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A culture of violence or a cult of the superficial?

From Bhutto to Gandhi to Al-Qaradawi

by Judea Pearl

January 17, 2008 | 7:00 pm

When The Journal asked me to write a note about the murder of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, I initially declined. I did not feel I had anything insightful or original to add to the dozens of gloomy and desperate articles we have been receiving by Pakistanis and Western analysts in the wake of that horrible tragedy.

I have changed my mind, because the eloquent article in The Jewish Journal by Beirut-based journalist Rami Khouri, "Who Killed Benazir Bhutto?" (Jan. 4) has alerted me to a recurrent phenomenon that deserves our attention.

Khouri places Bhutto's murder in the wider context of regionwide proliferation of political violence and puts the blame on the fact that "in the life of ordinary people in the vast region from North Africa and the Middle East to South Asia political violence has become an everyday fact of life."

The essence of Khouri's article shines through its concluding paragraphs: "They kill as they have been killed. Having been dehumanized in turn, they will embrace inhumanity and brutality.

"Who killed Benazir Bhutto? We all killed her, in East and West, Orient and Occident, North and South. We of the globalized beastly generation that transformed political violence from an occasional crime to an ideology and an addiction."

My Western upbringing resonates strongly with Khouri's dramatic ending: "We all killed her," which I take to be a poetic call for self-examination and social action, urging each and every one of us to make a difference by cleaning our own mess. I am sure many in the Judeo-Christian tradition will echo this call with, "Indeed, let us work on ourselves first" -- it is in the nature of our cultural reflex.

But my moral instinct tells me something totally different. It tells me that what the world needs during this state of social upheaval are distinctions, not generalizations, clarity, not equivocation. To say, "We are all guilty," is paramount to saying, "No one is guilty," like that bully who excuses himself with the rejoinder, "They all do it."

Sweeping generalizations that spread guilt too broadly tend to obscure the anatomy of violence; they drive attention away from critical factors and pivotal players and hamper our ability to take corrective actions.

I became particularly sensitive to this logic of overgeneralization in the weeks following the murder of our son, Daniel, when jihadi Web sites began ranting: "What's all the fuss about one Jewish journalist, when so many Muslims are being killed in Palestine and Afghanistan?"

It is pointless, of course, to explain to jihadis that terrorism earns its ominous and morally reprehensible character not through body count but through intent, i.e., the intent of the perpetrators to harm the innocent -- jihadis refuse to get it.

One would expect, however, that modernity-minded thinkers should grasp this defining distinction and use it to tell a good guy from a bad one -- they, too, refuse to get it. While every 12-year-old could tell who aims to minimize civilian casualties and who aims to maximize them, anti-American ideologues make believe they could not. They insist on regurgitating the body count argument and pretend they've never heard the word "intent."

Time after time in my lectures before mixed Muslim-Jewish audiences, I get the question: "Isn't the U.S. operation in Iraq a state-sponsored terrorism?" or "Isn't Israeli targeted killing morally equivalent to Palestinian suicide bombing?" Even after admitting that Israel aims to minimize civilian casualties -- it is, after all, bad for public opinion -- the questioners refuse to accept the distinction.

Symmetry is so seductive, and the idea that every strife has two equivalent sides so deeply entrenched in our culture, that even well-meaning intellectuals fall into its trap.

Michael Winterbottom, for example, the director of the movie, "A Mighty Heart," compared Daniel's murder to the conditions in Guantanamo, and wrote: "There are extremists on both sides who want to ratchet up the levels of violence, and hundreds of thousands of people have died because of this."

Khouri is thus in good company when he falls into the trap of body count and states: "It makes little difference if this is the work of democratic or dictatorial leaders: Dead children and war-ravaged societies do not value such distinctions."

What is dangerous in this tendency to generalize and symmetrize violent acts is that it actually helps spread the ideology of political violence, for it permits angry youngsters to reason thus: "All forms of violence are equally evil; therefore, as long as one persists, others should not be ruled out." This is precisely the logic used by Mohammed Siddiqui Khan, one of the London suicide bombers, in his post-mortem videotape on Al Jazeera.

But no less dangerous is the destructive influence of ideologues who, armed with the halo of nonviolence advocacy, exploit the superficial to preach hatred and bigotry. Typical among them is Arun Gandhi, grandson of India's legendary leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who just this month published an article on the Newsweek/Washington Post Web site titled, "Jewish Identity Can't Depend on Violence," in which he states that "Israel and the Jews are the biggest players" in the creation of a "culture of violence that is eventually going to destroy humanity."

Such reckless twistings of reality, soaked in apocalyptic pontification, spring abundantly from the cult of the superficial and its lazy logic of body count.

Saying, "We all killed Benazir Bhutto" means that violence is so hopelessly symmetric, chaotic and all-pervasive that we do not know where to begin our effort to contain it. But we do know where to begin, because some acts are violence-reducing, while others are violence-producing -- the two are not equivalent, and we should obviously begin with the former.

For example, Israel's military operations in Gaza are not equivalent to the firing of Qassam rockets into Sderot. The former will cease if the latter does but not the other way around. This causal asymmetry is so glaring, that only minds like Gandhi's can mindlessly ignore.

We have a similar asymmetry in Iraq, where one side sees cessation of hostilities as an achievement, the other as defeat. In such cases, the asymmetries should be noted, analyzed and acted on, rather than dismissed with, "We all killed her?"

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