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The Extremism that Thwarts Peace and Promotes War

By Keith Kloor
Aug 15, 2014 10:19 PMNov 19, 2019 8:10 PM


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In 2012, science writer John Horgan published a book called The End of War. Its premise is that we have it in ourselves to tame our violent impulses, at least enough to stop waging large-scale, collective war. At first blush, this notion seems as quixotic and naive as a famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono song. But Horgan wants us to seriously give peace a chance. From the book's preview:

War is not preordained, and furthermore, it should be thought of as a solvable, scientific problem—like curing cancer. But war and cancer differ in at least one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature, war is our creation. It’s our choice whether to unmake it or not.

Before going any further, I should acknowledge that I have not yet read Horgan's book, which has just been reissued in paperback. At his Scientific American blog, Horgan discusses the new edition and assures us that he understands the gargantuan leap he thinks humankind is capable of making:

Our biggest challenge is making the transition from our world, which is still armed and dangerous, to a world in which war and even the threat of war have vanished. I am not an absolute pacifist. If someone attacks me or a loved one—or even a stranger–I would do my best to stop him. Sometimes violence is morally justified, even necessary, to thwart greater violence. So the question is, how should we react to lethal group violence when it erupts in the world today?

But is that the right question? I would think that the greater challenge is eliminating the main reasons why one group of people sets out to kill another group. All through history wars have been fought over land, religion, flag, and ethnicity, to cite just a few of the major triggers. A commenter on a related post of Horgan's expressed this another way:

I think war arises when we want something that others have and we believe we are entitled to have it. I also think war arises when we believe so strongly about something that we cannot tolerate the existence and thriving of others who don’t agree with us. Our ideas of God have a lot to do with war when we feel threatened by the existence of others with different ideas.

Indeed, let's look at the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian issue, a conflict between two peoples that once again has erupted in carnage and tragedy. Rather than delve into the origins of this conflict and the complex forces that have locked Israelis and Palestinians into a vicious cycle of violence, I suggest you read the recent long exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. They engage in a spirited but civil and edifying debate on the latest outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Their discussion is wide-ranging, from the toxic nature of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the meaning of genocide. I will admit that throughout their conversation I found myself nodding along in agreement to much of what Harris was saying. He makes one point at the outset that I found particularly striking:

First, Andrew, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. As you know, this began with a blog post I wrote to which you responded. I don’t want to focus too much on those articles—readers who want to do their homework can go back and see what we said. However, I want to begin by acknowledging that certain topics are simply radioactive. It seems to me that one can’t make sense about them fast enough to defuse the bomb that is set to go off in the reader’s brain when one fails to align with his or her every prejudice.

Harris then goes on to say that people are "emotionally hijacked" on some topics, such as the issue of Israel and its enemies:

One sign of this happening is that readers notice only half of what you’re saying—or they discount half of it as something you don’t really mean, as though they knew your mind better than you do.

Harris tells Sullivan that he wanted to talk to him directly "because it seems to me that you have gotten emotionally hijacked" on the subject of Israel and Hamas. I'll let readers of their exchange judge whether this is true or not. What's interesting to me is that Harris has put his finger on a problem--people getting emotionally hijacked--that leads to many sensitive debates going off the rails. As for the roiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one could take the metaphor even further and argue that the two sides have become hijacked by the respective extremist elements in their societies. It is not framed this way by Sullivan and Harris in their exchange, but they both point out the notable examples that fuel the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Harris, for instance, correctly notes that Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza strip, "is a death cult, as are ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Hezbollah and every other jihadist organization we could name." What he means by this is that these groups glorify death of their own soldiers (or martyred volunteers) through the killing of their enemies. If you want to see the terrible psychology of this, watch the award-winning 2003 documentary "A Death in Gaza." The heart of the documentary, whose British director was shot to death by an Israeli soldier on the last day of filming, is centered on the bleak, war-torn lives of Palestinian children in the Gaza strip. From a young age, they are taught to revile Jews and to embrace martyrdom. It is an incredibly sad thing to watch, this breeding of ethnic and religious hatred. You walk away from the documentary angry at Israel, disgusted by Hamas and in despair over the future of those Palestinian children, who, if they lived to adulthood, are now fully invested in the destruction of Israel, their visceral hatred for Jews certainly reinforced after the latest war between Hamas and Israel, which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians. The "death cult" that Harris speaks of is on full display in "A Death in Gaza." The legitimate strivings of Palestinians for an independent state have been hijacked by an extremist militant Islamic group that teaches children to sacrifice themselves to the larger cause of Israel's destruction. How might Horgan, in his quest to end war, eliminate such a pathology? This is not to say that Israel is without responsibility. Sullivan, in his conversation with Harris, correctly points to the continuous building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a core issue that severely undermines the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To understand how this has happened, one needs to reckon with the ultra-orthodox Jewish extremists that have hijacked Israel over the past few decades. As Zack Beauchamp noted last month at Vox:

Right-wing extremists have been a significant force in Israeli politics. The openly racist Kach Party won a seat in the Knesset in 1984, and was polling even higher in the 1988 elections before being banned from participating. Baruch Goldstein, a significant Kach member, killed 29 worshippers at a mosque in the Cave of the Patriarch in the West Bank city of Hebron. Jewish radical Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, while the minister was in the midst of a major push for a peace deal.

One of the most astonishing documentaries I have seen in years is "The Gatekeepers," which anyone concerned about Israel's future should see. In his New Yorkerreview, David Denby wrote:

“The Gatekeepers,” a documentary history of the country told from the point of view of its internal security chiefs, is both honest and saddening.

Israel is a secular society, but the influence of the country's ultra-right minority is made apparent in the film. This far-right minority, which agitates for settlement building on the West Bank, also works to scuttle any concessions made to the Palestinians. Their barbaric counterpart is Hamas, which is not interested in coexisting with Israel. These two implacable foes have successfully hijacked the peace process. Horrific spasmodic cycles of violence and death is the result. If John Horgan tells me that he explains in his book how to rid the world of extremist groups that sow the seeds of war, then I will purchase it today. UPDATE: Horgan has replied at Scientific American. One of his main points:

Just as war promotes poverty, tyranny, inequality and resource depletion at least as much as vice versa, so war promotes fanaticism. Once militarism seizes hold of a society, it can transform vast populations into virtual sociopaths. It turns decent, ethical, reasonable people into intolerant fanatics capable of the most heinous acts.

I am persuaded enough to purchase his book.

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