The psychology of racialist violence

Having now watched three movies about neo-nazis, I am compelled to seek to understand why smart people get sucked into racist ideologies. The movies in question are American History X (1998), the Believer (2001) and Steel Toes (2006), and I recommend all of them to the observer of modern racism (who is not squeamish).

Each movie centers on a single, articulate, young neo-nazi who commits acts of violence against racial minorities. Each movie outlines why the young man in question is a neo-nazi. Their arguments are well presented. They have clear reasons for hating. After all the arguments about why Jews, blacks and all other non WASPs are bad, it is essential that we look beyond words to see why people hate those who are different.

The young men all had a sense that they were losing something, that their society was headed in the wrong direction because it was being contaminated by inferior races. Derek in American History X said that every problem in the US is race related; Michael in Steel Toes believed we were losing our superior, white, Canadian way of life to immigrants; and Daniel in the Believer declared confidently that spiritual life comes from race, and thought that the modern world is a Jewish disease where that spiritual life was being sucked away. (They are not the only ones who believe they are losing their world. Robert Pape has found that nearly all suicide bombings are motivated by foreign occupation. A study by the think tank Demos found much the same.) But all generations seem to have a feeling that something is lost, and that the world is not what it used to be. Why do these boys blame minorities?

Perhaps we are living in a new age of minorities. At one time in Europe, the minority, if there was one, was the easily-scapegoated Jew, Gypsy, or Huguenot. Now, minorities come from every country and bring their cultures, languages and skin colours with them. Because more rapid social change than ever before is occurring alongside more immigration than ever before, it is easy to conflate the two. Our supposedly sacred ways of life are changing, and the culprits could not possibly be in our group. Violence, segregation, deportation all seem reasonable when viewed through the warped prism of convenient blame.

For a second explanation of how these characters turned into radicals, let us consider what I call “opinion creep“, how we choose one path in our thinking and follow it until our opinions become extreme. Perhaps these people are simply victims of opinion creep. Opinion creep might also be what enables us to hold contrary beliefs, such as that the Jews instigated communism and yet control the world’s banking system. It sends our emotions spiraling down to the evils of our nature and can lead us to obsess over people we do not even know or understand.

Hatred is a natural feeling that any of us can fall victim to. Hate is anger with a direction. It can come easily when the objects are dehumanised, considered less deserving of respect than those in our exclusive group. Stereotyping simplifies the other and simplifies hatred of the other by turning him into a one-dimensional caricature of his group. The arguments against Jews, for instance, refer to them collectively, to say what they are and are not, imposing square pegs of what people are in round holes of what they could be. Uncomfortable with ambiguity, which might mean that we accept that everyone is sufficiently different to defy stereotype, we package things for our own convenience and lose understanding in the process. Sherif (1937) likened this removal of ambiguity to the slogans and propaganda that dehumanised the enemy and fired up the masses in the fascist movements of his time. By repeating canards about who the enemy is, we form images that fill us with hate.

Violence, likewise, is a powerful drive within us. In his excellent book on collectivist violence Blood and Belonging, Michael Ignatieff explains

[U]ntil I had encountered my quotient of young males intoxicated by the power of the guns on their hips, I had not understood how deeply pleasurable it is to have the power of life and death in your hands. It is a characteristic liberal error to suppose that everyone hates and fears violence. I met lots of young men who loved the ruins, loved the destruction, loved the power that came from the barrels of their guns.

[T]here is a deep connection between violence and belonging. The more strongly you feel the bonds of belonging to your own group, the more hostile, the more violent will your feelings be towards outsiders. You can’t have this intensity of belonging without violence, because belonging of this intensity moulds the individual conscience: if a nation gives people a reason to sacrifice themselves, it also gives them a reason to kill.

This drive to violence, especially on behalf of one’s group, may be carried out with the intention of domination. Those with authoritarian leanings are more ethnocentric and prone to prejudice (Altemeyer, 1996). Many such people endorse the myths that explain why one group dominates another in society, and either are afraid to lose their position at the top, as Michael in Steel Toes was, or aspire to reach the top (Sidanius and Pratto, 1999). They feel no reason to share society’s resources equally when they have reasons to believe others are less deserving. Moreover, the same people may see the world as either threatening or a competitive jungle where dominance is natural and desirable (Duckitt, 2003).

