Revenge does not work: Israeli policy and the failure of deterrence

Revenge is a natural impulse with a rational purpose: to deter future violent actions by one’s opponents. But due to the complicated twists and turns of our thinking, revenge only brings pain. One clear lesson from the history of Israel is that revenge, however overwhelming, however clear the message it sends, does not work.

Through many incidents of tit for tat violence before Israel’s declaration of statehood, conflict between Jews and Arabs raged in British Mandate Palestine. The Jews gained the upper hand, and by the end of 1948, some 700,000 Arabs had been kicked out of their homeland. This event was known as the Nakba, or catastrophe. Though comparisons to the extermination of 6m Jews may seem unfair, this event was the Palestinian Holocaust. It served as the unifying event that created the Palestinians as a people, at the same time millions of Jews became Israelis.

For a few years after 1948, Israel felt the need to define and secure its unsteady borders. The newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were always on the lookout for the next invasion, but instead of coming in the form of a unified Arab assault, it tended to be Palestinians crossing the armistice lines. Though most of them simply wanted to visit relatives (150,000 Arabs had remained in Israel) or return to their homes, some attempted to exact revenge for the Nakba. They rarely did much damage, but because Israeli security forces adopted a policy of shoot first and ask questions later, somewhere between 2700 and 5000 people were killed crossing the border, most of them unarmed.

In addition to territorial integrity, massive retaliation was Israeli policy. In 1953, some people infiltrated Israel and murdered an Israeli mother and her two children near the Jordanian town of Qibya. The IDF responded with a devastating raid on Qibya, led by Ariel Sharon, blowing up 45 houses and killing 69 civilians. Guerrilla attacks escalated and in 1954, the IDF attacked Egyptian military outposts in the Gaza Strip (then under Egyptian rule but inhabited by 300,000 Palestinian refugees) and killed 37 Egyptian soldiers. The message was clear: control the Palestinians or you will be sorry. It did not work out as Israelis hoped.

At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by Arab marauders in 1956, Moshe Dayan cogently summed up Arab feeling toward Israel.

Let us not today fling accusations at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.

He went on to say

We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and the gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house…. Let us not be afraid to see the hatred that accompanies and consumes the lives of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who sit all around us and await the moment when their hand will be able to reach for our blood… The only choice we have is to be prepared and armed, strong and resolute, or else our sword will slip from our hand and the thread of our lives will be severed.

Dayan recognised the injustice of the advent of Israel and believed, I think rightly, that it had come to mean there could be no accommodation with the Arabs. Strong reprisals, he believed, meant that Arabs would see Israel’s strength and be less inclined to fight back. Far from preventing further violence, however, reprisals increased resistance to Israel, the Palestinians organised and eventually, the Six Day War began.

The causes of the Six Day War are numerous and complicated, but the initiation of the war was Israel’s attack on Egypt on June 5, 1967. Egypt had sent a large number of Egyptian troops into the Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. A major reason for Israel’s preventive attack on Egypt, according to Aharon Yariv, Israel’s chief of intelligence at the time, was to restore Israel’s deterrent capacity. If Israel had looked weak in the face of pressure from Arabs, it might have faced greater threats. Israel won the Six Day War, but the threats kept coming all the same.

In the 1970s, Palestinian terrorism went international. Of many attacks that brought international attention to the Palestinian cause, the most infamous was probably the Munich massacre. A group calling itself Black September entered the Israeli athletes’ compound at the 1972 Munich Olympics and took the team hostage. Black September called their operation “Ikrit and Biram”, after two Palestinian villages whose residents were killed or expelled in 1948. Clearly, it was itself an act of revenge. In the messy rescue attempts that ensued, Black September murdered 11 athletes and coaches. In response, Israel launched Operation Wrath of God, the assassination of those suspected of organising the murders at Munich (dramatised in the film Munich). Wrath of God was followed by plane hijackings and raids on Israeli territory, and the cycle of violence rolled on for decades.

