Suicide-bomber apologist in fit of indignation

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2003

I’ve blogged before on Junius about retired British philosopher Ted Honderich and his lamentable book After the Terror. It seems that Honderich is now involved in a fierce spat with his German publishers Suhrkamp Verlag who have withdrawn the book after charges that it is anti-semitic were levelled by Micha Brumlik (Director of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Study and Documentation Centre for the History of the Holocaust and Its Effects). Jurgen Habermas, who originally recommended the book to Suhrkamp, now agonises about and seeks to contextualise his recommendation. Honderich in turn, angrily rejects the charge of anti-semitism and calls for Brumlik to be dismissed from his post by the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main.

For what its worth, Brumlik’s charge of anti-semitism is, in my view, technically unwarranted. I doubt that Honderich bears any animosity towards Jews as such. But Brumlik is correct to state that Honderich “seeks to justify the murder of Jewish civilians in Israel.” In Honderich’s recent essay “Terrorism for Humanity” he gives a list of propositions including “Suicide bombings by the Palestinians are right.” He says of his list: ” These are some particular moral propositions that many people, probably a majority of humans who are half-informed or better, now at least find it difficult to deny.”

There’s probably some possible world where I’m moved by freedom of speech considerations to the thought that Suhrkamp shouldn’t have withdrawn Honderich’s book (though it hardly amounts to censorship, since they’ve relinquished the rights and he can presumably disseminate it himself). But I can’t summon up any indignation on behalf of someone with his odious views who also calls for his critics to be sacked from their academic posts.

(Honderich’s site has links to the text of Brumlik’s letter, Habermas’s thoughts, Honderich’s replies and “Terrorism for Humanity”.)



Doug 08.21.03 at 2:07 pm

Right on, Chris.


Jimmy Doyle 08.21.03 at 2:21 pm

Wow. What a twat!


eric 08.21.03 at 2:38 pm

Jeez, what a dork.


David 08.21.03 at 3:21 pm

I’m inclined to think that the antisemitism charge is warranted concerning certain statements that Honderich has made.

Think of the obsessive focus of people like Pat Buchanan or Joseph Sobran (both labelled antisemites) on Jewish issues.

Read the writings of Honderich on his web site. They have the same obsessive focus, but on the proposition that killing Jews is appropriate. Not even Pat Buchanan or Joseph Sobran have advocated that.


Ross 08.21.03 at 5:58 pm

I wonder which side, Palestinian or Israeli, has killed more children.

I think the fundamental question being addressed is, if there are no means of expression or resistance other than suicide bombing, is suicide bombing justifiable?

I don’t think that bombing is the only option open to the Palestinians at this point. It is possible that some form of passive resistance to Israeli occupation is possible. Unfortunately the IDF seems to shoot first and ask questions later, which means only the very bravest might ever attempt such passive resistance.

I note that an innocent 16 year old Palestinian boy was shot by IDF accidentally, as they were chasing down Hamas members, in response to the bombing two days ago. Four others in the area were also shot. Should the mother of that boy swallow her grief? Does anyone in Israel care?

The international community has made its preferences known on settlements and the green line. Israel ignores this, and has for decades. The Palestinian community has plead for international involvement, and Israel has fought the idea.

Implicit in Chris’ article (and Brumlik’s outrage) is this assumption: That the murder of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces is justified.

The occupation and situation are so clearly driven by forces within Israeli culture that run counter to notions of civility. Commentator after commentator in Haaretz, for example, note that the main barriers to peace are the settlements and the occupation. But those two things cannot be abandoned without denying the Right its promised land. The solution to peace lies in healing the divide within Israel’s body politic. It does not lie waiting in the barrels of guns pointed at the heads of 15 year old boys.

I haven’t read Honderich’s book, so my ability to comment is limited. I will however, say that a reasonable person can believe that Israel is in the wrong, and Palestine in the right. A reasonable person can also believe the opposite.

To take the violence represented by terrorism and place it in a separate category does not make much sense to me. I see little difference between an IDF officer ordering a soldier to shoot anyone who gets in his way, and a Hamas operative directing a suicide bomber. They are both sides of the same coin. Each believes they are doing the “right” thing, and each believes they have no choice.