One final source of violence and hatred is internal conflict. The Believer, in particular, showed Daniel’s deep conflict between his past–a Jew, born and raised–and his present–a Jew-hating skinhead. While leading in the desecration of a synagogue, Daniel picks up a Torah scroll, takes it home and repairs it because of what it had once meant to him. Michael forcefully declares his membership in the Aryan Nation and then breaks down in guilt after reading that the man he assaulted died and yet bears him no ill will. He could not handle the human consequences of what his ideology proposes.

Another thing each movie had in common was to juxtapose the protagonist’s present life as a skinhead with an innocent youth, spent running and laughing and playing. One clear lesson from all three films was that hatred and violence do not lead to fulfillment, wisdom or happiness. They only lead to pain.

Operation Cast Lead, two years on

Two years ago, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) began the indiscriminate slaughter it named Operation Cast Lead. Some 1400 people were killed, thousands more wounded and displaced. Hundreds of sad people marched in Gaza in commemoration.

See here for the reasons Israel attacked Gaza.

Here I write about why the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza flotilla) incident may have been good for Israel, because it distracted the world from Operation Cast Lead and the Goldstone Report.

I wrote here about attempts to try Tzipi Livni as a war criminal, which apparently did not go anywhere.

And here I wrote about how Israel’s culture legitimised Cast Lead (and other violence in Israel’s name).

Gaza is still under blockade, which means little rebuilding gets done. Things had been relatively quiet along the Gaza border for the past two years until recently, when more rockets have been fired from Gaza, Israeli air strikes have followed, and thus tensions are higher. There are fears (or hopes?) that another Cast Lead-like massacre might be “necessary”. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff, said Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and “holds the Hamas terrorist organisation solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip”, which means the IDF does not distinguish between rockets fired by Hamas or by any other group.

It is sad that this crime will go unpunished, and that it may even repeat itself.

"Ismail, Abed and Leila don't go to the infant clinic anymore"

Human Nature, Violence, Anarchy

Do we need government?

Though many people have already made up their minds, and take it as given that we do, those who are not so sure are called anarchists. Anarchism is a term that is poorly understood. It is not synonymous with chaos. Modern anarchism is the belief that one does not need, and indeed should not have, a government with a monopoly on the use of force to maximise virtue.

Their arguments are simpler than they seem. The fact is, we live most of our lives without being told what to do by the state. We are basically free to choose our friends, lovers, clothing, food, occupations and actions. We are legally prohibited from such acts as theft or murder but most of us would not likely engage in them in any case. However, the basic reason anarchists distrust the state is that they feel no one should be allowed to initiate the use of force against anyone else. Since taxation is forced out of us, taxation is coercion; and all actions taken by an organisation that forces you to pay all its costs are illegitimate. Thus, government begins with violence.

Statists, on the other hand, often argue that, to curb the violent side of human nature, we need a strong state, one capable of imposing its will, at least as arbiter, if not through powerful security forces that necessarily take away our freedom. This view, too, is not without merit. Among those most notably in favour of a strong state was Thomas Hobbes. Writing during the English Civil War, Hobbes believed that what he saw around him was what happened when the state could not impose its will and prevent fighting among the people it governed. His solution was a powerful but ultimately benevolent state to end the violence. Both statist and anarchist positions should be considered when idealistically discussing the type of society we want.

Some anarchist thinkers, including my favourite, Stefan Molyneux, have often brushed aside the claim that mankind is inherently violent. They tend to concede that we could be violent, but that war and other brutality is more a result of indoctrination (excluding the 1% of people who are psychopaths, many of whom delight in violence). They may be right about the effects of indoctrination, that we only kill people we have no prior connection with because propaganda creates enemies, and that violence is shouted into us by drill sergeants. But let us examine a psychologist’s argument.

