Talal Asad, an American Anthropologist has written a book about suicide bombing not because he condones it or because he had nothing better to do but because something impressed him. What precisely? Was it something that would impress anybody else? Let us find out.
'I am simply impressed by the fact that modern states are able
to destroy and disrupt life more easily and on a much grander scale
than ever before and that terrorists cannot reach this capability.
All states that currently exist are modern. Some are destroying and disrupting life more easily and on a grander scale than ever before. Why? Because they were too backward or lacked sovereignty in the past and thus their ability to work mischief was curtailed. There is no advanced country, previously sovereign, which is 'destroying and disrupting life' on a larger scale than it did in the past. Is America nuking any more Nagasakis? Are the Germans carrying out more Holocausts? Does Russia still boast Gulags? Do the Chinese still have manufactured famines? No, no, no and no.
Syria and Libya and Yemen and so on- no doubt- are witnessing the destruction and disruption of life on a grander scale than ever before. But actual terrorists are on the ground in these countries helping to bring this about. These terrorists have shown that they have the capability to destroy and disrupt life as ruthlessly as minions of the state apparatus. ISIS is a terrorist outfit. It created a far more repressive and ruthless state apparatus than anything seen previously. It has destroyed and disrupted life more easily and on a grander scale than established nation states which is why, uniquely, it is now being attacked by many of them who are otherwise mutually antagonistic.
Why is Talal impressed that advanced countries are killing less than they did in the past despite possessing better technology to do so? Does he not understand that advanced countries have sophisticated economies which can dispense with coercion? Oh. I see. He's an Anthropologist. He really does not understand Economics. Well, there's nothing we can do about that.
What about the next thing that strikes Talal?
am also struck by the ingenuity with which so many politicians,
public intellectuals, and journalists provide moral justifications for
killing and demeaning other human beings.
Everybody knows that politicians, public intellectuals and journalists are sociopaths. That's what they do for a living. They talk shite. Why is Talal struck by their ingenuity? They don't make ingenuous arguments. They write and talk worthless shit. Did Talal's Dad not talk worthless shit? Was no worthless shit talked in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or New York or anywhere else he grew up?
What seems to matter
is not the killing and dehumanization as such but how one kills
and with what motive. People at all times have, of course, justified
the killing of so-called enemies and others they deem not deserving
to live. The only difference is that today liberals who engage in
this justification think they are different because morally advanced.
Urm... It is part of the Islamic Credo for Muslims to think they are morally advanced with respect to 'Jahil' pagans. Muslim politicians, public intellectuals and journalists have always justified the killing of 'so-called enemies and others they deem not deserving to live'- including Jews like Talal's father's people.
What's so special if people calling themselves 'Liberals' rather than 'Muslims' but who follow disreputable professions, such as that of the politician, public intellectual or journalist, talk equally worthless shite?
Why does Talal find this striking?
That very thought has social implications, and it is therefore that
thought that makes a real difference. There are people living in ISIS territory who have the thought 'we, who don't kill and extort and enslave, are morally advanced compared to this bunch of terrorist nut-jobs ruling over us'. What 'real difference' does having this thought make? Does it provide these people with a countervailing power against the Caliphate? Does it make them bullet-proof? Everybody has the thought, 'I am morally superior to the guy who is cutting my throat so as to rob me or enslave my family'. Such thoughts don't make 'a real difference'. What does make a difference, is the ability to organise and fight back. Liberal thought begins from
the notion that everyone has the absolute right to defend himself but this right has no remedy unless there is a vinculum juris, a bond of law, such that a Social Contract obtains. in the full knowledge that the idea of defense is subject to considerable
interpretation of a legal nature, in line with Contractarian jurisprudence so that (for example) liberation from the oppressor
in Iraq becomes part of defense for both the American occupier
and the insurgency.
The American occupier in Iraq? Oh. Talal wrote this in 2007. But when the Iraqis asked the Americans to leave, in a legal fashion, the Americans left. In any case, Congress had been pushing for withdrawal in 2007 itself and withdrawal began at the end of that year and was completed by 2011.
Many liberals also believe that people have a
moral obligation to attack evil, either in order to redeem themselves
or to redeem others who cannot do so for themselves.
Liberals don't believe a moral obligation trumps the rule of law when it comes to a collective action of an offensive kind. No Liberal says, 'we must defy our own laws in order to attack and kill such and such group of people.' A Liberal may say that morality prevents one complying with an unjust law. A Liberal might even grant that a group of people have the right to defend themselves against being suborned for a military purpose under a legal regime that is in conflict with natural law or some deontic code. What a Liberal can't do is find a justification for an illegal war without ceasing to be a Liberal.