If a bomber blows up a bus that has nothing but military personnel on it, is that terrorism? If the bus has _mostly_ military personnel on it, but a couple of civilians, is that terrorism? And then, obviously, if the bus is all civilians, we do recognize that it is terrorism. The collateral damage in the second case is how most innocent Palestinians have ended up dead, shot while IDF were trying to accomplish a different death.

This has all rambled a bit — I don’t really know what the right answers are. But I do know that the questions should at least be open to debate. And I also know that I live in another country, with only certain information made available to me, and that my opinion means little or nothing in this context.


Chris 08.21.03 at 6:09 pm

Since this site began I’ve successfully resisted the temptation to delete comments on grounds of offensiveness. I’ve been sorely tempted today. Ross writes:

bq. Implicit in Chris’ article (and Brumlik’s outrage) is this assumption: That the murder of Palestinian civilians by Israeli forces is justified.

How, exactly, is that implicit in anything I’ve written? It isn’t. It is just an outrageous calumny which you ought to withdraw.


James R MacLean 08.21.03 at 6:27 pm

First, I’m vehemently opposed to the settlements and other aspects of Israeli policies in the area. And I understand the strong compulsions Palestinians might have to resort to violence out of anger. But,
(a) it is one thing to understand and feel compassion for an oppressed people. It’s quite another thing to insist that civil pathologies they’ve developed are “the only way” to resist occupation. They are part of the perversity of anger and they too have perpetuated and intensified the cycle of violence.
((b) the loss of Palestinian life to which you refer is usually caused because of error or institutional breakdown (faced by all militaries under comparable situations). The suicide bombings are obviously used to kill random civilians.

Am I defending reckless disregard for human life or welfare by the IDF? No, God forbid. Am I defending IDF policies? No. Am I taking a side in the conflict? In the sense that I think the Israeli state should withdraw from the OT and redress other Palestinian grievences, yes. But I think anyone who believes the suicide bombings are “right” is probably too much under the influence of anti-Jewish resentment to notice they are driven by revenge and horrible politics, not anything like a rational strategy.


Ross 08.21.03 at 6:31 pm

It is only fair that I answer…by asserting, as Brumlik does (and you, in a tentative, uncertain way), that even the _discussion_ or _exploration_ of a Palestinian viewpoint is anti-semitic and “odious”, you are implicitly agreeing with the tenet that there is no possible reasoned Palestinian response. When you declare the cessation of dialogue, you collapse the possibility of compromise and assume an extreme. You effectively pick a side.

I really don’t know much about your personal feelings on the matter. I suspect that you do not, in your heart, feel that the death of Palestinian civilians is justified. I don’t think it is either. We are probably in substantial agreement that we wish for no innocent Israeli deaths either. My point is that when you _write_ in opposition to _discourse_, to dialogue, it carries a heavy burden; that the underlying points of contention are in fact not contentious, and that their logical basis need not be reviewed or criticized, and that those truths are self-evident.

I find nothing about the situation in Palestine self-evident.

My apologies if my prior post was harsher than intended. It was an imperfect exploration of a theme.


Ross 08.21.03 at 6:35 pm

Oh, and for the record — I think that Hamas and their ilk are just a bunch of thugs, more concerned about violence, hate, and their own power than they are about any kind of revolution or political process. I also don’t think they represent average Palestinians. Hamas seems almost like the IRA, or Real IRA, to me, where the violence has just taken on a life of its own.

But that does not mean that the underlying causes of frustration and violence should not be discussed.


Ross 08.21.03 at 6:39 pm

James: I must point out that the effect of the “error or institutional breakdown” is in fact the killing of “random civilians”. IDF knows this, and performs that activities anyway. So in this, I do not see a strict right/wrong/black/white. It is all rendered in shades of grey.

And to make matters more complex, we have the exact same situation in Iraq, with the US military taking actions that have killed thousands of civilians there. It is neither right nor wrong. It falls somewhere in the middle.

Each of these issues operates at multiple levels.


James R MacLean 08.21.03 at 6:51 pm

The curious think about the conflict is that very, very rarely do outside observers recognize the conflict itself is a disease of mind. The impulse to become a slavish partisan of “the Arabs” or “the Jews” is too strong.