In one of my favourite books, the Blank Slate, Steven Pinker writes that brutal violence in humans and our ancestors goes back at least 800,000 years. It is part of our nature. No human society knows no violence, but modern societies, with their police forces and militaries, whose torture and war crimes characterise the annual reports of Amnesty International, have far less violence than many more isolated hunter-gatherer groups.

Of course, most anarchists would not want a return to such a way of life. They would not deny the need to minimise violence, simply that there are better ways than law enforcement. But to assume that the government is somehow to blame for most violence in society is misguided. War happens between small societies where everyone has a weapon, just as it does between larger ones where personal weaponry is illegal. It occurs in cultures where mass media (including violent television) consumption is pervasive and where it does not exist. And violence is a fact in societies with poverty and disease and those with effective government-funded social programmes. We are still not clear on the causes of human violence and war, and there is no consensus among social scientists.

Presumably for this reason, anarchists have not yet found (and admittedly, not yet been allowed to test) a solution to natural human violence. Nonetheless, their arguments are compelling. First, as stated above, since government relies on violence, discontinuing one form of violence is worth attempting in order to move in the right direction. Stefan Molyneux argues that violence cannot be used to create virtue, just as rape can never create love. Second, the development that modern anarchists envision is that the involuntary institutions of government be gradually replaced by voluntary ones. Instead of healthcare, education and collective defense into which we are forced, everyone will instead organise themselves and come up with their own solutions. (After all, food is more important than healthcare or education, and yet the free market has no trouble distributing it.) Anarchists alone do not have the solutions, because no one person or organisation could. Third, Stefan’s idea is to create dispute resolution organisations, or DROs, that are like arbiters who hold parties to contracts accountable to each other and use perhaps public shaming when they do not. They would function similar to insurance companies and credit rating agencies, neither of which require government.

A further question is, is our modern, “civilised” society less prone to violence and thus no longer in need of government? This question falls in between the “expanding circle” and the “Hobbesian trap”. When mankind was organised into small bands, our circle, meaning those whom we care about and treat as equals, would be no more than our tribe. Peter Singer describes the expanding circle as the evolution of the consciousness of civilised people toward treating ever greater numbers of people as kin, from the larger community to the nation and now of course to the entire human race. In this environment, war is less likely as the circle expands, because instead of, say, Germans’ seeing the French as a separate race less deserving of respect, they have embraced them as, though perhaps not brothers, partners in improving the world. On the other hand, with no leviathan (to use Hobbes’ word), or powerful state, a Hobbesian trap could arise. There is safety in numbers, and when people feel threatened, they tend to retreat into the groups of their primary sources of identity (eg. the nation). But since neighbours may feel they are outnumbered or outgunned, they are apt to do the same, and may attack preemptively to avoid a more dangerous conflict later. The Yanomamo, an ethnic group in the Amazon with huge kill rates relative to most other groups, obsess over possible invasion by their neighbours, and often engage in preemptive strikes on them. As a result, their neighbours are equally nervous of invasion, prompting them to strike earlier and harder. A government can prevent this trap, as it plays the role of the parent breaking up fighting children–the bigger force prevents serious violence between the smaller ones.

Democratic and despotic governments alike, plus those intent on violently assuming power, killed well over 100m people in the twentieth century. And yet, government is considered a necessity to limit violence. But would those numbers decrease without government? Does the state actually resolve conflicts? Government provides us with some measure of control and order. We have a desire to control, or at least influence, our surroundings. Democracy might be ideal because it gives us the illusion that we are in control, without the responsibility of running a country or an economy. But perhaps we should no longer subscribe to the ideal of democracy. One lesson I took from the movie Fight Club is to stop trying to control everything and just let go.

Which political system optimally solves the violence problem, while giving us everything else we expect? Despotism, where one is jailed just for looking at a gun; anarchy, where the punishment for shooting someone could be anything from being shot oneself to nothing; or democracy, where rights are usually upheld but which still fall prey to Hobbesian traps? If you have already decided, you may be fortunate: people are still debating, and killing each other over, the answer.

