Suicide, or as the participants doubtless dubbed it, a “martyrdom operation,” was the evident goal of the Hamas supporters on the Mavi Marmara. It is hard to draw any other conclusion from the available facts, including the Israeli military’s video footage of the raid. If you attack soldiers with deadly weapons, you expect to be shot. Instead of suicide by policeman, this was suicide by Israel.
The decisive issue in the Gaza flotilla affair is that without the bloody shirt to wave, the incident would have passed without mention. The overriding fact as far as most of the world is concerned is that there are nine corpses on the deck of a ship. In retrospect, it seems clear that the object of the exercise was to produce these corpses. The Mavi Marmara incident was an exercise in the theater of horror, one suicide attack in long and sickening series of suicide attacks.
Never in the history of warfare has a combatant culture found so many prospective martyrs. As of early 2008, 1,121 people have blown themselves up in Iraq alone, and 156 Palestinian terrorists blown themselves up in Israel. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 1,944 suicide attacks took place between 1981 and June 2008.
One purpose of suicide attacks is to terrify the prospective victims. But there is a larger purpose, and that is to horrify the world. That is the Achilles’ heel of the West. Israel lives in the cross-hairs of Islamist terrorism, but even the advisors of Prime Minister Netanyahu do not understand the Islamist strategy. If they did, a handful of lightly armed commandos never would have been sent to help the prospective martyrs of the Mavi Marmara accomplish their mission.
Ten years ago, I began writing the “Spengler” essays in order to warn the West of its susceptibility to horror. I wrote on Oct. 12, 2001, just after the attacks on the Twin Towers:
The grand vulnerability of the Western mind is horror. The Nazis understood this and pursued a policy des Schreckens (to cause horror) and Entsetzens (terror, literally: dislodgement). Horror was not merely an instrument of war in the traditional sense, but a form of Wagnerian theater, or psychological warfare on the grand scale. Hitler’s tactical advantage lay in his capacity to be more horrible than his opponents could imagine. The most horrible thing of all is that he well might have succeeded if not for his own megalomaniac propensity to overreach.
America, as Osama bin Laden taunted this week, lost in Vietnam. But it was not military setbacks, but the horrific images of Vietnamese civilians burned by napalm, that lost the war. America’s experience in the war is enshrined in popular culture in the film Apocalypse Now, modeled after Joseph Conrad's story, The Heart of Darkness. The Belgian trading company official, Paul Kurtz, sinks into bestiality and dies with these words: ‘The horror! The horror!’ It was a dreadful film, but a clever reference. At the close of World War I, T S Eliot subtitled his epitaph for Western civilization, “The Hollow Men,” with a quote from the Conrad story: ‘Mr Kurtz, he dead.’
From America’s moral collapse in the face of the horror of Vietnam, there arose a repudiation of classical Western culture unlike anything seen previously in the English-speaking world. The West nearly threw up its hands in the face of the challenge from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s.
Muslims comprise just over a fifth of the world’s population, and no Muslim-majority country has shown itself capable of engaging modernity. Despair takes many forms. One is refusal to reproduce: the average Iranian woman grew up in a family of six children and will bear one or two. Another is suicidal rage: Die on your feet rather than live on your knees. A culture that offers up so many young martyrs is overcome with nihilism.
It is quite possible that the Muslim world will fail, and that the result will be a prolonged period of chaos, bloodshed and depopulation, punctuated by terrible wars fought with nuclear weapons, when available.
The Western mind recoils at the prospect. Those who recoil most are the Europeans, who do not need to send to know for whom the bell tolls. At present fertility rates the number of German speakers will fall by 98 percent over the next two centuries. But most of Western foreign policy for the past decade arose from an hysterical aversion to facing the great problem of cultural failure. The Bush administration’s hope of promoting democracy and nation-building in the region was failed exercise in social engineering. President Bush drew on the advice of the Israeli political leader and former Russian refusenik Nathan Sharansky, who argued that democracy would solve all the world’s problems.
Then there are the Turks, whose open sponsorship of Islamist terrorism is the immediate cause of the Gaza crisis. As Caroline Glick observed in the Jerusalem Post, a previous, secular Turkish government had banned the IHH—the organization that outfitted the “aid” flotilla—from participating earthquake relief a decade ago given that organization’s well-documented ties to Hamas.
Two years ago, only a handful of voices warned that Turkey was sliding into Islamism—among them Daniel Pipes, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin, and this writer—and we sounded petulant and shrill. The consensus in Republican Washington held that Tayyip Erdogan represented a moderate and distinctly Turkish brand of Islamism, a benign variant that would help inoculate the Muslim world against the more virulent strain of the disease. Even the staunchest advocates of what used to be known as the Global War on Terror could not wrap their minds around the possibility that “moderate Islamism” was an oxymoron. Now that Erdogan has allied openly with Iran and sponsored a martyrdom operation by Iran’s ally Hamas, there is no question about his intentions.
