Richard Wolin: Suicide Bombing Shouldn't Be Defended

Richard Wolin, professor of history and comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, writing on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 20, 2003):

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....

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.

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