Hatred, enemies, revenge: how to destroy yourself

I was spending my time in the doldrums
I was caught in the cauldron of hate
I felt persecuted and paralyzed
I thought that everything else would just wait
While you are wasting your time on your enemies
Engulfed in a fever of spite
Beyond your tunnel vision reality fades
Like shadows into the night.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Do you hate? Do you have enemies? Will eliminating your enemies make you safe? Do you take revenge? Do any of those things make your life better? Do they bring you happiness?

Hate as a psychological phenomenon comes in seven forms: cool hate (disgust), hot hate (anger/fear), cold hate (devaluation), boiling hate (revulsion), simmering hate (loathing), seething hate (revilement), and burning hate (extreme combination of all components of hate, driving a need for annihilation). These feelings are painful. They cause despair, illness, violence, war. But none of them are necessary or inevitable. Many people have moved beyond hatred to feelings of forgiveness and compassion for all humankind, or all living things. Those people, in fact, understand hatred from a different angle than those who continue to hate. They understand that we should not judge others for being different, but accept them as misguided, or simply unfortunate, extensions of the human family.

Why hate people? People are basically products of their genes and their environments, neither of which they had any but the remotest control over. How can I judge another person knowing that? On September 15, 2001, a man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot as payback for the terrorist attacks of four days earlier. Although Sodhi, a Sikh, was related to the hijackers neither ethnically nor religiously, a United States gripped with fear forgave and forgot about his murder. 1700 incidents of abuse of Muslims took place in the five months following 9/11. Muslims had become the outsider, the twisted, the enemy.

An evil Jewish landlord evicting a poor old German man


Jews being kicked out of school in Nazi Germany

The enemy is not human like us. In his excellent book the Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr Philip Zimbardo describes the process of dehumanisation. When others are less than human, torment, torture and murder can seem entirely legitimate and even pleasurable. The book’s website contains pictures of Nazi comic books that led young Germans to consider the Jews deserving of a final solution, many examples of government propaganda depicting the enemy as an enemy of god, a barbarian, criminal, rapist, and subhuman creature, and postcards of lynchings of blacks in the old American South that people would send each other. It is well worth a visit.

One of the main points of the Lucifer Effect is that anyone, regardless of mental ability, can become evil. The right justification and the right rhetoric, perhaps mixed with a stressful situation, can lead anyone to viewing others as subhuman. The movie American History X describes the process by which an intelligent, well-adjusted young man became leader of a gang of neo-Nazis. He had all the apparently well-reasoned arguments in the world. White people came to America and prospered, he averred, while all the other races fell behind. His mistake was assuming the reasons why that happened were racial or cultural, rather than anything else. A little ignorance of history turned everyone but white, protestant-descended Americans into his enemies.

But why have enemies? How could a Christian, for instance, want to kill his enemy, when the Bible says to love them? How could the lower classes have foreign enemies when their true enemies are the elites in their own society that repress them? After all, we did not choose our collective enemies; political opportunists did. Who are the scapegoats on any given day? Terrorists? Muslims? Iraqis? Iranians? Chinese? Are communists still our enemies? I forget. In George Orwell’s 1984, the enemy, the object of all the hate, would change when the Party decided it would change, and the stupid people accepted it without question. Orwell had a strong understanding of how manipulable humans are. To this day, the enemy of the people is whomever the elites who control the people say it is.

Too often we cling to enemies as we might to a security blanket. A Buddhist website says, “If you try for a moment to befriend an enemy, he will become your friend. The opposite occurs if you treat a friend like an enemy. Therefore, the wise, understanding the impermanent nature of temporal relationships, are never attached to food, clothing or reputation.” The time for being enemies or friends needs to last no longer than we want it to. Life is fleeting, too short to waste being angry. Buddha said, “In another life, the father becomes the son; the mother, the wife; the enemy, a friend. It always changes. In cyclic existence, nothing is certain.”