When Gaza and the West Bank were sealed off to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel, the weapon of choice for Gazan militants became the Qassam rocket. Thousands of rockets and mortars fell on southern Israel, and 22 Israelis were killed. In order to punish all of Gazas 1.5m residents for their tacit or active support of these attacks, on December 2008, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead. Cast Lead killed 1400 people, including 300 children, and wreaked untold devastation on the perpetual humanitarian crisis known as the Gaza Strip. The massacre on Gaza did not, in fact, end the rocket attacks (though it reduced them), and reciprocal violence has characterised life in southern Israel and Gaza since then.

Recently, the violence has escalated. On March 23, 2011, a bomb attack at a bus station in Jerusalem killed a British national and wounded 39 other people and setting off the latest pointless cycle of vengeance. The Israeli Air Force responded to the bombing with strikes on Gaza that killed eight people, including children, even though they did not reveal (presumably because they did not know) who committed the bombing. Last Thursday, members of Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus in a kibbutz in southern Israel, critically wounding a teenage boy. Israel again bombed the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, Israeli officials said that 120 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since the school bus attack, some 50 last Saturday alone. On the same day, while visiting the wounded teen in the hospital, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch said there “is no immunity for anyone in Gaza.”

According to the International Crisis Group, the regional turmoil has raised Israeli anxiety that embattled Arab governments will seek to divert attention from domestic matters and provoke some kind of conflict between Israel and the terrorist groups that oppose it. It also says that Hamas has been emboldened by these developments “and is therefore less likely to back down from a challenge.” It may also need to prove itself in the face of challenges from more radical, rival Palestinian groups, who in turn may be the ones to bring on the next massacre of Palestinians. The blindness that righteous indignation induces is the root cause of all of these attacks.

The IDF has been warning since last year that something bigger than Cast Lead could result if the attacks on southern Israel do not stop. Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF chief of staff, said on the second anniversary of the beginning of Operation Cast Lead last December that Israel “will not accept” more rockets from Gaza, and warned that “the IDF is preparing for any scenario”. This week in Ashkelon, a town near Gaza that has been the target of many of the rockets, locals called on the IDF to do something. Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported that “many residents still believe an extensive ground operation against Hamas is the only way to bring peace to the south.” They are, of course, wrong, as the inevitable carnage would simply provoke further attempts to even the score.

Egypt has called a conference in Cairo that has a chance of reducing tensions. Serious efforts by outside parties can temporarily defuse the situation but without substantial changes in attitudes, revenge will remain the bloody reality in Israel and Gaza.

The history of Israel is a history of revenge. Israel has consistently retaliated with massive violence in the face of guerrilla attacks, terrorism and other threats. The idea seemed sound: show them we mean business and they will not mess with us again. But they do. And retaliation has not, and never will, bring either Israelis or Palestinians the peace they claim to believe in.

If you are angry, you see your attack as nothing but attempting to right a wrong. One’s own actions are never aggression: we are the victims, they are the terrorists. But the real wrong is any attack that is not based purely on self-defence. If there is no immediate threat, we are better off mastering our emotions so that the cycle of violence stops. As hard as it is, controlling one’s anger and turning the other cheek are the only way to prevent further bloodshed and misery.

Are we inherently warlike?

The biological roots of war seem to run deep. Biology can answer some of our questions about the reasons we go to war and commit acts of violence against one another. This post reviews two books that consider the effects of our biology on our apparent propensity to war. It is possible, however, that the premise that we are prone to war is mistaken, and we will consider evidence for that as well.

In Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World, Malcolm Potts and Thomas Hayden attempt to explain the roots of modern warfare by looking at human biology. First, killing seems to have an adaptive function, meaning, in the end, that men who kill end up having more children, and thus passing on their genes. The most competitive and aggressive males tend to make the largest contribution to the human gene pool, thus reinforcing our tendencies to violence. For instance, some 8% of Central Asians can trace their genes to Genghis Khan. Because evolution favours only those who reproduce, for men “at the bottom of the social pile” it is rational to risk everything, including violent death, when the alternative is not to pass on their genes.

