“An opinion can be argued with; a conviction is best shot,” wrote TE Lawrence in The Evolution of a Revolt.
Whatever ones views about the legitimacy or morality of the use of violence, it’s hard not to at least sympathize with the sentiment. How indeed is it possible to reason with those who are impervious to reason?
Consider, for instance, the Jewish settler in the video below. This is his argument in favor of the theft of Palestinian land and property: “The Bible says that we have to conquer the land. So we believe… the land is ours. We believe in the Bible.” As if to say, I can’t think; I can only believe. I can’t see through my own eyes; I can only see what the Bible reveals. I am a slave to ideas crafted from afar — ideas whose authority I gladly and blindly trust.
But here’s the problem in Lawrence’s proposition: in the contest between reason and conviction, it’s the man with the conviction who most likely holds the gun.
Hendrik Hertzberg recounts one such instance:
On October 5, 1995, as the Knesset was meeting to ratify the second Oslo agreement, thirty thousand Greater Israel zealots, Likud Party supporters, militant West Bank settlers, and right-wing nationalists rallied in Jerusalem’s Zion Square. For months, certain ultra-Orthodox rabbis and scholars had been suggesting that, because Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was willing to consider territorial concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians, it would be permissible, even obligatory, to kill him. In Zion Square, protesters carried pictures of Rabin, doctored to show him in Nazi uniform or with crosshairs over his face. The crowd chanted “Rabin boged!”—“Rabin is a traitor!”—and, again and again, “Death to Rabin!” From a balcony, prominent opposition politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu, looked on benevolently and uttered no rebukes. A month later, at another, larger rally, this one for peace, Rabin was assassinated.
In 1995 in Jerusalem, the connection between talk and action was direct and unmistakable. The killer, Yigal Amir, a student of Jewish law, was an activist of the organized religious right. He was neither delusional nor incoherent. “I did this to stop the peace process,” he explained at a court hearing. “We need to be coldhearted.” He acted with a clear political purpose, one that he shared with much of the mainstream religious and secular right. Within six months, Netanyahu was Prime Minister; Rabin’s widow, Leah, and many other Israelis never forgave him for what they saw as his cynical tolerance of the extremist stew that had nurtured the murderer.
The context for Hertzberg’s re-telling of this well-known narrative is the ongoing debate, following the Tucson shootings, about the dangerous effects of hate-filled rhetoric.
In President Obama’s Tucson speech last week — “his finest speech as President, and the truest to his essential character,” at least in Hertzberg’s opinion — Obama noted: “We are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do.”
Intolerance does indeed color much of the political discourse in America and the attitudes that make this such a fractured world. But let’s not pretend that a shift in tone initiated by conciliatory words from this president either have much depth or will have any lasting effect.
This is a president who, with the words “Predator drones,” once made light of his ability to shred and vaporize the bodies of men, women and children whose names will never be known beyond the villages and valleys where they once lived.
This week we learned that in October, during what in the euphemistic language of war is dubbed the Afghan “surge” — a wave of death and destruction designed to diminish the Taliban’s strength — 25 tons of explosives were used by US forces to reduce a whole village to dust.
Obama might have brought a change in tone and manner to the White House but violence is no less the American way now than it was under the Bush administration.
A Democratic party less inclined to use the vitriolic language of its gun-loving counterparts, is disingenuous in its claim to be a party of civility while it acquiesces to the perpetuation of an unwinnable war and the funding of a military machine that dwarfs all others.
The reactions to the Tucson shootings revealed less about the inflammatory effect of hateful language and much more about America’s unwillingness to face the fact that this is a nation that condones, honors, venerates and at times worships the use of violence.
On the one hand in its religious bearings America adopts the posture of an Old Testament moral absolutism, yet when it comes to that fundamental injunction: thou shalt not kill, there are a hundred and one caveats which expose the chasm separating moral principle and moral practice.
I make this observation, however, not for the purpose of condemning violence but in order to point to a more fundamental issue: the need for truthfulness.
Embedded in the reason which is impervious to reason — the conviction which has a voice but no ears — is a false relationship to language. It demands from its audience the very thing it lacks: receptivity. It simultaneously expresses a demand to communicate and an unwillingness to communicate. It is, in a word, dishonest.
At the same time, those who are to a much lesser degree the slaves of conviction, nevertheless rarely have a greater love of truth, since for most, the guiding force in their approach to politics is not a ruthless honesty but the power of affiliation. Tribal instincts are at play just as much on the left as on the right.
After Obama’s speech, the “atmosphere smelled cleaner,” declared Hertzberg, but is that all that is called for — the occasional squirt of presidential air freshener?
If Obama truly had the capacity and desire to courageously lead, he would have to do something much more profound than change the ambiance in political discourse. He would have to inject a level of honesty that two years into his presidency he no longer has the ability to credibly project. He would have to replace a willow spine with some steel. He would have to acknowledge that the political center is not sacred territory — it provides just as much a refuge for political opportunists as do the ideological extremes.