The notion of
evil is not conceived of as a principle essential to the world—as in
Manichaean and Zoroastrian teaching—but as a dynamic principle
that opposes divine will and is therefore eliminable.
Zorastrian teaching is not 'resist not evil'. It is 'combat it with all your might'.
it is resistance to that will that defines evil, and all virtuous men
are urged to overcome it at any cost. (According to Christian belief,
Christ triumphed over evil, God reconciled the world to himself, by
Yet Christ said 'Resist not Evil'. He did not say go blow yourself up so as to kill a bunch of infidels. Neither did John Stuart Mill.
Fighting evil is, of course, an old justification, but
it often finds new formulations today. I do not mean by this that today’s
modern world is, as many hold, simply an unfolding of Christianity.
In my view there are continuities and also crucial ruptures
between secular modernity and its past.
Oh dear. First Talal focuses on the Liberals. Then, he thinks Liberals are actually Christians and that Christianity arises out of the moral equivalent of a suicide bombing.
..in Christian civilization, the gift of life for humanity
is possible only through a suicidal death; redemption is dependent
on cruelty or at least on the sin of disregarding human life
In other words, Christ causes Satan to enter Judas so as to arrange his own Crucifixion and, though he himself rises in 3 days, some stigma of guilt is supposed to attach to all humanity. Thus, Christ is a suicide bomber who, though killing only himself, stains all in the vicinity with gore.
Talal is the son of an Austrian Jewish convert to Islam. His father's people were accused by the Catholics of being 'Deicides'- though Jesus rose in 3 days and did so much in the next 40 that if all his doings were written down in books the world would not be big enough to contain them all.
Talal is quite justified in getting in this dig at Catholic imbecility. However, it is an imbecility the Catholics have repented of. Christianity has changed. It is genuinely less shite than it once was. So is Liberalism. So is Capitalism. So are most things in countries which 'destroy and disrupt life' a lot less now than was their wont. Why? Well, one reason is that Economics- Game Theory- has advanced while Asad's subject, Anthropology, has succumbed to senile dementia.
Suicide bombings represented a 'small, cheap, out of control' aysmmetric warfare strategy. Game Theory explains how the thing can be countered. It is no longer a mysterium fascinosum but a case of silly buggers being silly buggers. Not horror but the demand for better targeted surveillance and border controls is our reaction to this nuisance. We have a 'bourgeois strategy' and it will prevail in this 'Hawk Dove game' because it is incentive compatible. Thus, no Hegelian struggle for recognition can arise. Talk of ipseity and alterity can go fuck itself. Of course, the silly buggers are welcome to blow each other up back where they came from and sure, we'll get in on the action with drone strikes coz drones are cool and once that technology is perfected it's going to improve our E-commerce experience.
What of the Anthropologists? Is there anything we need to be doing about them? Nope. They can go on returning to whatever worthless question got them gassing on in the first place. Pay no attention. Their subject is as exploded as Alchemy.
This returns me to the question with which I began: Why do
Westerners express horror at suicide terrorism—what is so special
about it? In trying to answer it, I offered several reasons, each of
which points to identity being destroyed, a process felt more acutely
by Europeans when they learn that Europeans have been killed by
non-Europeans—because that is where they have learned to invest
an aspect of their identity as humans.
Cool! Talal gets that Europeans don't want non-Europeans to come along and kill them. That's pretty high level thinking for an Anthropologist.
Let me spell these reasons out
briefly. First, an unexpected suicide is always shocking, especially so
when it also occurs in public and when it involves the shattering of
other human bodies and their belongings, a sudden disruption of
the patterns of everyday life, a violence in which death is unregulated
by the nation-state.
Right! Coz if the nation-state regulated suicide-bombing- for e.g. if those nutters had to queue up at the DMV for a license before they blew themselves up- then we wouldn't feel any horror at all when they get up to their ghastly monkey tricks.
Warfare, of course, is an even greater violation
of civilian “innocence,” but representations have sedimented in us so as to see that in principle war is legitimate even when civilians
are killed—that in principle deaths in war (however horrible) are
necessary for the defense of our form of life.