95% of human history has been spent living and fighting in small clans. Now we live in a modern age that does not require the same aggressive behaviour, and we benefit far more from cooperation than violent competition, but nature is slow to evolve. Culture, however, evolves quickly, and its influences on our behaviour can help us “rein in our Stone Age behaviours”, such as murder and rape. Rape is common during wartime, and logically a man’s reproductive success will increase if he kills other men and rapes women. “This does not mean that men have evolved to rape,” say Potts and Hayden, “but it does suggest that many if not all men have at least the biological potential to experience the aggression, loose emotional control and dissociation from empathy that presumably underlie the act.”

Testosterone is one factor that might account for aggression, particularly differences in aggression between men and women. Testosterone is twenty times higher in men than in women. It accounts for men’s greater muscle strength, drive for status and aggression, as well as weaker control over their impulses. Unmarried men aged 20 to 24 are three times as likely to murder someone as married men of the same age. Studies also find high levels of testosterone in men convicted for violent offenses. Testosterone increases among male soccer players before and during a game. They fall among losers, but the winners experience elevated levels sometimes for days after the match. Even the fans experience rising testosterone, as we identify so strongly with our side, even when we are not fighting. High testosterone correlates strongly with assertiveness, competitiveness and the desire to manipulate others.

Chimpanzees–but bonobos too

Potts and Hayden draw much of their writing from observations of chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees from about five to seven million years ago, and according to biologists, 99.6% of our DNA. Some chimp behaviour is a mirror to our own, particularly the hunting and killing–sometimes with appalling brutality–of members of the same species. Chimpanzees jockey for influence and status, impose hierarchy and reward loyalty. They also work to establish peace after fighting. In what Potts and Hayden call “the chimpanzee equivalent of international relations” we can see a reflection of human war. Each chimpanzee troop recognises its territory and borders, which it patrols. All adult male chimps display a keenness to participate in team raids on others’ territory that could end in bloody, torturous death. They fight over territory and access to resources. As a troop’s territory grows, so too does its access to food and mates, and as such expanding territory through team aggression is a way to have more offspring that survive. Surprise attacks and the use of overwhelming force are features of chimpanzee “wars”. Such brutality in chimps, as in humans, depends on the ability to turn off empathy for the enemy. Chimps display generosity to others in their ingroup, which comprises their blood relations, and hostility to their outgroup. Humans are much the same, except that our associations need not be familial. Nationalism, or its counterparts in race, religion and other associations, creates a sense of family that we are willing to kill for.

Chimpanzees even “de-chimpanzee-ise” in the same way we dehumanise. “Indeed, it might well be impossible for an intelligent, highly social animal to kill its own kind systematically unless it evolved some sort of neural machinery to de-identify those it is about to kill.” Combine the dangers of dehumanisation with our desire to go along with our group and deference to authority, and humans can become mindless killing machines.

Douglas P. Fry, however, questions the usefulness of comparing humans with chimps. ”At best, chimpanzees provide only tangential insights about human behaviour in the evolutionary past.” The idea that chimpanzee raiding has the same root as human warfare may be to obscure the differences between the two species (they have evolved separately for millions of years, after all) and ignore humans’ similarities to bonobos, to which they are roughly equally related. “Linking humans to chimpanzees instead of to bonobos is an arbitrary decision that is begging for a convincing rationale.” Bonobos do not engage in raiding. Fry quotes Frans de Waal, who in Our Inner Ape says “I sometimes try to imagine what would have happened if we’d known the bonobo first and chimpanzee only later or not at all. The discussion about human evolution might not revolve as much around violence, warfare and male dominance, but rather around sexuality, empathy, caring, and cooperation.”

Creating the ingroup

Much of Potts and Hayden’s comparisons of humans with chimpanzees considers raids. Both humans and chimps engage in violent raids on enemy territory. War may be just an extension, an “evolution”, of team raids. Though wars can involve millions of people, fighting units (to whom loyalty is apportioned most strongly) are often small groups, like raiding parties. Fighters are the same age and condition, bonded by a sense of kinship. Raids are dangerous and depend on being able to trust every member of the team, so it is not surprising that the sense of honour is strongest among young men at the prime of their physical strength. Virtues such as loyalty, courage and camaraderie, essential to a psychological understanding of war, evolved as ways for us to protect those in our family. As Richard Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, because our bodies are just vehicles for our genes, we will go to great lengths, including self-sacrifice, to protect our genes. Our genes are carried by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and so on. Therefore, we will sacrifice to save them. We can have the same feelings toward anyone we consider equivalent to kin: our friends, nation or team.