Here’s what I mean: suppose you see a split screen of a French and a German mother grieving over the death of their sons in WW1. Their grief is understandable to both sides and you would be stunned if another observer were to say that one or the other should accept that their government is uniquely to blame. Rather, one should understand that the War itself was a case of the West gone mad. That’s why so the anti-war movement was so strongly associated with radical ideologies like Marxism–because people understood the War was so senseless and part of a civil disease.

But this conflict is not regarded with that degree of insight. Maybe it’s because it’s going on now, but also–I think the violence is an indictment not of Israel, but of the entire Western mode of consumption. People like Buchanan want to reject that Israel is different from the rest of the developed world only in the sense that it’s immediately adjacent to the people it’s dispossessed. But the developed world has very bloody borders–bloody, or hundreds of kilometers of salt water & desert.

Ross: glad that you see the nuance. I agree, extreme negligence and insane state actions (like the US occupation of Iraq) are indeed criminal acts. Saying that is not the same thing as endorsing the endemic violence it has provoked.


Chris 08.21.03 at 6:52 pm

bq. “It is only fair that I answer…by asserting, as Brumlik does (and you, in a tentative, uncertain way), that even the discussion or exploration of a Palestinian viewpoint is anti-semitic and “odious”, you are implicitly agreeing with the tenet that there is no possible reasoned Palestinian response.”

Just for the record, I asserted no such thing, not even in a “tentative, uncertain way”.


Ross Judson 08.21.03 at 6:59 pm

James — I don’t quite want to associate with your comment that the US occupation of Iraq is “an insane act”. While I am opposed to it, I freely admit that I simply do not have enough information one way or the other. It’s another one of these multiple-level questions.

At the strategic level, perhaps it makes sense, in the long term, to accept a few thousand deaths in the interests of long term peace and prosperity, if that is in fact the outcome.

At the personal level, it is a terrible tragedy for an Iraqi to lose a son, or a mother.

At a national level, where the interest might be stability, the invasion has yielded short term chaos, but might yet yield some level of stability.

These are oversimplifications, but what underlies them is the same. We sit off to the side an apply logic to the facts we are presented. In fact, on the ground, emotion rules all. Human nature and emotion dictate the pace and flow of events in Palestine.

I hesitate to pull back too far from the events on the ground. We are all in constant danger from the connectivity of everything we see around us, geographical, political, intellectual. We cannot understand it all, and when we tie too much of it together, we lose our place and our purpose.


Ross Judson 08.21.03 at 7:10 pm

Chris, you wrote “There’s probably some possible world where I’m moved by freedom of speech considerations to the thought that Suhrkamp shouldn’t have withdrawn Honderich’s book (though it hardly amounts to censorship, since they’ve relinquished the rights and he can presumably disseminate it himself). But I can’t summon up any indignation on behalf of someone with his odious views who also calls for his critics to be sacked from their academic posts.”

I read this to mean that you agree with the removal of the book, and therefore the dialog. Tentative came from your “freedom of speech” concern, and was likely too strong a word.

I should just withdraw at this point before I get my ass kicked, I suppose.

So I will therefore explicitly withdraw my comment construing a particular meaning in your position, where no such meaning exists.


musz 08.22.03 at 12:17 am

Don’t withdraw Ross. It is easy and human to read Chris’ post, notice the failure to repudiate Israel’s policy of murdering innocent Palestinians, and conclude that he implicitly supports this policy.

You’ve learned he doens’t support this policy (I suppose) and he (I suppose) has learned that omissions of this sort may (and in this case did) lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding. My first reaction to reading Chris’ post was quite similar to your own.

For the record, what I take away from many of the comments is a tacit underlying belief that Israel’s murderous actions are not so odious as the Palestinian’s murderous actions.

For example, why do those who advocate passive resistance for the Palestinians (in the face of Israeli occupation and murder) not advocate a similar policy for Israel (in the face of Palestinian suicide bombing)? It is hard for me not to read an anti-Palestinian / Pro-Israel bias into such a position.


pathos 08.22.03 at 4:46 am

One has to consider intent when discussing moral culpability — and under that analysis the “moral equivalence” argument just falls to pieces.

