Sunday, June 23, 2002

Ok, I'm going to do a little bit more meta on this. I should acknowledge that Privateer does not actually believe that I'm being an apologist for the Palestinians, and has actually referred to me in fairly complimentary terms in this comments section of the "doomsday scenario" post that he has written. Well, as complimentary as "Demosthenes thinks I'm a racist, and I think he's an idiot" can get. (For the record, I don't think he's a racist. I think he's profoundly anti-Islamic and used unbelievably brutal and thoughtless rhetoric in the post that started all this, but the former point he doesn't disagree with and the latter seems to stem from anger and frustration at his, and our, relative powerlessness to end this conflict).

I think part of this problem, however, comes from, oddly enough, a conversational habit on the part of westerners. There is a difference between the ideas of "I understand" and "I agree". They are similar in some respects, and agreement can often stem from understanding, but they are fundamentally different. Some cultures understand this intrinsically: Japanese business negotiators, for example, are notorious for saying "yes, yes, yes" when they're merely indicating they understand, to the enternal exasperation of American businessmen who think they agree. North American culture, however, seems to emphasize the connection between the two. It subconsciously embraces the idea that "if only you understand me, you'd agree with me", rebelling against the thought that someone could completely understand you and yet (sometimes violently) disagree with you. Understanding and agreement are, of course, not the same thing, but we tend to forget that.

So, where does this enter the current debate? Well, there is a tendency on the part of those on the right side of the Islamic debates to believe that those who argue for "greater understanding" are trying to find ways to justify whichever acts they have the grievance against... that the left is trying to find "moral equivalency". It is true that some people who are try to understand the "other side" end up sympathizing with them, as they discover elements in the other party's lives, beliefs, and experiences that resonate with their own, identify too strongly with them, and forget that there are other people involved as well who might have as much or more in common with them. That does not mean that such things should be generalized to the entire left, however, or especially to anybody who seeks to understand those they are opposed to. Understanding why someone is doing something does not logically translate into agreeing with the moral justification for their actions: even if one can discover how the party itself justifies its actions, that doesn't necessarily mean that those attempting understanding agree with the choice of reasons that they've decided to use, the reasoning that they employ, or the conclusions that they've made. One can empathize with one's enemy; indeed, if Sun Tsu was correct, that is necessary for victory.

(That was, appropriately enough, Ender Wiggin's key skill in Ender's Game. Ender could understand his enemies better than they understands themselves. Only then, after he had come to know (and even love) them... only then did he destroy them, crushing them so badly that they could never hurt him again).

Most of the posts I've read on the left side of the Blogosphere (at least on this issue) do not call for people to morally agree with those they despise or with acts that are both morally repugnant and strategically counterproductive, but want a more detailed understanding of why different Palestinians would strap a bomb to their chests and blow themselves up (or why Al Qaeda would fly a plane into a building, for that matter) than "they're evil". Even if they are evil, "the devil made 'em do it" (or the Koran for that matter) is an incredibly simplistic form of explanation, one that would be laughable if applied to domestic criminals by criminologists. More to the point, it leads to simplistic conclusions; the sort of "if we hit them hard enough, maybe they won't hit back" thing that seems to dominate the discussion nowadays. Maybe that's true... maybe we do need to hit them, and hit them, and hit them until like a bad puppy they realize what's wrong. We won't know, however, until we know them as well as we know each other, and know whether they can be changed, where we can get away with diplomatic or economic solutions, where we can simply encourage (and benefit from) an inevitable regime change (such as in Iran), and where and how we need to apply force.

Joe Katzman was talking about "fourth-generation warfare"... the new type of warfare, the warfare between a state and a dangerous sub-state actor. If this is a new war, if this is indeed a kind of war that we've never had to deal with before, then the old geopolitical strategies and attitudes may not necessarily apply, and applying them could do far, far more harm than good. If we must have war, then far better to effectively wield a scalpel than toss around a broadsword. We do not want to be "generals constantly fighting the last war".

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