This transfer of feelings of kinship to non-blood-related associates manifests itself most evidently in the “band of brothers”. Relations in small military units are characterised by mutual support and respect, deep loyalty and shunning of anyone not seen as contributing. Men might go to war for idealistic patriotism, financial need, conscription and so on; but when the guns start firing, it is about your team.

In fact, any shared experience can create an ingroup. German and British soldiers notably left their trenches during Christmas of 1914, exchanged food and played football. They saw themselves, however briefly, as sharing the experience of being in the trenches, rather than as polar opposites bound to kill each other. (And why not, given that most of them would have had more in common with each other than with their generals.) Military trainers understand this, and as such, training usually disorients, exhausts and demeans recruits while breaking their links with the outside world. “[T]he main point is to awaken and intensify the instinctive predispositions of team aggression, producing warriors imbued with intense loyalty to those who have gone through the same training.” (Watch Full Metal Jacket for an illustration of this phenomenon.)

The important thing, of course, is to get ’em while they’re young. When boys hit puberty, the “innocence” of childhood turns into the sexual drive, competitiveness and risk-taking behaviours of early adulthood. “Their experience is limited, the drives are strong, and the rewards can seem great and death remote.” Growing up and living in the right conditions, young men could become master chess players or manipulated as a lethal force. Turning ex-child soldiers into normal boys again is an uphill battle waged against memories of the thrill and camaraderie of blowing things up with friends and wielding absolute power of life and death over terrified masses.The Nazis involved boys in military training from an early age. By 1936, 90% of German boys were in the Hitler Youth, and a few years later, 900,000 of them took part in a Nuremberg rally. It was a camping holiday filled with games and singing. What boy would not have enjoyed it? The Nazis actively encouraged the natural tendency for boys to rebel against their parents. Obedience to the group (and the Führer, of course) was essential, and cowards were ostracised. They fought furiously as part of the Wehrmacht as Hitler became more desperate and recruited younger soldiers, believing in “final victory”, while more mature minds knew it was naive. (Mao’s charisma and ideals–not to mention propaganda–recruited millions into the Red Guard in China during the Cultural Revolution.) These leaders understood human nature and how to manipulate it.

Potts and Hayden are disappointingly brief and non-committal on the biological roots of terrorism. Terrorism is more like tribal raiding than conventional war. They describe it as “a particular kind of team aggression–built very much upon ingroup identity, the desire for revenge, and a lack of empathy for the outgroup–[that] has taken on a profile out of all proportion to the number of warriors involved.” They touch on suicide bombing, as it is hard to see at first how suicide attacks could represent a successful evolutionary strategy. The sexual allure of the suicide bomber might suggest that embracing death can create new reproductive opportunities. It could also be altruistic behaviour that aids the survival of the killer’s genes. It may only be a stretch of the imagination (but not of the genes) to extend that idea to the entire national group.

The Yanomamo–our modern ancestors?

”It has become almost obligatory to mention the South American Yanomamo in any evolutionary discussion of warfare,” says Douglas P. Fry. The Yanomamo are an ethnic group in the Amazon who have fascinated anthropologists with their apparently violent ways. “Violence is ubiquitous in Yanomamo society,” claim Potts and Hayden. Yanomamo men are said to beat their wives as a warning to stay away from other men and capture women as wives in raiding parties. Men hold chest-pounding duels, wherein one men runs up to the other and punches him in the chest as hard as possible. (This form of non-lethal fighting is probably an antidote or alternative to more pernicious violence. After all, some men engage in hand-to-hand combat with their friends for fun.) Like their discussion of terrorism, the authors’ look at the Yanomamo is somewhat superficial, not explained clearly in evolutionary terms and better examined elsewhere.

