers call "Islamism" (to distinguish it from traditional Islam) is an effort to use the instruments of the modern world to recreate a traditional past that rapidly is slipping away.
We stand at the threshold, I wrote in this space some time ago of a great extinction of cultures, comparable to the Macedonian march through the Eastern empires under Alexander, grinding up the older cultures and leaving Hellenism in its place. This will be repeated in English rather than Greek. No matter that the Americans are reluctant rather than exuberant conquerors. The states of the region will decide whether to embrace the American cause and become satraps in the new empire, or to put up a resistance that will be futile, however fierce it might be.
Depending on these decisions the conflict might be nearly bloodless or costly beyond all imagining. Some not inconsiderable number of people will take the opportunity to commit suicide by hurling themselves against Israel, or against weaponry of the American empire, and their world will remain at war until there are not enough volunteers left.
Why go on living, after all? Humans are sentient beings who foresee their own demise. Like individuals, observed the German theologian Franz Rosenzweig, peoples know that they will die out as well. "The love of the peoples for their own ethnicity," he wrote, "is sweet and pregnant with the presentiment of death."
In my August 31, 2001, column (http://www.atimes.com/media/CH31Ce01.html) I observed, "Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the illusion of immortality ... Frequently, ethnic groups will die rather than abandon their 'way of life'. Native Americans often chose to fight against European settlers to the point of their own extinction rather than accept assimilation, because assimilation implied abandoning both their past and their future. Historic tragedy occurs on the grand scale when economic or strategic circumstances undercut the material conditions of life of a people, which nonetheless cannot accept assimilation into another culture. That is when entire peoples fight to the death."
The Palestinian Arabs fight to the death while the Guarani of the Amazon politely hang themselves. Europe, whose fertility rate is barely half of replacement, is committing suicide as well - perhaps one should call it suicide by vacation. In 200 years German, French and Italian will be spoken only in hell.
Africans, for that matter, continue to infect each other with HIV. In South Africa, where an estimated 20 percent of the adult population carries the deadly virus, President Thabo Mbeki denounces the viral explanation of AIDS, as well as the drugs designed to suppress the disease, as a Western conspiracy. Call it suicide by sex.
My advice to Western leaders is: live and let die. If people insist on killing themselves, there is little you can do to stop it. "Alles was entsteht," as Mephisto told Faust, "ist wert, dass es zugrunde geht." (Roughly, "All that comes to be shall rightly go to ruin.") The best you can do is to encourage them to eliminate themselves in a somewhat less antisocial fashion.
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