Assuming the worst reasonable worst-case-scenario, the Palestinian terrorists WANT to kill Israeli civilians. It is their goal and intent. This is called an “intentional killing” of innocents.

The worst case scenario for the Israeli military is that they are going after Palestinian militants with reckless disregard to the lives of innocent Palestinian bystanders. The will bomb the house of a Palestinian terrorist even if they know his innocent wife and children are there. This is called a “knowing killing” of innocents. It is not the “intent” to kill innocent people, but it is the known likely outcome.

Most reasonable philosophical, common-sense and legal analyses differentiate between the two.

If I have a bomb, and I can either detonate it killing Hitler and two innocent children, or not detonate it, am I morally permitted to do so? A tough question. What if Hitler isn’t there, and it’s just the innocent children? Now, it’s not so tough.

It has simply never been Israel’s policy to intentionally kill innocent people. There is simply no “policy of killing innocent Palestinian civilians.” There is, at worst, a policy of trying to kill guilty Palestinians, with reckless disregard to those around them.

Those who feel the ACTUAL Israeli policy is immoral are free to (and have actively tried) to shame Israel into changing it. Musz’s last point, however, was simply ludicrous. Passive resistance is something you undertake AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT. Israel IS the government. Would he advocate passive resistance by the governor Alabama against racist lynchings in the 1960s? Of course not.


Micha Ghertner 08.22.03 at 4:47 am

For example, why do those who advocate passive resistance for the Palestinians not advocate a similar policy for Israel

Where is this strawman? I don’t recall Chris advocating passive resistance for one side and not the other. In fact, I don’t recall Chris advocating anything at all, other than objecting to justifications for suicide-bombing.

Further, why do you assume that there are only two choices for the Palestinians? (ie. suicide bombing or passive resistance)

If we wish to argue for a policy of true moral equivalence, shouldn’t we advocate suicide bombing (or other forms of violent attack) targeted at Israeli soldiers and perhaps politicians?

Until Israel begins targeting innocent Palestinian civilians, rather than trying to minimize civilian deaths while risking the lives of their own soldiers (as Israel did in Jenin), it is morally offensive to equate Israeli military action with suicide bombings targeted at civilians.


FDL 08.22.03 at 9:01 am

Being a lawyer, not a philosopher, I’m bound to make a mess of this. But nevertheless:

why is it that, in war, intentional killing of civilians is wrong, but knowing killing is permissible? And isn’t it a little convenient for the victors to be writing the rules?

I’m also not much of a historian, but I understand that the Allies deliberately caused firestorms in Tokyo and Dresden, that when Sherman marched to the sea he left devastation behind him, that the US’s settlement of the Western US is probably the single most successful genocide in modern history. (Anyone who wishes to correct me, jump in.) Somehow, the victors did not face the same judgment as wars’ losers have.

One possible viewpoint is that the Palestinian nationalists see themselves in total war against not only an occupying army, but follow-on civilians determined to exterminate their way of life completely. History teaches that the targetting of civilians is permissible in total war, to break the will of the enemy to fight.

Do I condone the strategy of suicide bombing? No, but since my wife is a Jew, I find it difficult to keep a dispassionate view of the events.

But if the US were occupied by little green men, then their little green women and children started riding the buses while the LGMs were killing our [freedom-fighting/underground/resistance] leaders, then I’m not so sure that I would disapprove of a war strategy that brought pain and suffering to those who are benefitting from the military successes of their little green husbands.

but what the hell do I know, i’m just a land use lawyer.


Walt Pohl 08.22.03 at 6:05 pm

FDL: If we grant that the deliberate targetting of civilians to break their will to fight is moral, then it would be okay if Israel started doing the same thing?

I personally do advocate passive resistance for the Palestianians, and not for the Israelis, for one reason: if the Palestinians did it, it would work. If the Israelis did it, it would not.


musz 08.22.03 at 7:53 pm

First, those who argue that “Israel” has never intentinonally targeted innnocent citizens clearly do not know much about Ariel Sharon. He has. He did. I believe he still does. Of course not all of them are Israeli — do you remember Racheal Corrie?

Second, I never said that Chris advocated passive resistance for one side but not for the other. I implied that some people do this, and indeed one such person has done so explicitly in this thread.

