Small Wars Journal

Incomparable Attractions of Immortality in World Politics: Jihadist Terror and Countervailing Policies of "Mind"

Incomparable Attractions of Immortality in World Politics: Jihadist Terror and Countervailing Policies of "Mind"

Louis René Beres

Though generally unseen, the most compelling form of power on earth is power over death. Always. Today, after an American president declared "victory" over one especially notorious organization with aggressive claims to such ultimate power, Jihadist doctrine is anything but in retreat. On the contrary, ISIS is in the verifiable midst of a substantial "comeback" or group "resurrection."

The tangible reasons behind such worrisome portents are largely unhidden. For Jihadist fighters around the world, terrorism represents an unequivocally sacred form of religious sacrifice. Moreover, the underlying purpose of their murderous ethos is essentially the same for all fighters. It is to slake each aspiring "martyr's" hunger for immortality, and to accomplish this with the "profane" blood of "unbelievers.

There is more. While the Jihadist terrorist proudly claims to "love death," exactly the opposite is actually true. In reality, it is this terrorist's exceptional terror of death that leads him or her to commit egregious "sacrificial" harms.

The dualistic nature of Jihadist terror/suicide - the sacrifice of an enemy and the reciprocal sacrifice of a suitable "martyr" - is codified (among other places) in the Charter of Hamas: "The Palestinian problem is a religious one, to be dealt with on this premise...."`I swear by that (sic) who holds in His hands, the Soul of Muhammad! I indeed wish to go to war for the sake of Allah! I will assault and kill, assault and kill, assault and kill.'"

There is not much room here for ambiguity. For Jihadist enemies - ISIS, Hamas, Fatah, Hezbollah, it makes little or no operational difference - the ritualistically violent sacrifice of certain intentionally subordinated "others" and terror violence are one and the same. Theologically as well as tactically, they are densely interwoven, inextricably intertwined, altogether inseparable.

Interestingly, this Jihadist view of the world, one fully redolent of disharmony, disintegration and homicide, represents the direct opposite of one classic Jewish tradition. According to certain ancient Jewish narratives, a soul-searching perspective that  many Talmudists trace back to the time of Isaiah, the world rests upon thirty-six just men - the Lamed-Vov. For these "chosen" individuals, who must forever remain unknown, even to themselves, the hurtful spectacle of our visible world is utterly unbearable.

Inconsolable in the face of such vast oceans of suffering - and immobilized by a seemingly limitless range of human cruelty and woe - the Lamed-Vov can never expect even a solitary moment of  joy or tranquility.

Not one single moment.

So goes this elucidating Hasidic tale.

"God is merciful," continues the narrative. Accordingly, from time to time, in an expansively sympathetic gesture designed to open up their souls to Paradise, He sets forward the clock of Last Judgment.

Always, by exactly one minute.

There are several discernible meanings to this tradition of mercy, all of which stand in conspicuous contrast to Jihadist concepts of "sacrifice." One of these more compassionate meanings may even offer some redemptive hope in relieving the world's growing nearness to irreversible global catastrophe. Soon, we will require a whole world of just men (and women). Soon,  we will have to create the special conditions under which each and every one of  us is personally able to feel the excruciating anguish and dreadful portents experienced by the Lamed-Vov.

What then?

In the aptly lyrical language of Freudian psychiatry, a language increasingly lost to the "modern world" of science, these conditions could be produced only by a "spontaneous sympathy of souls."

This is not an easy concept to understand.

Still, then, and perhaps only then, would we finally be able to take the necessary steps back toward a meaningful survival, that is, from endlessly lascivious enemy defilements of human dignity to reassuringly far-reaching expressions of courage and sanctification.

Then, faced with an unavoidably ultimate choice between life and death, between "the blessing and the curse," we should finally be able to "choose life."

Here, however, unwittingly, a complicating and ironic problem could transport humanity beyond even its very best intentions. It is not only that expanding empathy would present everyone with a too-monumental task, one requiring unprecedented levels of caring and intellectual understanding.  It is also that the remedy itself would be unsustainable.

How, we must presently inquire, could we possibly hope to endure, both as individuals and as entire nations, if we were to feel, with the very same palpable pain and sorrow, the immeasurable distress of all others? Shall we even imagine, if we can, that the more-or-less consuming empathy we now display viscerally toward only our closest relatives and friends could somehow be extended to the very broadest possible parameters of human society? Quite plainly, we could not begin to survive such an excruciating and protracted torment.

There also exists a corresponding dilemma, a most unenviable paradox. To survive as a species, we must first be able to survive as individuals. But the most glaringly evident requirement of species survival – a firm sine qua non that calls for much deeper and wider expressions of human empathy - could simultaneously render each individual life unbearable.

The uncompromising Jihadist view is as follows: The expansive and violent sacrifice of non-members is the single "correct" way to achieve personal and collective redemption. Alternatively, however, ancient Jewish tradition calls for more expansive empathy with all others as the most genuinely sanctified path to any such redemption.

While it would be hard to disagree that the traditional Jewish path described here should be preferred by decent people everywhere, it is also clear that any gainful realization of more universalized empathy could have variously unbearable consequences. In principle, Jewish empathy is preferable to Jihadist antipathy and corollary sacrifice, but even this self-evidently better path would face very powerful obstructions.