We should not struggle against enemies, but against ourselves. That is why the Prophet Mohamed called the struggle against one’s own shortcomings, movement toward the full embrace of moral living, greater jihad (holy war is lesser jihad). Often, our hatreds are a reflection of what we see in ourselves, and what we dislike about but are not willing to admit to ourselves. Think about the wars of the world: most of the worst are between groups that have the most in common. Since they are different groups, however, only one may remain.

Along with hatred and enemies, revenge is a misguided action. It springs from loss of control of oneself. Revenge tends to lead to a cycle of violence (unless it leads to genocide) that descends through collective imagination and memory to infect young nationalists and prompt them to pick up guns. It turns cool heads hot, whipping people into a frenzy that leads to irrational and self-destructive action. Chandrakirti said, “It is foolish and ignorant to retaliate to an enemy’s attack with spite in hopes of ending it, as the retaliation itself only brings more suffering.” Here is a familiar example.

Why did 9/11 happen? Do people know yet? Have they read the 9/11 Commission Report? Here is a brief summary of what made people so cross with the US. Bin Laden and his associates declared all Americans deserving of death due to the sins of their government. What could make someone so blind with anger he cannot see distinctions among 300m people? First was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, and support for despotic governments in the Muslim world; second, the suffering of Iraqis under US-imposed sanctions during the 1990s; third, US support for Israel and its brutality. All those results were the brainwaves of American foreign-policymakers. The Bin Laden Gang’s mindless advocating of violence was never very popular among Muslims but many of them could nonetheless agree that the US’s foreign policy had had disastrous effects on their societies.

In the Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely describes our desire for revenge as akin to mindless anger: not directed, but just a desire to do harm. Now the US has entered into wars with the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether or not Afghanistan was a reasonable target has become irrelevant. The American people were still so filled with revenge that, at any given time, between 56 and 78% of Americans polled felt it was right to invade a country they knew nothing about to kill people of the same religious category as the ones who killed a small number of their compatriots. Of 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, who was taking revenge? Both sides. Who won? Neither. Revenge has neither eliminated the threat nor provided any kind of catharsis to anyone.

I learned all I needed to know about revenge from the old cartoon He-Man. When some powerful sorcerers were making others fight each other against their will, He-Man came along and subdued them. The victims immediately called for blood: make the sorcerers fight now, to teach them a lesson. But He-Man, in his wisdom, told the erstwhile gladiators, if we force them to fight, we are no better than they. Let us instead forgive them and grant them the opportunity to redeem themselves. They felt good for having performed an act of forgiveness and kindness, and the others had the chance to rediscover the good side of themselves. Everyone’s suffering was over.

When we are under stress, we turn inward to the groups we say we belong to and turn against the unknown. Political opportunists and hate mongers do not want us to learn about other people, because we will learn about our similarities, become interested in their differences, and realise that we have been lied to by the propagandists we hear on the news.

Hate begets hate. Love begets love. Free your mind of desires to cause pain in others and soothe your own pain in the process.

So I open my door to my enemies
And I ask could we wipe the slate clean
But they tell me to please go fuck myself
You know you just can’t win.

-Pink Floyd, “Lost for Words”

Destroy the old world, forge a new world: Posters and the Cultural Revolution

In China today, one can find posters for sale in stores and on the street from the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. The Cultural Revolution was a time of turmoil, in which so many Chinese people still alive today participated, but seem to prefer to forget about. To them, sorry. I simply find the subject a fascinating example of so many phenomena: mass movements and groupthink, propaganda and personality cult, imaginary enemies and violence.

When the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party kicked off the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, it called on revolutionaries (so everyone that did not want to get humiliated or killed) to write big-word posters (大字报) with images and slogans that appeal to Marxist ideals. This is a brief look at the posters of the Cultural Revolution and how they, like so much propaganda for revolution or war, whipped up public fervour for violence.

Of the posters I have seen, there are a few noticeable themes. (The captions, where there are captions, are translations of each poster. Where there is no caption, the words are my own interpretation.) First is gathering support for the revolution. Second is children. Third is military and defence. Fourth is reverence for Chairman Mao. I have added a poster of Red Guard taking down “counter-revolutionaries” and photos that illuminate the reality behind the posters.


