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Jewish World Review April 10, 2002 / 29 Nisan, 5762

Norman Doidge

Norman Doidge
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Evil's Advantage Over Conscience

Why the West gives Yasser Arafat endless second chances | HOW IS IT that the Bush administration, which is deadly serious in opposing terrorists and those who harbor them, could let Colin Powell declare last week--on the same day that senior terrorist Yasser Arafat was caught funding the Al Aksa suicide bombers--that Arafat is no terrorist at all? On April 4, President Bush asked Israel to halt its attacks on Arafat's terrorist infrastructure. What must be going on in their minds? Are they serious or aren't they?

Actually, they are serious about fighting terror. But they are also caught in a psychological bind that they do not understand. Letting Arafat go is part of a pattern that has recurred so often it cannot simply be described as a mistake. It is the same pattern that caused George Bush senior to refrain from finishing off Saddam Hussein when he had overwhelmed him. This week, Europe, the Arab world, and the Bush administration are hoping to see a diplomatic initiative develop that will ensure that Israel makes the same mistake George Bush senior did in Iraq, forbidding it from destroying Arafat and his regime.

No one survives as long as Yasser Arafat--forty years as a terrorist--unless he knows something important about the weak spots in Western psychology. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban once quipped that the Palestinians, under Arafat's leadership, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." The remark hasn't aged well. Closer to the truth is that the West has, mysteriously, never missed an opportunity to revive Arafat. Arafat has been able to keep up his spirits because he understands how the Western psyche works in these near-death confrontations. This is because he, as a terrorist who lacks a conscience, can see things that those who have a conscience cannot. It is these insights that have preserved Yasser Arafat.

It would be easy to attribute Arafat's endless second chances simply to a deluded left, since the left favors dealing with Arafat not as a criminal but as an equal. But now, the right and not the left holds power in Israel and the United States. Besides, historically, those who have revived Arafat have not all been leftists or ideological enemies of Israel. Many of them have known that Arafat is a liar and a terrorist. Arafat's psychological magic is most evident when he casts his spell on such men.

But first, to make the case. The list of distinguished fighters of terrorism and tyranny who nonetheless have found themselves overriding their principles to let Arafat go rather than bringing him to justice is remarkable. Ronald Reagan brooked no compromise with the "evil empire," and bombed Muammar Qaddafi's home, nearly killing him. Yet in the 1980s, President Reagan pressured Menachem Begin to let Arafat and his fighters go free when the Israeli army had them cornered in West Beirut. Begin, who had made a career of resisting liberal democracies when they offered Israel bad advice, succumbed. Yitzhak Rabin, after fighting Arafat much of his adult life, decriminalized and rearmed him through Oslo, precisely when Arafat was at his weakest, fresh from endorsing the defeated Saddam Hussein. Ehud Barak had an extraordinary career fighting terrorists before Arafat proved his political undoing. The current President Bush came into office refusing to talk to Arafat or treat him like a normal head of state. Bush's position was reinforced when Palestinians celebrated in the streets on September 11; and he appeared to be viscerally revolted by Palestinian and Fatah suicide bombings in Israel this past December.

But when such men are dealing with Arafat, there is eventually an about-face, and President Bush did his in March. When Israel sent troops into a terrorist nerve center in Ramallah to prevent further attacks on civilians--when it did, in essence, what the United States is doing in Afghanistan--President Bush said Israel's action was "not helpful." When dealing with Arafat, even the foes of terror become inconsistent and incoherent.

The archetypal releaser of Arafat is a leader who has criticized him many times, has shown himself capable of the assertive use of deadly force in other situations, and, like Reagan, Bush, Begin, Sharon, Rabin, and Barak, has criticized others for letting terrorists go free. The typical, last-minute liberator is a reluctant and soon-to-be-regretful redeemer, who has often battled terror. Usually, he is utterly disquieted as he finds himself letting Arafat off, but he feels trapped by some force larger than himself. Something always seems to happen so that the knowledge that it is dangerous to let such men go unpunished is not translated into effective action. It is as though these leaders come under a spell.

