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Insanity and Death

Why Arafat has no choice but to compromise, but may not.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 17, 2002

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Insanity and Death_James Leroy Wilson-Why Arafat has no choice but to compromise, but may not. The conservative media has never been shy about criticizing President Bush's policies. Now let's stop right there. "Criticizing President Bush's policies." They are not doubting the man's ability or integrity, or trying to undermine the public's faith in him. They are merely pointing out, without actually saying, that President Bush fulfilled, or in good faith tried to fulfill, every single promise with which conservatives disagreed, such as federal meddling in faith-based social programs and education. Yet at the same time, he broke every promise that appealed to conservatives, from vouchers to tariffs to campaign finance reform.

The latest mistake conservatives lament is Bush asking Israel to pull out of the occupied territories, and sending Colin Powell to try to negotiate peace between Israel and Palestine. Conservatives claim that Israel, after suffering the degree of terrorism it has suffered, has a right to defend itself. Especially after they had negotiated in good faith to exchange land for peace, and that it is clear that the goal of Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat is the eradication of the state of Israel. The contrary position is that Palestinians are suffering disproportionately for the acts of the few, that Palestine deserves independence, that there is widespread poverty among the Palestinians that leads to terrorism, that Israel should never have conquered these lands which were used by aggressor states to attack Israel, etc.etc.

Among the tenets of the Just War theory in Catholic theology are just cause, right intention, and proportionality (the evil to be inflicted must not outweigh the good to be achieved.) There is one problem here, a big one. It is the same one faced by any democratic-style government at war with one that isn't; the dictator can't ever win, knows it, yet keeps fighting with total disregard for the lives of his own people.

I am reminded of a story on NPR's "This American Life" shortly after September 11, where one interviewee (I can't recall whom) described World War II as a downward spiral of insanity. By late 1942, it became clear to both the Allies and the Axis that the Axis could not win. This was followed by the worst 2 ½ years of human history, during which the Allies, the civilized, democratic powers, mercilessly bombed civilians in Japan and Germany by the hundreds of thousands. Stopping the war when it became clear that their ends could not be achieved was simply not an option to Japanese and German leaders. They had to wait until their countries were in utter ruins.

It is often debated whether the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshema, and especially Nagasaki were justified. But the concept of justification in the sense used implies and entails rational thought and choice. It is one thing to rationally try to subdue a dangerous, insane person, resorting to lethal force only to protect the life of someone else. But how do you subdue a country? Draw lines between combatants, non-combatants who are furthering the war, and non-combatants who are minding their own business? War is hell, and when in hell ethics and rationality don't matter. All that matters is getting out of hell. And, as the NPR interviewee said, the celebrations in America after WWII were not about rejoicing at the defeat and humiliation of Japan and Germany, or glorying in the greatness of America. They were celebrating instead that the war was finally over. They got out of hell.

Victory for Israel in this war is only to live in safety and peace. This can not be compromised; a government that would settle for anything less is not a government at all. So the question for Palestine is, are its goals compatible with Israel's? If not, can it defeat Israel? When the answer to both questions is no, the sane solution is to re-evaluate the goals, perhaps reducing them to Israel's, which is to live in safety and peace. If that is considered "defeat," and if honor, pride, paradise, or fame are considered valid substitutes for victory, then negotiation is impossible and a lot of innocent Palestinians are going to die.

Countries that respect the right to life will have their critics whenever they are drawn into a war. Any loss of innocent life on the other side is an argument for not fighting at all. But I think they are looking at it from the wrong perspective. Countries that do not respect the right to life will, when they start wars, inevitably suffer large losses of human life. It is a curse for which many individuals themselves are not to blame, but for which the country as a whole suffers because of its own ideology, leadership, or religion. The most they can manage to do is drag their normally civilized enemies down to their level, at least for the duration of the war.

And there's nothing President Bush or Secretary Powell can do about that, except pray.

Editor's Note: Also see Dear Jon's related article, "Lucidity and Life", published April 19, 2002.

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