Some points of note:

Mao Zedong is always smiling. The people are smiling at Mao, unless they are busy destroying counter-revolutionaries.

The colour red is employed more than any other. Red is not only important in Chinese culture (symbolising joy and good fortune) and communist culture (the blood of the workers), the colour red draws people in and elicits emotion from them (see more in this video on Nazi propaganda). Mao wanted his last revolution to channel the energies of his cult, and red helped ensure he did.

The first poster is of destroying the relics of the old world. Under the revolutionary’s foot are, among other things, a crucifix and a Buddha statue. The photo next to it is of a public burning of Buddha statues.

Many of the posters show people with guns next to people with farming implements. Mao’s Little Red Book is usually there, either in the hands of everyone or in the hands of those at the head of a long line. The book itself seems to be leading the way.

The animosity displayed during the Cultural Revolution was not only directed at internal bourgeois enemies but also at external ones, such as the Soviet Union, whoever planned to invade China and whoever was occupying Taiwan. I saw the poster reading “destroy the Soviet Union” when I lived in Beijing; it actually read “destroy [or ‘smash’] the Soviet Union” on the left and “destroy imperialist America” on the right. This photo was taken at Beijing University.

The posters depict masses of people all aligned behind Mao, as if all the people of China were following his every word. Millions, of course, were.

For similar posters, see these other sites:
http://benross.net/wordpress/cultural-revolution-propaganda-part-3/2009/01/17/
http://www.iisg.nl/landsberger/
http://chinaposters.org/themes/themes
http://www.docspopuli.org/ChinaWebCat/gallery-01.html
or this site for more photos:
http://chinaspot.org/some-photos-about-cultural-revolution/

Greens, nukes, fears: untangling Iran

Iran is not a place easy to explain in a few sentences, or even in a few books. As those who observe (rather than avert their eyes from) Iran can tell you, it is a land of contrasts. It is simultaneously a democracy and a theocratic dictatorship. Its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is highly reactionary. Its president spouts silly racist slurs against Israel and Jews while ignoring the fact that Iran’s own Jewish population is a protected minority. Naturally, Iran poses us questions many feel must be answered soon. To reduce the dangers from the falsehoods typically circulated in our media, better understanding of Iran would be beneficial.

Twelve months ago, I cautioned against too much wishful thinking regarding Iran’s election and its Green Movement. People living outside Iran, many of whom do not know anything about the country, were quick to pounce on the claim that Iran’s election was fraudulent. Not long after, two scholars went through all widely-published accusations and discredited them. As the Green Movement protesters picked up steam, many well-meaning Americans and Europeans rooted for whom the media told them were the good guys. The news from Iran was so difficult to ascertain that the hopeful relied on rumours as much as reporting. Twitter was the frequently-quoted medium that was apparently being used by the Green Movement to coordinate their actions. However, as Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told the Washington Post, “Twitter’s impact inside Iran is zero…. Here, there is lots of buzz, but once you look… you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.” Outsiders believed, for example, that Oxfordgirl, a Twitter profile, was, in her own words, “almost coordinating people’s individual movements” by cell phone on days of protests. She presumably hoped no one would mention that the Iranian government shut down cell phone networks on days of protests. It also made little sense for all the supposed protesters to tweet in English when they were in Iran. Oxfordgirl gained great publicity for herself, but did little to aid protesters.

The Green Movement was disappointing to those praying that Iran would collapse in on itself or undergo a democratic revolution. However, a revolution is not what all of its members were fighting for. The Greens have been better described as a civil rights movement than a revolutionary one. Siavash Saffari, a scholar at the University of Alberta, points to the various forms that protest in Iran has taken since last year’s election: a recent general strike in Iran’s Kurdish area, demands from labour organisations for rights and vigorous debate among Iranians about Iran’s direction. Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian studies at Colombia University, deplores the support the well-meaning crowd gave the Greens as typical, ignorant, self-indulgent Orientalism that is more likely to hurt relations with Iran than give the movement the support it needs. Twisted perceptions built up the Green Movement into something it was not and disillusion with it was inevitable. Only sober thinking will help us understand enough about Iran to make wise decisions regarding its nuclear programme.