In Beyond War, Fry takes up the claims against the Yanomamo. Commentators tend to assume the Yanomamo accurately represent our putatively-warlike ancestors, even though they are sedentary horticulturalists and our ancestors were hunter-gatherers; and despite the fact that bands (like our ancestors) do not form coalitions as readily as tribes (which are bigger, like the Yanomamo). Arguments from Yanomamo violence also tend to ignore differences in social organisation, and Yanomamo social organisation did not exist in ancient times. In his discussion of them, Fry points out that much of what is “known” about the Yanomamo comes from a study by Napoleon Chagnon, which has been much contested since. Chagnon found that unokais, Yanomamo men who have participated in killing and undergone a purification ritual, tended to have more than two and a half times the number of wives and three times the number of children as non-unokais of the same age. Fry takes issue with this study, pointing out that the two sample groups were not of the same age, and that the unokais as a group are at least 10 years older than the non-unokais. Neither did Chagnon’s study take into account that tribal leaders tend to have more wives and children than other men. There may be no difference between the reproductive success of those who have killed and those who have not.

Is war in our nature?

Fry, in fact, is not convinced that we evolved a propensity to war at all. The widespread (not universal) occurrence of warfare does not mean engaging in warfare is adaptive or provides reproductive benefits. Moreover, it seems to have occurred only very recently in human history, and was not present hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The fact that men are bigger, stronger and more aggressive than women is also no indication that they are adapted to war. These differences hold true over innumerable animal species that lack anything resembling war. Since male aggressivity is flexible, and can manifest itself in sports, business, and so on, it is the environmental conditions under which violence and war occur that need to be taken into account when considering human nature and violence.

Contrary to what Konrad Lorenz said in his influential tome On Aggression, human aggression is not inevitable, and contrary to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, humans are not warlike by nature. Saying that we are means there is no point trying to reduce or eliminate war. Why attempt the impossible? But these are simply cultural beliefs that we are socialised to hold.

Fry takes a macroscopic anthropological view of human aggression, suggesting war can be replaced by “more effective, less brutal ways of seeking security, defending rights and providing justice for the people of this planet.” All humans seek justice, though their methods vary. Some favour violence and some don’t. Much of the violence humans inflict on each other, which may have been called “senseless” or “evil”, is a consequence of the desire to right wrongs.

War is part of our culture

The media distort our perceptions of the amount of violence in society because so much of what we watch features violence. And yet, most adults spend almost every day without purposefully inflicting injury on others, being the victim of aggression or even witnessing someone else’s victimisation. Not only is this true of us in our culture, but the same holds even for the most statistically violent cultures in the world. The cross-cultural data show that “violence [is] the shocking exception” among the countless peaceful solutions we find to our conflicts such as negotiating, agreeing to provide compensation for damages, reaching compromises, forgiving and reconciling with friends and strangers alike. “Humans have a solid capacity for getting along with each other peacefully, preventing physical aggression, limiting the scope and spread of violence, and restoring peace following aggression.” These findings should not only change our understanding of war but our ideas about the necessity of standing armies, the purpose of military intervention and the possibility for non-violent conflict resolution.

We project backwards. Because we are accustomed to seeing war in our world, we assume that war is eternal. In 1925, Professor Raymond Dart discovered fossil skulls from two to three million years ago he named Australopithecus africanus. He interpreted fractured skulls and shattered bones as proof that our ancestors killed and ate each other. But his extrapolations were disputed. Some of the shattering of the bones was undoubtedly due to the rock and dirt that pile on top of bones during fossilisation. Large predators plausibly account for the holes in the skulls. Dart believed, like most of his contemporaries, that man was inherently warlike and vicious. After all, World War One had ended only a few years earlier. A violent world was the world with which Dart was most familiar. But it is not necessarily the world of the australopithecines. Dart himself, in fact, accepted the alternative explanations when he realised they were more likely. We view our world as simply a technologically advanced version of the ancient world, but there is no reason why we should limit our imaginations this way. (Potts and Hayden mention Dart but do not discuss the controversy of his initial beliefs.)