Even the government of Binyamin Netanyahu appears oblivious to the nature of the Islamist assault. At least until Sunday night, it remained under the delusion that its relations with Turkey might be salvaged, while Turkey was setting in motion a provocation intended to cripple Israel’s ability to defend itself. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon removed Israeli forces and Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005 as a purely unilateral gesture of good will to the Palestinians. He told a senior aide at the time that if Gaza turned into a terrorist nest, the world would see at last that Israel was right.
Just what does the world see? The facts are not in dispute. Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally; Hamas terrorists took control and turned it into a platform to fire missiles at Israeli cities; Iran has been caught red-handed shipping missiles to Gaza; Israel is blockading Gaza to prevent Iranian weapons from reaching Hamas. There never was a less-unambiguous case of national self-defense.
Nonetheless “world opinion” demands that Israel end its blockade of Gaza, which is to say to give up its right to defend itself against terrorists firing missiles at its cities. And the ground for this demand is the unambiguous fact of nine corpses on a ship’s deck. It is not just the nine “martyrs” who sought death at the hands of Israeli soldiers that transfixes the world: It is the likelihood that an arbitrarily large number of deaths will follow.
Cleaning up the mess left by the Bush administration and exacerbated by the Obama administration will be unspeakably horrible. If simpering, cowardly Western opinion turns green at the nine corpses on the Mavi Marmara, consider what will happen if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. Iran intends to use nuclear weapons as a shield for aggressive unconventional warfare in Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon, and perhaps also in northern Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. If Israel is compelled to clean out the missiles held by Iran’s proxy Hizbollah, a million refugees from Lebanon’s Shi’ite south will pour into Syria, as they did briefly during the 2006 war. This time most of them will not return, for there will not be much left of southern Lebanon. Israel will lose perhaps 3,000 infantrymen; Israeli and Lebanese civilian casualties will be in the thousands; and Lebanon will descend into chaos. If Syria intervenes, the resulting Israeli-Syrian war will be unpredictably brutal. It seems likely that the conclusion Israel will draw from the disastrous consequences of its own obtuseness is that it had better fight now while it still can.
That does not take into account the possible replay of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which left a million dead. Today’s version would take the form of a civil war in Iraq. The American “surge” strategy consisted of paying the Sunni resistance to stockpile weapons and train a disciplined militia, rather than engage in random suicide attacks against the Shi’ite majority. Now that the American military has created the so-called Sunni Awakening, the Sunni and Shi’ite camps in Iraq are equally matched. America’s military presence has kept them from fighting; as American forces withdraw over the summer, the likelihood is that a civil war will commence in which neither side can prevail, but both sides are prepared to fight to the death.
The compounding errors of a decade of American foreign policy culminate in the worst error of all: President Barack Obama’s insistence that America treat as legitimate the grievances of the Muslim world. These grievances cannot be assuaged because they arise from a collision with modernity. But Obama’s outreach to the Islamists persuades the Iranians, the Turks, and other contenders for Islamist leadership that America is weak. For the first time in modern history the United States has cast its vote against Israel in the United Nations—in a resolution singling Israel out as the Middle East’s nuclear-arms miscreant and in a second resolution to condemn Israel over the Gaza flotilla charade.
It is hard to see what sequence of events might prevent a horror beyond the worst imagings of the Western public. That is the Islamist trump card. Even if the West wins, the Islamists believe, it loses, as America did in Vietnam and France did in Algeria. The cost of victory will be a wave of horror and revulsion that destroys Western morale. And they well may have judged us aright. If we are incapable of distinguishing our culture from the failing culture of death that has empowered itself in so much of the Muslim world, we will not survive.
The West has lost a series of battles, but not necessarily the war. Islamism also has its Achilles heel. I wrote in 2004:
The West cannot endure without faith that a loving Father dwells beyond the clouds that obscure His throne. Horror—the perception that cruelty has no purpose and no end—is lethal to the West. Europe is dying slowly from the horror of the twentieth century's world wars, ending the way T. S. Eliot foresaw in the poem cited above, ‘not with a bang but a whimper’. Despite its intrinsic optimism, America is vulnerable as well.
The Islamic world cannot endure without confidence in victory, that to “come to prayer” is the same thing as to ‘come to success’. Humiliation—the perception that the Ummah cannot reward those who submit to it—is beyond its capacity to endure.
Radical Islam has risen against the West in response to its humiliation—intentional or not—at Western hands. The West can break the revolt by inflicting even worse humiliation upon the Islamists, poisoning the confidence of their supporters in the Muslim world.
Israel, the stone that the builders rejected, yet may be the West’s cornerstone. An Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program, if it humiliated Iran sufficiently, might change the equation.
David P. Goldman is senior editor at First Things