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Palestinian Terrorism, Morality and Germany

by TED HONDERICH

The question ‘Is there a right to terrorism?’ is obviously not about whether there is a legal right, a right in national or international law. It must be the question of whether there is a moral right. I take it in that way.

My answer depends at bottom on what I take to be the fundamental moral principle to which we are all committed. It is the Principle of Humanity. It is that we are to take rational steps, which is to say actually efficient and also humanly unwasteful ones, to get and keep people out of wretched or otherwise bad lives.

Bad lives are defined in terms of deprivation of the great goods, satisfactions of the great human desires. These have to do with

1. a decent length of life, say 70 years rather than 35 years;

2. material or bodily well-being;

3. freedom and power;

4. respect and self-respect;

5. relationships;

6. the goods of culture.

The Principle of Humanity is a consequentialist principle. In my view, therefore, it is like all principles and judgements of morality without exception — at any rate when they actually provide reasons for action, which they are supposed to be doing. The principle is obviously not the Utilitarian principle. Its goal is precisely not the maximization of the total of happiness or satisfaction no matter how that is shared out.

We are all committed to this principle because each of us reasons, for example, that it is right that we not be tortured for months if what is gained by that is merely somebody else’s having a car rather than go to work by public transport for a month. It is also a fact of our human nature that we take and must take such reasons to apply to other and different cases.

2. The Question of a Palestinian Moral Right

You can make terrorism wrong by definition, as you can make profiting or anything else wrong by definition. It gets you nowhere. To advance in argument, you will now have to show, say, that what the Palestinians are engaging in really is terrorism as you have defined it. You are in exactly the same situation of argument as when you define terrorism in some way that does not beg the question in advance, and then consider whether some of it is wrong.

Terrorism as more ordinarily defined may of course also be other things. It may be self-defence, resistance, resistance to ethnic cleansing, the struggle of a people for liberation, the struggle of a people for their very existence as a people.

Think now the killing of an Israeli child by a Palestinian suicide-bomber. Think too of the killing of a Palestinian child by an Israeli airforce officer from a helicopter gunship. He says of course that he would have chosen, if he could, to kill only the HAMAS terrorist near the child. The Palestinian suicide bomber, of course, says effectively the same sort of thing, presumably as truly. She would have chosen to have tried as effectively, if she could have, without killing the Israeli child, to save her people.

My book After the Terror, which is on another whole subject, asked in passing about such things. It answered that the Palestine suicide bomber does have a moral right to her act of terrorism, and that the Israeli in the helicopter has no moral right to his act of state-terrorism. To clarify any such assertion of a moral right, this one comes to this: the Palestinian suicide-bomber was morally permitted if not obliged to do what she did — which very judgement has the support of a fundamental and accepted moral principle.

That answer to the question of terrorism, about killing the Israeli child, is a terrible and horrible answer. But it is the answer I continue to defend. Here, I can say only a few words.

3. The Ordinariness of the Terrible and Horrible Answer

The terrible and horrible answer about a Palestinian moral right is in an important way not unusual at all. The counterpart answer about neo-Zionist killing is openly or covertly given by neo-Zionists, daily.

Also, glance away for a moment to items in an overflowing history of us all. The terror-bombing of Germany in World War Two, intended exactly as much to kill civilians as to defeat Hitler, was justified by we British and our leaders. So too with the genocide that went with the growth of the United States of America. So too with the murdering of British captives by the Jewish terrorists who were serving the justified cause of the founding of the state of Israel after the Holocaust.

4. The Truth of the Answer

There is a fact of the matter as to which of two possible courses of action, one of them taken by the suicide bomber, would serve the Principle of Humanity. It is possible, I hope and trust, to see or discover the fact. Further, there is truth in the Principle of Humanity itself. What this comes to, as you have heard, is truth to our own natures, our existence.

There is another kind of fact, plainer truth, that enters into the first two kinds. It is historical, about a people and the usurpation of their freedom and power and hence other great goods.

In the last quarter of the 19th Century, there were about 50 times as many Palestinians as Jews in Palestine. After World War Two, when the United Nations rightly and unjustly resolved to make a homeland for the Jews out of one part of Palestine, there were in fact equal numbers of Jews and Palestinians in that part. There were 80 times as many Palestinians as Jews in the other part. There is now a Jewish state violating the remaining homeland of the remaining Palestinians.

5. Asserting the Answer

Do you now say that even if the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism is or were true, there are or would be reasons for not asserting it? Do you say no one thinks all truths must be uttered?

It seems to me that this truth, unlike some others, calls out to be uttered. It calls out to be uttered in proper language and with proper passion. One reason has to do with another fact of human nature and history, lesser than those mentioned earlier but of great importance.

In such a conflict as the one in Palestine, there is a primary question of who and what is right, which of course is inescapable, and with which we have been concerned. There are also conventional inclinations about the conflict. In a word, they are inclinations to go along with what is more official, legitimated, or recognized. They include the inclination to go along with a democracy, a state, a power. Or indeed a superpower.