Some anthropologists who claim that war is universal tend to include homicide in the definition of war. But homicide and war have different causes. Meanwhile, as Fry quotes Johan van der Dennen, “[p]eaceable preindustrial people constitute a nuisance to most theories of warfare, and they are thus either explained away, denied or negated.”

Do all cultures have war?

Studies show that nonwarring societies do exist. The very fact that they exist seems to disprove, or at least call into question, the idea that man is naturally warlike. All human societies have believers in the supernatural, music and property, as well as rape, revenge and murder. Not all societies have warfare. In fact, at least 70 cultural groups do not engage in war at all. Apart from many smaller groups such as the Semai of Malaysia or the Amish, one could cite Sweden and Switzerland, having gone many years without war, Iceland, 800 years without war, and Costa Rica, which disbanded its military after World War Two.

One of many examples of cultural groups who have not developed war is Australian Aborigines. Aborigines, under very different conditions from our own, developed relatively peaceful cultures. Bands that could have fought traded instead. They tended to respect each other’s territory. Band membership was open and fluid, and people had relatives and contacts in other groups (which is one reason I doubt the US and China will go to war). They also had advanced dispute-resolution mechanisms, such as duels, contests, meetings and reconciliation ceremonies.

Potts and Hayden consider archaeological and anthropological evidence but in less detail. They discuss several individual cases of group violence, arguing that the evidence that man has a penchant for blood is “abundant”. Fry’s approach seems to take a wider look but both points of view may be valid.

Can we move beyond war?

Not only is war unnecessary and lethal, it is possible to change our behaviour. Humans are so flexible that they can do various jobs in all kinds of societies and cultures. Says Fry, “the transition from the millenia-old lifeways of the nomadic forager band to the conditions of the urban, industrial nation is truly staggering. Yet we high-tech folks of the twenty-first century rarely pause to consider the immense plasticity in the nature of our species that allows a hunter-gatherer primate to live in this Internet world of strangers, stock exchanges and cruise missiles.” As long as we know it is possible to end war and make peace, we are capable of it.

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"

Muslim attitudes toward extremist groups

The Menso Guide to War may appear as a vehicle for teaching the world about its author’s perspective. However, as much as anything, it is about his own learning. It is a chance to study an issue sufficiently to write about it, and to put information out for others to evaluate (and argue with) for themselves. I assume nothing about the veracity of factual statements I say beyond well-established facts and my personal experience, not because I lack any conviction, but because I know I could always be proven wrong. Others have their own perspectives, and on most issues, I am more interested in hearing what others say than I am in hearing the truth. The truth is usually very difficult to ascertain when studying such issues as history, politics and conflict, given that some aspects of the truth vary by individual account. Those accounts may be biased by fault of memory, affiliation or ignorance. For example, we can know who won the Battle of Agincourt (the English) because the chroniclers agree on that fact; however, they give different accounts of the details. Indeed, so they should. If all records of Agincourt were the same, we would have more reason to be suspicious than if they differed, as they do, as it would imply some conspiracy or hoax. Moreover, if a new record of the battle came to light, after authenticating it, historians would need to incorporate it into their body of knowledge and assume that, all other things being equal, it is as valid as the others. Certainty, on the other hand, closes the mind to new accounts and potentially-valid perspectives.

That is why I want to know how others perceive the issues discussed on this blog. Polls are a reasonably reliable source of such insight. It is important not to extrapolate beyond the face of the question or assume that all of those polled who said “approve” have identical feelings. Nonetheless, within the limit of the question one can learn much about how millions of people think. The Pew Research Center released a poll of Muslim attitudes in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey toward “extremist” groups Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda. Some interesting results:

-Hezbollah was most popular in Jordan, with 55% of those surveyed expressing favourable views of the group. Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, is deeply divided over it: 94% of Lebanese Shiis support Hezbollah; 84% of Sunnis do not. This result may reflect Hezbollah’s polarising effect on Lebanon; it undoubtedly reflects Lebanon’s older sectarian divisions.

