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The Twisted World of Thomas Friedman

In many parts of the world today, outside the West, violent confrontations are intensifying. To interpret these complex, horrific events, American citizens-whose leaders are intimately involved in these violent confrontations-have a ready-made cognitive framework, which easily simplifies and neutralizes the complex and bitterly contested content. This hegemonic ideological framework rests essentially on a few simple Orwellian categories of the standard formula: war is peace.

Acts that are essentially the same are judged not by their social content-their context and effects-but by pre-constituted discursive categories. Differentiation and association are ordered so that the hegemonic (i.e., dominant, leading) side is always good and just. Consider the soldier, who joins the military with the explicit mandate of being willing to kill-and die in the process-at the command of a higher rank (presumably for the national defense). Now consider someone who also wants to defend the nation, but has no standing organized military, and no military resources that allow him or her to shoot from a distance, or from armored vehicles. This person-willing to die and kill for perceived national defense-differs from the soldier only in means. And it is means only-not ends, consequences, or conditions-that the Orwellian framework needs to make its differentiations and associations.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Friedman, “one of America’s leading interpreters of world affairs” columnist for the New York Times, is a master of this Orwellian mystification. In his March 31 column, “Suicidal Lies,” Mr. Friedman warns us, with all his probity and prescience, that “The Devil is . . . dancing our way.” He warns that a new type of warfare is threatening us-America, and the other “civilized” people-for its political gain. The isolated, clandestine suicide bomber. How dare he or she, that individual with no organized army, no F-16s, naval ships or tanks from Lockheed, Raytheon or GE, make a frontal assault (and for political gain, no less!)?

It is war, Mr. Friedman says. But if one cannot match the military might of their enemy and, a fortiori, if their tactics become effective, the Orwellian framework so common to American hegemony easily places (subjectifies) them: terrorists (against civilization); or, as Mr. Friedman would have it, the Devil (against God). Practical import: terrorists are the ones who want nuclear and biological weapons; the armies of the civilized nations are the ones who have them. Indeed, casual but careful observation suggests a good prima facie case that there is a high negative correlation between military might and the likelihood of being labeled terrorist (weakness and/or non-authorized tactics=terrorist).

Mr. Friedman pretends he can understand the daily fright, desperation and frustration in the Middle East (presumably of both sides, though he only acknowledges that the Israeli’s are “terrified,” since only Palestinians commit acts of terror). He assumes he can understand, from his civilized perch, these constraints and pressures (e.g., living in a refugee camp with little food or water or education, after being driven from your home and illegally occupied by a military force that has received $92 billion in aid from the US in the last half century) enough to see through the “suicide lie.”

I do not condone suicide bombings, but I don’t pretend to have the knowledge to suggest that a particular combination of desperate conditions will not make suicide (with some value added in the military sense of more death) seem like a viable option. He asserts that desperation could not be the reason, because many other people are desperate and, more importantly, they could have simply non-violently resisted (e.g., the armored bulldozers that destroy their homes).

But though many people smoke without ever getting lung cancer, I doubt Mr. Friedman would claim that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. Yes, suicide bombers choose-under massive pressure and constraint-their fate. And we will never know the final straw. But if we want to think carefully about the relationship between desperation (and the Middle East condition in general) and suicide bombing, an appropriate counterfactual is enough. Without a particular set of very desperate conditions we known as Palestine under Sharon-led, US-backed Israeli occupation, we don’t have such patterns of suicide bombing.

Palestinian society does not generate suicide bombers in isolation. Something is very wrong over there and unfortunately for minds like Friedman’s who seek easy, cut-and-dried answers, it is simply not all the Palestinians’ fault. Nor is it all Israel’s fault. Both sides have committed atrocities. But we really need to take a look at some basic facts, abstracted from rhetoric and our Orwellian blinders which make us think that “our” side is always the righteous; “our” cause always just.

Israel has one of the largest and most sophisticated armies in the world, from armored bulldozers to F-16’s. Palestine hardly has a viable government or standing army, consisting mostly of unarmed citizens. The Palestinians (mostly civilians) have died now three for every one Israeli. Mr. Friedman is correct about one thing: the suicide bombings are working (which is why, he admits, he is now worried). Before the recent wave of suicide bombings, since the first Intifada in December 1987, 168 Israelis had died compared to 1471 Palestinians. Under these conditions it is ridiculous to assert, as most of the American establishment does, that Arafat has the ability to stop the various factions and individuals committing these acts (indeed, if control of a domestic population is so easy, then why does the US incarcerate more of its population per capita than any other nation in the world?).

Mr. Friedman thinks we need to bomb first, then talk. He offers two other reasons why their suicide bombings must be thought of as a new tactic aimed at annihilating “civilization” (better spend more on the star wars missile shield), rather than a choice made out of desperation: empty assertions that the Clinton proposal would have worked, and that in any case, non-violent resistance would have worked 30 years ago (both fallacious forms of reasoning that masquerades as sound counterfactual)! Yet, he does admit that the Palestinians are “blinded by their narcissistic rage.”

Whatever adjective you want to append to blinded rage, it is disingenuous to argue that desperation does not play a role in children blowing themselves up. It is dangerous to demand, as Mr. Friedman does, that the Israel “deliver them a military blow” that will knock some sense into them. The suicide bombers are all out of sense. It is a simple fact that occupation, forced dislocation and sustained military assault are producing suicide bombing and all the misery that surrounds it.

At this point, it is impossible to decipher “who struck the first blow,” who the aggressor is. People like Mr. Friedman take the easy way out and assert that the side with the high-tech, advanced weapons and tactics are the civil and just, while the poor people without resources are terrorists-and they must be stopped lest they get any resources (he fears they would rather have a nuclear bomb to blow him up than some land and peace).

Unfortunately, one decisive assault and them some more talks will not bring peace. Israel needs to pull out of the occupied territories now, and replace Sharon with someone more interested in peace than war. The United States needs to join the rest of the world and condemn the illegal Israeli occupation and, more importantly, cut off Israel from military support-both in subsidy and in weapons sales. Both sides need to work hard and reflect, but this cannot happen while Palestinian territory is under occupation and assault. An Israeli retreat is the necessary first step to peace.

Matt Vidal is studying for his doctorate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He can be reached at: mvidal@ssc.wisc.edu

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Matt Vidal is Senior Lecturer in Work and Organizations at King’s College London, Department of Management. He is editor-in-chief of Work in Progress, a public sociology blog of American Sociological Association, where this article first ran. You can follow Matt on Twitter @ChukkerV.

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