If you do not stand up openly for the justice of the Palestinian cause, you give encouragement to the secondary inclinations. In fact it is dishonourable to allow oneself to be, or to encourage others to be, in the grip of the categories of the official and the like. The gas chambers were official. Hitler was elected.

6. Negotiation and Futility

There are two ways for a people to get and keep things, these being violence and negotiation. It has been said at every stage of the conflict in Palestine that the Palestinians must give up violence and negotiate.

That is typically to forget something. Negotiation is the means for getting and keeping things of the party whose position and ultimate power is stronger. Violence is the means of the other party, the party with no other means. It is in the interest of each party and their supporters to condemn or resist the means of the other. It is the responsibility of moral thinking to try to see what is right.

There are men and women of my outlook, in effect supporters of the Principle of Humanity, who say Palestinian terrorism is futile. It needs to be allowed that the factual question of the eventual outcome of Palestinian is the hardest question. But it is possible to think, as I do, that this course of action, and only this course of action, will secure the freedom and power of a people in their homeland. It is only wretched bantustans, or rather only the promise of them, that can now be offered by the advocates of negotiation. They were offered to Nelson Mandela too.

To this can be added something else. Jews in the Warsaw ghetto fought to the end — hopelessly, it was said. They bring to mind that there can be a realism in what is hopeless. You can fight, not for yourself or your time, but for those who come after you. The Palestinians can do so.

7. Anti-Semitism, Guilt, Silence

To run together resistance to neo-Zionism with anti-Semitism is to run together (1) a resistance to some Jews and also others — in no case because they are Jews — with (2) an attitude to all Jews or Jews in general. Someone who makes the charge of anti-Semitism may speak in a loose way, as indeed he does if he speaks of ‘anti-Semitic anti-Zionism’. This is to run together resistance to Sharon with sympathy for the gas chambers, with the vomit of neo-Nazism in Germany today, and so on.

To engage in the charge of anti-Semitism against the likes of me, to add or imply that my book blames the Jews for starvation in Africa, or that I said on television that Germany is now managed by Jews — let me say one thing about this. It is to have no membership in the strong and continuing tradition of Jewish humanity in morality and politics, with so many noble men and women in it. It is not to be of that fine company, praised by me before I ever heard of my accuser Brumlik.

Finally, with respect to Germans and their past, and their now being quiet about the violation of Palestine by neo-Zionists, there is an awful question.

Is that like your father having murdered some woman — and you, as a result, being quiet about a rape by her son?

No large question was ever settled by asserting an analogy. But certainly we commonly make use of analogies in moral thinking, as much as we do of models in other reasoning and inquiry, in science above all. It is possible to justify the question by way of argument involving the Principle of Humanity. As for the answer to the question, let me make only a comment.

There are relatively few Germans now alive who acted in the Holocaust. I speak to the others. What relationship should guide your actions, including your silence and your speech? A relationship to those your father killed? A relationship to your father? To the sons and daughters of his victims? Or a relationship to those in misery, whoever they are. The answer given by the Principle of Humanity is at bottom the last one.

This is not to ignore all other considerations of relationships. There are other kinds. We stand in relations not only to the victims, but to those others who can be called upon to support these victims, to try to stop their vicious abuse. Germans stand in a relationship to Americans, who determine what will happen to Palestine.

Germans are now rightly known for taking on themselves the guilt of their fathers. They have a kind of moral superiority not shared by all of the rest of us. The Holocaust was not the first or last genocide in history. Other perpetrators have not been so ready to accept and to deal with guilt.

It is for this reason of moral superiority that Germans now have a special obligation to speak against a rape. They will be heard a little more than other nations. There is a reason for their being heard, which is their standing. This moral position is also the reason of their silence until now. They can do more than the rest of us to awaken America from its ignorant trance.

That is not all. You can say, as I do, in line with humanity, that Germans today have a certain obligation to those their fathers killed, those who are gone. They have the obligation, for the future, to make it less likely that those victims of their fathers died wholly in vain.

TED HONDERICH is Great Britain’s outstanding progressive philosopher, recently interviewed for CounterPunch by Paul de Rooij. One of his past books was Punishment, The Supposed Justifications. Another was the funny and deadly examination of a political tradition, Conservatism, and a third Violence for Equality: Inquiries in Political Philosophy. His new book is After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, Columbia University Press). He can be reached at: honderich@counterpunch.org

 

Note

* Lecture presented at DAS SONNTAGSGESPRÄCH mit der Universitaet Leipzig. October 19, 2003, Universität Leipzig, Hörsaalgebäude, Germany.

The full paper, of which this is a kind of summary, can be found on my website. More is said in various books. After the Terror was published by Edinburgh University Press and Columbia University Press, translated into German by Suhrkamp Verlag and withdrawn from the market. It is now about to be published again by MelzerVerlag. Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy, a revision of an earlier book, is being published by Pluto Press, and also in German by Kai Homilius Verlag. On Political Means and Social Ends, a collection of philosophy papers, is being published by Edinburgh University Press and in German by Kai Homilius.

 

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