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The Priesthood of Death

“We will all die one day. . .if by Apache or by cardiac arrest: I prefer Apache.”

Dr. Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, leader of Hamas, assassinated by Israeli Apache helicopter gunships 18 April 2004

Who is safe in this world? No one. We shall all die.

This is the big truth religion tackles. Our days are numbered. Freud thought religion a crutch that the weak clutched to face death. He was stoical though he used cocaine. The religious use God who variously holds us in the palm of his hand, or grants us eternal rest and reward, or watches and will make right triumph in the end. Plato argued that there must be an afterlife otherwise there was no justice. Moral thinking demanded it.

We’re in a morass about moral thinking. Recently President Bush said that good societies are based on the conviction that there is right and wrong and we know the difference. His moral thinking justifies war and assassination. He reproached the Clinton administration for not having been strongly on ‘war footing,’ for not killing Osama Bin Laden. (They tried of course but like the Bush administration they were unsuccessful.) The symmetry of ‘terrorist’ and ‘moral ‘ positions-both of which encourage eliminating the evil ones-seems lost on all combatants.

Or perhaps all the moral talk is cynical cover and rationalization, and the poisonous fruits of abstract reasoning.

Consider the assassination of pediatrician Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, leader of Hamas. In a brutal but open campaign of ‘focused killings’ the Israelis a year ago attempted to assassinate Rantissi. President Bush voiced a rare rebuke. Prime Minister Sharon shot back that the US was even then trying to assassinate Saddam Hussein, and that every country has a right to defend itself. Rantissi, Sharon argued. was a killable threat because he incited continued violence against the Israeli occupation. Bush folded. Rantissi got to live another eight months. In April 2004 the Israelis succeeded in assassinating him, less than a month after assassinating Sheik Yassin, the blind, deaf and paraplegic co-founder of Hamas. UN and world opinion condemned both assassinations but our government made only diplomatic murmurs and did not denounce the killings. Bush reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense though Blair condemned the action. Hamas promised revenge.

The noose of moral killing is drawing tighter round all our necks.

We accept, countenance and even applaud political murder. We pursue violence as a solution to political problems. We somehow believe our violence is different from others’-because we are ‘good’ or have good intentions. Much of the world sees us as violent brutal hypocrites and we are baffled that they don’t love us. They’re envious we say, they hate freedom we say, they are driven by evil ideologies we say.

We need to look at the interface of words and physical violence. Take Yassin and Rantissi. The former, killed as he left his mosque from evening prayers was thoroughly disabled, no physical threat. Would we allow a paraplegic spiritual leader to urge physical resistance against an occupying force? Can conquerors protect themselves by killing any critics through the justification of self-defense? A Palestinian demonstrator said “Al-Rantissi’s only crime was to say things Israel does not want to hear. Just like Sheik Yassin’s murder, Al-Rantissi’s death proves Israel does not accept freedom of speech. Your tongue cannot make you a terrorist.”

What is a tongue to terrorism? Is it a capital offense when you say ‘kill!’? Can you say your oppressors are evil and deserve resistance? Is that self-defense? Is anyone who hates a murderer? Can I kill anyone who hates me because I think he might kill me? Can I get off the moral hook by saying ‘I don’t hate him, I just neutralize his murderous hatred.’ Is the ethic of killing determined by good intentions?

The person who yells ‘fire’ in a crowded theater is indictable if there isn’t a fire. How about the person who cries ‘weapons of mass destruction’ ?

Would Americans feel more sympathy toward the assassinated Palestinians if they urged non-violent resistance only? Would anyone believe the US didn’t believe in force after the invasion of Iraq? The time for words is over Powell and Bush said. Their idea was to use great force to bring self-defense for us and peace, stability, and freedom to Iraq. Those words authorized that force though they were its opposite. Do we need to distinguish words from deeds? Can brutal words occasion kind deeds, as kind words can occasion brutal deeds? Do words and deeds differ? Can words kill or killing bring life? The domaines of mental warfare and corporeal warfare differ and most people would say mental warfare is better because you live to fight another day. Blake urged making Mental not Corporeal Warfare. He said “Mental things alone are real. Otherwise Christ’s acts are nothing to Caesar’s.” Stalin famously sneered when criticized morally: “How many legions does the Pope have?”The strongman answer is Stalin’s-force rules. The artist answer is Blake’s-spirit survives the corporeal.

Rantissi escaped assassination in June 2003 and repeatedly said we all face death. If it’s by Apache or cardiac arrest, by killing or cancer, he said, he preferred the martyr’s role-death in the service of his struggle. He got it, killed with his 27-year-old son Mohammed by an Israeli Apache helicopter gunship under the direct orders of Ariel Sharon. Sharon, it’s reported, is now himself the target of right-wing extremists who want to assassinate him for his weakness in not driving all the Palestinians out. Assassination, like death in Donne’s poem “Death be not proud,” hangs in bad company-‘slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.’ Donne believed death doesn’t triumph because Donne believed in Christian resurrection. Many criticize religion for the hope of paradise because its promise makes life cheap. When jihadists say they have men who love death as infidels love life they’re making a spiritual boast which others characterize as fanatical.

But the fault is not religion-fanatical Islam has perfect echoes in fanatical Christianity, fanatical Judaism, fanatical nationalisms, and standard human rage-which extremes religions also counter. The fault is in the greater priesthood of death-belief in and willingness to sacrifice another for any reason. Religions often have the insight that we should sacrifice and master ourselves and respect others. God is often better and bigger than killing-inclined humans, an imagination of time that lets all live, and privileges life and love over death and killing.

Rantissi and Yassin died not killing others but being killed. They reveal others’ violence. If they encouraged suicide bombers in their lives they too participated in the brutal priesthood of death.

So do all who approve killing.

DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

 

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DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo and author of the new book Blood Sacrifice. She can be reached at: engdc@acsu.buffalo.edu

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