Frankly, I am opposed to my having any power over another state’s goals, but the belief among Americans that the world’s business is America’s business is not about to go away. But perhaps the demonisation of Iran, its branding as a fanatical Muslim state desperate to get nuclear weapons so it can wipe Israel off the map could be dispelled with a little clarity. Iran is not Nazi Germany. It is not about to invade its neighbours or attempt to obliterate Israel. In fact, it probably could not if it wanted. In spite of its president’s posturing, Iran’s military budget is smaller per capita than any other state in the Gulf beside the UAE (an ally of the US). To whom does it pose a threat?

To Israel? To the Israeli Defense Forces, one of the best trained militaries in the world, with its nuclear arsenal and its ability to crush any military in the Middle East? I have discussed the infinitesimal likelihood Iran will attack Israel elsewhere. In my opinion, Israel is far more likely to use nuclear weapons on Iran than vice versa. Israel has been involved in numerous wars, large and small, since its founding in 1948. Iran has spent most of the last hundred and fifty years fighting colonialist oppression, and has not once in that time invaded a neighbour. Given their records, who is more likely to fire on whom?

Iran’s government is often accused of funding and supplying arms to Hamas. This support is then employed as an excuse not to talk to Iran, or Hamas as the case may be. However, former senior British diplomat Sir Jeremy Greenstock said in an interview with the BBC that Hamas is not politically tied to Iran. On a logical level, if Iran is supplying Hamas with arms, it is a sign of Iran’s weakness, not its strength. Hamas has no tanks, no aircraft, no ships, no artillery, no missiles besides Qassam rockets, which are so weak that of the nearly 10,000 fired at Israel in the past decade, just over 20 have actually killed anyone. It is well known that Iran supports Hezbollah (though that support recently came in the form of reconstruction aid, as Iran helped rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war), but like Hamas, Hezbollah poses little threat to Israel’s existence. Meanwhile, the Badr Corps, a key US ally in Iraq, was once part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The US government has designated the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organisation (even though it has never engaged in terrorism) and the Badr Corps a pillar of Iraq’s democracy.

In 2003, the US led an invasion of Iraq based partly on the testimony of a few exiled Iraqis and orientalist scholars who assured Americans they would be treated as liberators. Their Iranian counterparts and many of the same “experts” are providing Americans with the same lies in an attempt to lead the US into yet another foolish foreign adventure. Christopher Hitchens, for instance, who backed the invasion of Iraq, warns with his dispensable eloquence that Iran’s leaders might follow through on Ayatollah Kharrazi’s threat to establish a Greater Iran in Bahrain and the UAE. Such people have some difficulty in understanding people in other parts of the world because they are not able to put themselves in the shoes of those from other cultures. They believe that all the world’s people want democracy, which to them means political parties and a constitution. But Juan Cole, who has lived in and studied the Muslim world for many years, says that among Muslims he has met, democracy means freedom from foreign oppression. As ironic as it may seem, this revelation means that dictatorship would be viewed more favourably by Muslims than American-backed political competition. Iran, having suffered all manner of foreign intervention, is no exception.

Iran is probably developing a nuclear weapon, and its leaders will probably continue to promise violence. But a look at the evidence says there is little reason to worry that Iran’s leaders’ threats are worth heeding. What are we so afraid of? Listening to an adversary? Fortunately, the truth is available to all of us, waiting to be found, ready to disprove any of the fears that could warrant war with Iran.

Funerals, the Turkish public and war with the PKK

Anti-PKK demonstration in Turkey

For the past two decades, the Turkish military has been at war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group once fighting for independence from Turkey for the nation’s Kurds (but now probably just fighting for amnesty). The conflict has become a drawn out war of attrition, and some 40,000 have been killed. Some of the 40,000 have been Turkish soldiers. We see in Turkish public reaction to the killing of Turkish soldiers a hardening and increased polarisation of attitudes, a push for an escalation of the fighting against the terrorists. This reaction can be found at the soldiers’ funerals.