Third, Israeli policy is determined, in part, by popular will. Anyone who votes for Sharon’s party, or worse, is not that innocent.


Micha Ghertner 08.22.03 at 9:12 pm

First, those who argue that “Israel” has never intentinonally targeted innnocent citizens clearly do not know much about Ariel Sharon.

I guess I don’t know much about Ariel Sharon. Is this supposed to be some vague Sabra and Shatilla reference? If so, whether or not you condemn Sharon for what he allowed to happen, Israel fired him for his (in)action, indicating that the actions of “Israel,” i.e. government policy are separate from the actions of one particular individual within that government.

Of course not all of them are Israeli — do you remember Racheal Corrie?

Sure do. First, there is no conclusive evidence that her death was intentional. Second, even if it was, there is a difference between intentionally killing a civilian who is interfering with military action and intentionally killing a civilian who is riding the bus to work.

Third, Israeli policy is determined, in part, by popular will. Anyone who votes for Sharon’s party, or worse, is not that innocent.

So you believe that suicide bombers check voter-registration cards before they murder everyone on board a bus?


Josh Klugman 08.22.03 at 10:45 pm

Pathos–you are making a distinction without a difference when you delineate between intentional killing and knowing killing. Intent really matters when the perpetrator doesn’t really know if his/her actions will result in deaths (deaths caused by recklessness/negligence). Israel’s continuing use of heavy firepower in dense residential areas, to my mind, qualifies as knowing killing rather than recklessness/negligence. The fact that IDF soldiers, officers, and generals are rarely punished when Palestinian civilians do die as a result of their operations suggests to me that the Israeli leadership is just as callous about Palestinian lives as Hamas/Islamic Jihad/Fatah are about Israeli lives. The moral difference between the IDF and Palestinian militants is not as stark as you (or suicide bomber romanticizers for that matter) want to believe.


pathos 08.23.03 at 4:19 pm

It is the Palestinians who chose to hide in heavily populated areas. The Israelis can either allow the tactic to work, or not. If they do, there are more terrorists, if they don’t, they are blamed for knowingly killing innocents. Given the no-win situation, they prefer to take the blame from people who have no interest in placing blame with Palestinians.

Why did everyone get so angry at Geraldo for carrying a gun? Because then every journalist becomes a target. Palestinians hide with women and children. Therefore, women and children get killed.

Second, the “distinction without a difference” between intentional and knowing is an integral part of American criminal law, whether you have heard of it or not.

A quick google search gave me a Michigan law on fraud (in the URL link).

Section I is “intentional failure to comply”. Section II is “knowing failure to comply.” The penalty in Part II is less than in Part I. You may think what I wrote was meaningful, but hundreds of years of Anglo-American common law say different.


Josh Klugman 08.23.03 at 6:13 pm

I do not see how using gunships, tanks, and mortars in urban areas in the O.T. is necessary for Israel’s security. However, I do see how it fits into a strategy to pummel Palestinians into submission and eventually annex O.T. land and resources.

By the way, sympathizers of the suicide bombers tell similar convenient fictions to justify the intentional killing of civilians–“no-win situation”, etc.

As far as the intent/knowing distinction goes, I gladly endorse your idea of making the ratio of punishments for Palestinian militants and Israeli leaders similar to the ratio of punishments the state of Michigan doles out for intentional employment benefit fraud and knowing fraud–it’s certainly an improvement over the current situation. How about 100 years imprisonment for Ahmed Yasin and Ramadan Shallah, and 50 years for Sharon and Ya’alon?


Robert Schwartz 08.24.03 at 1:49 am

I am a Jew and a Zionist. I am not going to argue the morality of Israel’s actions or its right to exist.

This may sound unreasonable to you, so be it. My continued existence, the continued existence of my people, our right to live in Israel, if we wish, and our ability to defend ourselves, are not and will not be the subjects of negotiation.

Make no mistake about it, the “Palestinians” of what ever stripe have, and have had since their beginnings in the 1960’s, one goal and that is the destruction of Israel and the extermination or expulsion of the Jews from its territory.