Arguably, a meaningful redemption is the core expectation or hope of virtually all human societies here on earth. The psychologist, Carl G. Jung, once even remarked that “Society is the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption." To redeem the whole world, as the creative Swiss thinker had already understood, we must unhesitatingly call forth certain needed metamorphoses. Still, paradoxically, the "success" of these required transformations could  place us squarely within another destructive trajectory of insufferable harms.

In the Jewish tradition, there exist certain vital elements to warn against taking on too much of the suffering of others. Although Jews are doctrinally obligated to feel such suffering, to learn from and be elevated by such torment (Toras Avraham), they must simultaneously guard against too much empathy. More precisely, though ironically, they must be wary of any too-strong feelings of caring and compassion. Such feelings, after all, could sometime occasion their own destruction.

At times, cautioned the Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, we must all heed the amply bewildering warning: "He who wants to live, should act as if he were dead." (Tamid 32a).

Credo quia absurdum. "I believe because it is absurd." It may be very hard for any of us, Jew or non-Jew, it makes no difference, to understand that an imagined death could somehow sustain life. Nonetheless, all things move in the midst of death, and each individual life must be recognized as an intended part of a much larger whole.

Always.

We may learn, perhaps from the instructive legend of the Lamed-Vov, not only that empathy is essential, but also that too much empathy would strain human endurance. Therefore, implicit in the construction of the thirty-six just men is God's most "direct" affirmation of the Brisker Rav's warning.

Sometimes, let us always be analytic, truth can emerge through paradox. Truth may also spring from a sobering awareness that reason alone is sometimes incapable of revealing to us what is most important. Precisely such a keen awareness was embedded in the deep thoughts of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who, in the dreadfully serious matters now before us, namely prospective Jihadist conquests, would urge us to seek not any "concepts of truth" but “truth itself.”

This is a seemingly strange distinction, but it is still decidedly consequential.

In similar fashion to his thoughtful Swiss acolyte and colleague, Carl G. Jung, Sigmund Freud spoke of “souls." He had understood, even in the vortex of his own frequently professed atheism, that a well-placed mystery of eternity must always hover meaningfully above and beyond the narrowly temporal world. The very deepest realities of human love and empathy, Freud already knew, can never be fully elucidated through science alone.

Freud argued that such realities may be discovered in almost every element of our day-to-day lives. This includes even those elements that are manifestly impure: "It is," says Rabbi Kook, "just from those thoughts which are mixed with evil and impurity, that great light emerges, which renews the vigor of life."

In itself, we ought easily be able to agree, that (1) existence is intrinsically good; and (2) from existence, we can learn many things. This includes the necessarily vital mysteries of empathy and human survival. Apocalypse, let us remember, even after the ancient Persian Zoroastrians, remained pretty much a Jewish invention.

To Rabbi Kook, any Divine redemption must inevitably be based upon a greater awareness of human unity, that is, of a central and always-dialectical oneness. If left undimmed, this potentially therapeutic awareness could allegedly give rise to the brightening light of a more generalized loving kindness and to a correspondingly indispensable state of forgiveness.

Seeing requires distance.  Soon, a "lofty" soul will be needed to generate a much greater awareness of human unity: "The loftier the soul, " reasoned Kook, "the more it feels the unity that there is in all."

There is more. We may learn from Rabbi Kook that empathy and justice can sometime bring forth a palpable "regime" of healing, and that such feeling would "flow directly from the holy depth of the wisdom of the Divine soul." Significantly, Rabbi Kook's thinking does not stand in any recognizable opposition to rational and scientific investigation, or oppose any natural expressions of pure feeling to raw intellect. Instead, it identifies a usefully creative tension, one obtaining between a too-abstract and too-formal intellectualism and a still- promising form of Reason. 

In all the world, there can be no greater form of power than power over death. Now faced with Jihadist and other adversaries who discover such incomparable power in the presumably religious sacrifices of terror-violence, the United States and other vulnerable nation-states must learn how best to respond. In the end, we shall never be able to conquer the compelling power of immortality with guns, battleships or missiles. Rather, we must finally learn to acknowledge the inevitable primacy of mind over matter, and to secure ourselves using the rarefied powers of disciplined intellectual analyses.

Though such a prescription may at first appear obvious and incontestable, current political reality in the United States suggests something else altogether. For a pertinent example, the relentless Trump posture of "America First" represents the literal opposite of our long-term national interests. Taken to its logical end points, this visceral or "seat-of-the pants" stance can only lead us farther and farther away from any sustainable life here on earth, let alone from any "life everlasting."

About the Author(s)

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is the author of many books and articles dealing with history, law, literature, and philosophy. He was born in Zürich, Switzerland, at the end of World War II. Some of his pertinent publications have appeared in JURIST; Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); Yale Global Online; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare (Pentagon);  Armed Forces and Society; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; The Strategy Bridge; Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Tel Aviv);  INSS Strategic Assessment (Tel Aviv); The War Room (USA War College); Infinity Journal (Tel Aviv); Modern War Institute (West Point); International Security (Harvard); and World Politics (Princeton).