Like most modern nationalists, Turkish nationalists consider Turkey’s territorial integrity inviolable. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey (Atatürk means father of the Turks), laid out the principles of the new Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and one of them was complete independence and sovereignty over the land Turkey covers. Moreover, while Turkey comprises some 73 ethnic groups, they are all considered Turks. Ethnic Kurds, whose ethnic consciousness stretches back before the 20th century, and who make up about 20% of Turkey’s population, had their dreams of independence turned down. Atatürk’s successor, Ismet Inonu, stated “Only the Turkish nation is entitled to claim ethnic and national rights in this country. No other element has any such right.” Any movement perceived as inimical to the homogenisation of Turkey’s people and the unity of its borders needed to be crushed. The Turkish military would ensure, and die for, this principle. When soldiers die defending nationalist principles, nationalists grieve.

Though different cultures face death differently, such grieving mechanisms as crying, fear and anger are universal. People most commonly go through feelings of shock, disbelief and numbness, then guilt, attempting to comprehend the death, and in the end, recovery. Funerals take place near the beginning of this process, when people are still shocked, afraid, angry and ready to point fingers. Far from being a catharsis, funerals may fuel anger at the perpetrator. For years now, funerals for Turkish soldiers have become rallying grounds for expressions of anti-PKK sentiment.

In September 2006, dozens of Turkish soldiers died in skirmishes with the PKK in the latter’s one time stronghold, the southeast of Turkey. At the funeral of one soldier, thousands of people protested. The protest was as much pressure on the Turkish authorities to act as it was protest against the PKK. The government had recently introduced legal reforms proposed to let the air out of some Kurdish grievances, but they may have been too little, too late. The reforms may also have been merely cosmetic, designed to appease the European Union but do nothing to stop terrorism. An election was ten months away, and no party expecting to win could afford to look soft on terror.

October 2007 saw more fighting and killing between Turkish soldiers and Kurdish militants. Headlines in Turkey declared that the PKK wanted to split Turkey, they wanted war, they wanted to damage Turkey as much as possible. During one soldier’s funeral in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, 10,000 people are said to have paralysed traffic to protest and, in effect, demand military action against, the PKK. “We are all soldiers, we will smash the PKK“, they chanted in front of a mosque. Government and military officials attended the funerals, which were held 11 provinces in Turkey and broadcast live on several television stations. About a fifth of the population of a town southeast of Ankara demonstrated, shouting “the martyrs are immortal, the motherland is indivisible,” and “hang Apo”, the PKK’s jailed founder and leader. Each protest reflected and spurred a rising anti-PKK (and inevitably among some, anti-Kurd) nationalism in Turkey.

As a result of this pressure, along with political battles also taking place at the time, Turkey’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant the military greater freedom in the war on the PKK and approve of incursion into northern Iraq, where the PKK were hiding out. On February 21, 2008, between 3000 and 10,000 Turkish soldiers deployed in the region in Turkey’s biggest offensive in a decade. (See more on the incursion here.) But the violence did not abate, and five months after the conclusion of hostilities, the PKK struck again, this time on a street in Istanbul. Such incessant terrorism leads quite easily to the feeling among Turks that the terrorists are insatiable and will stoop to any level.

I should note that anti-Kurdish racism is not exploding. A survey of Turks and Kurds in 2009 found most willing to have the other marry into their families. Moreover, terrorism was not the most important issue to those surveyed–it was third, after the economy and unemployment. Nonetheless, the pressure on the government to act to end the war has not ended.

Attacks have occurred more recently (see here and here, for example). One online Turkish news outlet describes the soldiers killed and their funerals. At one, thousands of people, including senior military officers, attended. The crowd chanted “the homeland is indivisible” and “Kurds and Turks are brothers, separatists are hypocrites”. Eight Army Corps Commander Mustafa Korkut Özarslan spoke at the funeral, vowing that the Turkish army would never allow the PKK to achieve its goals. The people of Turkey are not about to let this conflict end inconclusive.