-Hamas, too, received highest approval in Jordan–60%–with Lebanon, Egypt and Nigeria offering a half-hearted 49% approval each. Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are home to many Palestinians, and to anti-Israeli sentiment, having decades-long histories of conflict with Israel, and these figures might indicate lingering bitterness toward Israel rather than a love of Hamas’ actions and ideology. If that is true, however, a different explanation is needed for why Egyptians polled clearly preferred Hamas to Hezbollah (30%); my guess is, Hamas in Gaza is closer and more familiar (since it came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), and thus more sympathetic, than Hezbollah.

-Opinions on al Qaeda are less divided: with the exception of Nigeria (49%), support for al Qaeda is weak, ranging from 34% in Jordan to 3 and 4% in Lebanon and Turkey respectively.

-Turks, on the whole, had little sympathy for any of these groups, and have more mixed feelings than others about the role of Islam in politics.

-Finally, large majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed said suicide bombings against civilian targets are never justified. These figures were higher at beginning of the War on Terror, and have since experienced double-digit drops.

These results matter. If vast majorities of Muslims viewed violent extremist groups favourably, the latter would have freer rein to cause problems. More people would shelter, feed and fund them. If almost no one liked them, they would be more easily dealt with, much in the same way as American authorities deal with weapon-stockpiling cults. The effects of ambivalent attitudes such as are expressed in this survey are harder to pin down. The future of this approval will depend on how governments of the US, Israel, and others to a lesser extent, are seen to treat Muslims around the world. A simple rule seems to be that bombs beget bombs, and peace begets peace.

Whether one considers these survey results discouraging or promising, according the Who Speaks for Islam? project conducted by Gallup and compiled by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Muslims show themselves as not significantly different from others in the world. They are as likely as others to aspire to peace, to condone terrorism, and to want democracy. They certainly do not “hate us for our freedom”.

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the book Counterterrorism. In his book, Dr Ron Crelinsten describes one challenge would-be terrorists face. A reasonable question to ask is, why have there been no successful terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11? Well, he explains, terrorists need money, food, shelter, training, weapons, explosives, safe houses, communications and travel documents to carry out their missions. The reason there have been no attacks on, say, malls all over the US is that the terrorist needs to be a resident in the community, to know the ins and outs of the mall, and plan everything accordingly. They cannot simply plan the attack from New York, fly to a mall in Kansas City, and blow it up. Furthermore, despite some well-publicised discrimination, American Muslims are generally well integrated into their communities. They do not suffer the de facto segregation of many of their counterparts in Europe that could be the foundation of the desire to do harm.

Another answer to this question comes from Loretta Napoleoni. Since 9/11, we are seeing a concentration of terrorism in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, when there were no terrorists before. The supposedly globalist terrorist organisation of today, however, is like a virtual organisation. They often recruit through the internet, and they do not engage in selection or training, like the Western European leftist terrorist groups of the Cold War did. They can be recruited partly because they are not very smart, and thus “the reason why they are not doing so much [in the US] is that they’re not very good at it.” Anyone who thinks he might bring down the US or the UK by blowing himself up in a subway is stupid. The leaders are clever, but the fanatics on the bottom are not.

Bruce Schneier has a third perspective: three reasons that probably run counter to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s not easy. “Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard. It’s hard to sneak terrorists into the U.S. It’s hard to grow your own inside the U.S. It’s hard to operate; the general population, even the Muslim population, is against you.”

Second, there are simply not that many terrorists in the US. Contrary to post-September 11th FBI scaremongering, there are no terrorist cells in the US. Al Qaeda is not Cobra or the Decepticons or the Joker and his gang. It is more like an affiliation whose members know each other only by a secret handshake or hidden tattoo. After all, most of the terrorist acts, successful and foiled, in the US since 9/11 have been by lone wolves and nutcases.

Third, because terrorism is communication, small attacks may not serve terrorists’ needs. Terrorists want to scare millions by killing a few. An imperfect attack might not scare enough people, which in turn may be counterproductive because their ineptitude is laid bare before their audience.

Finally, as an aside, Mr Schneier reminds us that most of the terrorist bombings we hear about are in places where terrorists believe they are fighting occupation: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Russia, China, Iraq and Israel. But no one is occupying the US.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.