This has lead to the current war, the seventh, eighth or ninth between the Arabs and the Jews. This war, like all wars is hell. That is too bad, but that is the way all wars are, without exception or apology. If one side finds that hell is too hot, it can lay down its arms and sue for peace.

This is not an option for Israel since it would be suicide. It was, and in truth remains, an option for the “Palestinians.” Although their ability to improve, or even obtain all of, the terms they were offered three years ago is gone.

“The International Community,” which stood idly by while Hitler slaughtered the Jews of Europe is opposed to Israel. So what? This is not news, they would sit idly by if the Palestinians had their way and killed all of the Jews.

As for the nominal beginning of this thread, Honderich is an Anti-Semite and academia and the left are marbled with Anti-Semitism, like a rib-eye steak is marbled with fat. Again this is not news, but it is a major reason why I am anti-leftist and why I will not support academia politically or financially.


Joshua W. Burton 08.25.03 at 9:10 pm

Ross writes:

> I wonder which side, Palestinian or Israeli, has killed more children.

The best hard data of which I am aware is here:

These age and gender numbers are consistent with a majority of Palestinian noncombatant fatalities being victims of profiling, and strikingly inconsistent with the “recklessness” hypothesis being stipulated by all sides in this thread.

There are sound arguments to be made that (1) targeted assassination is wrong, even in war, and (2) age/gender profiling is wrong, even in urban war against irregulars. Both of these propositions are more controversial than the rising certainties that (3) reckless, (4) knowing, and (5) intentional killing of civilians is wrong. The latter certainties, however, hang on a factual case that is much weaker than the Beeb would have us believe.


Joshua W. Burton 08.25.03 at 9:11 pm

Oops, that URL didn’t get posted for some reason. Let me try it again, as quoted text.



Josh Klugman 08.26.03 at 4:22 am

By this logic, if Palestinian murderers made sure that they mainly killed male Israeli civilians above the age of 18, the morality of their actions would become more “controversial”, whereas as it is now, when their victims are more representative along gender and age lines, their actions are certainly wrong.

By the way, the ICT’s ongoing tally of deaths also shows the number of children’s deaths caused by both sides. I won’t say who’s “winning” in this category because it’s irrelevant. Clearly, the decision to highlight numbers vs. proportions, children deaths vs. female deaths vs. aggregated deaths is pretty much determined by which one will make one’s side look better than the other, and not by any universal, abstract principles.


Joshua W. Burton 08.26.03 at 6:46 am

I’m not sure about your logic: Israelis assert a controversial aim consistent with their observed statistical result, but it doesn’t follow that Palestinian Arabs couldn’t achieve an equivalent demographic result with entirely indefensible aims.

But your conclusion seems reasonable to me. Ceteris paribus, it is more clearly immoral (for anyone) to kill without discrimination as to age or gender, than to target and mostly kill men of fighting age like me.


Ross Judson 08.26.03 at 4:21 pm

The ICT information is quite detailed; I wonder what its sources are? Who makes the judgement about the status of a given victim? Things like age and sex can be determined accurately, but combatant status is a little tougher, I would think.

I also wonder what happens to the statistics if we pull away from a strict notion of victim == dead person. If we do that and include other forms of physical violence and socioeconomic suppression, what do the charts look like?


Ross Judson 08.26.03 at 4:30 pm

After reading Robert Schwartz’ comment above I was somewhat perplexed. Rather than respond directly, perhaps you should read his opinions on Palestinians, who he collectively refers to as a “psychotic death cult called the Palestinians”, and what he believes an appropriate final solution might be.


Joshua W. Burton 08.26.03 at 8:58 pm

In the unabridged version of their report (articleid=439), the ICT staff document their data gathering and categorization methodology in more detail. A cursory look at their numbers for the March/April 2002 peak shows that they match the B’Tselem (leftish Israeli human rights org, roughly Amnesty without the Durban stigma) counts within one or two out of 200. I don’t think there’s a lot of wiggle room here, except that all the “unknown” fatalities are being counted as noncombatants by the ICT report.

Fatalities are not only easier to tally accurately than socioeconomic suppression; they also have the useful property that (barring collaborator killings) we can assume that most victims are victims of the opposite side. All that can be unequivocally said about the economic and broad human rights aspects of the conflict is that Israelis and Palestinians are losing.

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