Germany thought defence of its 'form of life' involved invading Poland and France. It discovered this was a stupid thing to do. It doesn't do it now. Instead, advanced countries trade with each other and make complex economic deals so as to raise their living standards. Economics, not Anthropology, has been found useful in this regard. That is why an Economics degree is worth something. An Anthropology degree means you have shit for brains.
Here, the language of
“civilization” and “barbarism” comes readily to hand rather than the
more superficial “clash of civilizations.”
Wrong! The only meaningful language that comes readily to hand in such circumstances is 'Fuck them motherfucking fuckers!'
The second reason is that
since crime and punishment, loss and restitution, are impossible to
separate and since that separation is essential to the functioning
of modern law on which liberal identities—and freedoms—depend,
deaths in suicide operations are especially intolerable.
Rubbish! Remember Lockerbie? Gaddaffi had to shell out plenty of moolah for that. Last year Congress overrode Obama's veto on 9/11 victims' right to sue the Saudis. They launched a case 4 days ago. Expect more such suits under the JASTA act. The Law- and Liberalism is based on the Law- has no difficulty at all in separating 'crime and punishment, loss and restitution' in such cases. Anthropology may have a difficulty but then Anthropology is a shit subject.
are the tensions that hold modern subjectivity together: between individual
self-assertion and collective obedience to the law, between
reverence for human life and its legitimate destruction, between the
promise of immortality through political community and the inexorability
of decay and death in individual life.
No such tensions exist. If they did, Economics would know about it. 'Immortality through political community' is an availability cascade only in exploded Academic disciplines- like Anthropology. Alchemy too spoke of immortality gained by some equally imaginary means. Talal Asad proves his subject is just as worthless.
These tensions are necessary
to the liberal democratic state, the sovereign representative
of a social body, but they threaten to break down completely when a
sudden suicide operation takes place publicly and when its politics
is seen not to spell redemption but mutual disaster.
Which is why the US collapsed after 9/11 and the UK after 7/7 and India after the Mumbai attacks. What? They didn't collapse at all? Oh. In that case Talal is just talking shite.
Finally, I suggest
the possibility that a highly emotional thought imposes itself
on secular witnesses belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition: the
thought that the meaning of life is, as Kafka put it, death and only
death. That catastrophic and brutal death can be, as the Crucifixion
taught believing Christians, an occasion of love for all the dead.
WTF? The Crucifixion teaches Christians that they too will be resurrected as Christ was resurrected. It is not the case that the dead stay dead. No reparative love or act of placatory homage is required from Christians to the great horde of the dead lurking in another realm. There may be some pre-Christian traditions which have been interpreted in this way by Anthropologists- but then Anthropology is now known to be utter shite.
is impossible on the occasion of a suicide bombing because there
is no redemption there—none for the perpetrator, none for the victims,
and none for those who witness or contemplate the event.
The same could be said for any terrible accident- a plane that crashes, a ferry that sinks, a lorry whose brakes fail and which ploughs through a crowd. What is different about an intentional act- like a suicide bombing- is that we can punish those who facilitated or had knowledge of the crime. Failure to retaliate is known, for Game Theoretic reasons, to be a dominated strategy.
In the suicide bomber’s act, perhaps what horrifies is not just
dying and killing (or killing by dying) but the violent appearance of
something that is normally disregarded in secular modernity: the
limitless pursuit of freedom, the illusion of an uncoerced interiority
that can withstand the force of institutional disciplines.
'Uncoerced interiority' is not an illusion. It is the bedrock of the Folk Theorem of Repeated Games. It is the reason Economics is respected- it shows it can solve problems- while Anthropology is considered a worthless pile of shite.
of course, disapproves of the violent exercise of freedom outside
the frame of law.
But the law itself is founded by and continuously depends on coercive violence.
The rule of Law demands a monopoly of Legitimate coercion. But the legitimating process does not involve any violence at all. Trial by combat is not a feature of Liberal jurisprudence.
If modern war seeks to found or to
defend a free political community with its own law, can one say that
suicide terrorism (like a suicidal nuclear strike) belongs in this sense
War can't have its own law. Potential adversaries can agree to rules of War and Game Theory can help ensure these agreements are incentive compatible. So the answer to Talal's question is 'No. You are talking shite. Please stop.'
The question may, I think, be more significant than
our comforting attempts at distinguishing the good conscience of
just warriors from the evil acts of terrorists.
A question may be significant if it is framed in an alethic discipline- like Econ. When Anthropologists like Talal ask the same question, it can have no significance coz their discipline is shite.