The Intellectual Trap Of “Understanding”

[First published April 3, 2004] I will put aside the horror I feel over the Islamicists (Islamic fundamentalists, Islamo-fascists) democide and genocide bombing (so-called suicide bombing). I will assume that all who visit this blog hate as I do the mass murder of thousands of human beings by these international gangs of murderous thugs, often supported by one Islamic dictatorship or another.

At this moment, I want to post this commentary to those who teach the young, as I did for over thirty years. The problem of teaching such democide is to communicate understanding of why the murderers do so, as we have seen the major media attempt to do. To the open-minded intellectual and teacher, to the rational minded, this seems what we should be about. As so many have said, understanding is not only the first step of wisdom, but it is the necessary condition of the eventual control and elimination of such violence.

But herein is the trap.

Hypothesize that one is a teacher on September 4, 1939, three days after the invasion of Poland by Germany and the outbreak of WWII. As one would know then, this invasion tripped the British-French declaration of war. This was the outbreak of a European war, and it was discussed everywhere, with photos in the newspapers of dead and dying soldiers, tanks, cannon’s barking, and all that. One’s students, of course, want to know what is going on. Why the invasion? Why the war? As a teacher, one now has an obligation to explain.

To do so, let us say that one tries to get one’s students to understand why Hitler invaded Poland. One therefore goes into the Versailles Treaty, and its heavy reparations on Germany, the unfairly perceived blame that Germany had to suffer, the loss of German dignity and honor, and then the Polish attacks across the border (German propaganda widely believed at the time). And of course, there was the “hypocrisy” of the Allies, what with Britain’s military actions and democide in South Africa and India, and France’s rapacious imperial rule and democide in Indochina, Algeria, and elsewhere in Africa.

After this lecture, what is the student left with? One might feel that now one has communicated understanding, and fulfilled one’s teaching role. And what are the consequences? Out of the best of intentions and commitment to understanding, one has unconsciously provided aid and sympathy for Hitler. One has argued, in effect, Hitler’s side, and thus given aid and comfort to the enemy of freedom and a rapacious murderer.

Why? Three things are missing in this. One is the character of Hitler, his worldview, and how he runs his country. Two, his intentions–what he after and what would the world be like if he won this war. And three, as important, not only their sins, but also the virtues of his enemies should be highlighted.

Only all this together, I submit, would provide a solid basis for students’ evaluating what is going on.

Now, with regard to the Islamic terrorists, the same holds. I have seen much in the major media, sometimes written by professors, and which can only reflect what they teach, attempts to understand why the terrorists have committed such murders as 9/11, and recently the Madrid bombings. But note what is missing.

1. In international and virtually all civil laws, it is the greatest evil to murder innocent people en masse. Conscientious governments, diplomats, anti-war organizations, academics, and others have worked for centuries to limit and restrain attacks on civilians, with much success until the Islamicist terrorism. We have the history of the various Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions, the Genocide Convention, and now the International Court of Justice. Yet, these murderous attacks go on without much reference in the media to this barbarous regression to the extermination of men, woman, and children during the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Genghis Khan, and the European Middle Ages. Or, look at these murders another way. The terrorist attacks are comparable to serial murder within a state by a citizen, but here done on foreigners. In this case, the attacks are the greatest serial murders ever committed in written history by civilians (not governments, or their agents). Surely, an understanding of this butchery requires this context.

2. These serial murderers belong to a fanatical belief system that is even more totalitarian and absolute than that practiced by communist countries. Were these Islamicists in power, there would be no human rights, no freedom of speech whatsoever, no freedom of religion at all. Even those of different sects within the Muslim faith would be killed. Any dissidents would be murdered, as would any one with different political beliefs, or who even inadvertently criticized Mohammed. All women would be, in effect, enslaved. And even buy and sell slavery could be condoned or practiced, as in one of their supporting regimes, Sudan. In sum, these people would, if they had the power, create an absolutist, slave society.

3. As to the sins of the United States, yes, there has been many, but also there have been greater compensating virtues that also should be mentioned to students (you can’t assume they know these, anymore than they know the value of their right arm until it is cut off). Americans fought a war to end slavery, the greatest war fought between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Compared to other countries, the rise in power, wealth, and influence of minorities and women within a comparatively short time has been incredible. Compare the hatred and discrimination the Irish, Italians, Asians, and others suffered their first decades in America to now. America has been one of the most commiserating and helpful nations in times of human disaster, giving of itself tremendous aid and support to other countries, regardless of enemy or friend. During the communist Civil War in Russia, American food aid saved several million lives. Then closer to our time, consider the aid to Somalia, which may have saved a million alone. Then consider that in 1945 the United States emerged as not only the most powerful nation, but also in full control of its former enemies, Japan, Germany, and Italy. Yet, did it exploit them to create a Roman like empire? No, it gave them all massive aid to recover from the war, and then gave them back their freedom. Now, with the collapse of Soviet Power, there is only one superpower in the world, the United States. But has it used that power to rule the world. Hardly, the easy evidence is how many weak nations and self-professed enemies can thumb their nose at America, as long as they do not endanger its security, as did Afghanistan and Iraq under Hussein.

I could go on mentioning how open American borders have been, how it is a beacon of freedom, and the great freedoms Americans enjoy, including the ability to emphasize its sins, even in the face of a national tragedy like 9/11, as evidenced by the existence of this website. And that in the terrorist’s world, many who visit this site would by now probably have been executed, many with torture beforehand. I hope that visitors can fill in the rest of America’s virtues themselves. But the point of this commentary is not to focus on these virtues alone, or to ignore the vices often italicized in the media, but to point out that this should be part of a balanced understanding of Islamicist terrorism, along with the atavistic barbarism of civilian mass murder, the intentions of the terrorists, and the consequences were they successful

Only, I believe, when we communicate to students and others about contemporary terrorism in this way will they truly understand what is going on.

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