In his reflections on Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman draws attention to a crisis in Western radical circles precipitated by the wave of suicide bombings that characterized the second Palestinian intifada. These attacks were launched after the Palestinian Authority rejected a peace agreement that would have granted their demands for a Palestinian state and 97% of the land to which they had laid claim in the same negotiations. These suicide bombings were acts of Islamic martyrdom in which the targets were innocent families, including women, old people and small children, and for which the perpetrators were promised a heavenly reward and officially hailed by the Palestinian authority as national heroes. Public opinion polls revealed that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians supported the suicide bombings.
According to Berman, the suicide bombings provoked a crisis among secular radicals, “whose fundamental beliefs would not be able to acknowledge the existence of pathological mass political movements.” What Berman meant was that socialists and progressives whose outlook had been shaped by the rationalism of the Enlightenment would not be able to grasp the pathological nature of Palestinian and Islamic fascism, but would rationalize it as the product of “root causes.” This had many precedents in western radicalism, as for example in the evolution of Italian fascism from its Marxist antecedents (Mussolini had begun his political career as a leftwing socialist), and in the collaboration of German Communists with the Nazis in overthrowing the Weimar democracy, and in the subsequent failure of French socialists to appreciate the Nazi threat.
Berman was himself shocked by the 2002 meeting of the Socialist Scholars Conference, an event he had attended for many years, whose participants were his political comrades and at which he had been a featured speaker himself. “At the 2002 event,” he recalled, “a substantial crowd listened to an Egyptian novelist defend a young Palestinian woman who had just committed suicide and murder – and having heard the defense, the crowd broke into applause.” Previously Berman had witnessed anti-globalization marchers in Washington DC, stalwarts of the left who were by no means predominantly Muslims — chanting “Martyrs not murderers,” as though the cold-blooded killing of innocent families could conceivably be termed a religious act. These episodes, wrote Berman, “typified a hundred other events all over the United States, and even more in Europe, not to mention Latin America and other places.”
Berman himself is mystified that progressive utopians could join such a united front and embrace movements that were in their nature so pathological. He attributes this to a naiveté endemic to the liberal attitudes of 19th Century progressives — “an unyielding faith in universal rationality,” a belief that even people who blow themselves and little children up in the expectation of a place in heaven, and seventy-two virgins besides, must ultimately be inspired by real world grievances.
If you have a favorite Horowitz quote you want to highlight for others then please submit it here. Please include:
- “Horowitz Quote of the Day” in subject line.
- A link to where the quote is from. (No need to include this if it’s from a book.)
- Any remarks you’d like published explaining what value you take from it.
- Your preferred name and a link to your blog or homepage (if you have one.)