This "spell" is part of a dynamic that operates when the evil being confronted is brazen and relentless, and it occurred when the first President Bush let Saddam Hussein off at the end of the Gulf War. The fact that Bush allowed Saddam to escape a just defeat when he was all but conquered is crucial: The person who decides on the ill-advised release does not act from a position of relative weakness. Neville Chamberlain and the others who released Hitler--another representative of brazen evil--at Munich did so before the Fuhrer perfected his war machine. It is as though there were an unwritten psychological law that evil at its most shameless--the most barbaric murder of children and civilians, the most outrageous claims and lies--is somehow, in the minute before midnight, to be treated as an exception worthy of reprieve.

In each historical instance, there is of course a political imperative that is cited to justify snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In Arafat's case, the political imperative has turned out each time to be based on a flawed calculus. In March, U.S. pressure on Israel to loosen its hold on Arafat was justified in the name of shoring up Arab support for Washington's new effort to topple Saddam. That Arab support did not materialize, any more than Oslo's promise had. In fact, Washington's Arab "friends" declared at the Beirut Arab summit that any attack on Iraq was an attack on them. To which Secretary of State Powell replied that Arafat, a man who had boasted of killing the American ambassador and his assistant in Khartoum, was no terrorist.

THE STUDENT of human nature who seems best to have recognized the importance of this bizarre dynamic, in which a conscientious hero proves unable to finish off a foe he knows to be evil, was none other than Shakespeare. Indeed, the Bard was obsessed with understanding the phenomenon. Hamlet hesitated to bring Claudius to justice, and he paid with his life and the lives of those he loved. But it is in "Richard III" that one can learn most from characters who see evil, yet freeze at the key moment. The principal characters are fully aware of Richard's undeniable evil, yet they let him have his way despite themselves. Richard is the most systematically evil character in all of Shakespeare's plays. "I can smile, and murder while I smile," he says, swearing that he will outdo all the villains of history "and set the murderous Machiavel to school."

The most important thing Richard knows is that while conscience allows us to understand ordinary crimes, it actually blinds us before the most extraordinary ones.

The idea that conscience blinds us, making us less able to oppose evil's most brazen forms, is deeply disturbing, for conscience is the sine qua non of civil society. Conscience is supposed to be the faculty that helps us become aware of our effects on others and our motives towards them, notably our baser motives. In Elizabethan English, "conscience" is an equivocal word that can mean either that faculty that allows us to feel guilt or "awareness," as in "consciousness." When Hamlet says, "Conscience does make cowards of us all," he means consciousness, by making us aware of the possibility of death, makes us cowardly.

But conscience, designed to ferret out evil within, can also actually narrow our awareness of evil. This happens, according to Freud, because the person with a conscience learns to repress automatically his own most destructive inclinations so as not to act on them. He becomes ignorant, for example, of the thrill of evil that a sadist like Richard III feels when he plays G-d and exercises the freedom to kill whomever he pleases. But the cost of repressing one's most destructive feelings is an inability to understand, without significant effort, those who give these feelings free rein.

This is seen over and over in "Richard III," especially in Richard's seduction of Lady Anne, whose husband he has murdered, and it is seen over and over in our dealings with terrorists. Richard actually gets Anne to drop her sword when she's about to kill him. Anne, although she knows Richard is evil, cannot see that he has no conscience. She tells him he should hang himself for what he has done. She keeps missing the point. He feels no guilt. Eventually, she marries him, and he murders her.

Conscience, when it is functioning well--automatically and without the intervention of reason, so that we do the right thing without thinking--is not simply rational. It is a force, a blunt instrument before which the conscientious person is guilty until proven innocent. As the preventive agency in the mind, conscience blocks first, thinks later. Men like Arafat and Richard know this. That is why both men constantly charge others with crimes--to paralyze them. Both know it doesn't matter whether the charges are false. Richard brazenly accuses Anne of inspiring the murder of her husband, as Arafat accuses the West of causing terrorism.

It is this force inside the psyche of his enemies that the person without a conscience can so effectively enlist as a fifth column. Having himself no such inner force always second-guessing him, he can see it clearly in others--far more clearly than do those who are in its thrall and take each of its charges seriously. Arafat gets endless second chances because the conscience of the West is doing what a conscience does: second-guessing the West's own actions. That is why Arafat is always playing upon the conscience of the West, especially by his endless recourse to "international law" and invocation of "human rights," an utterly brazen ploy coming from a terrorist.

Law, in the democracies, is like a civic conscience, and like conscience, it is the bluntest of instruments. Because law, in democracies, is made by the people, it has their respect. Democratic citizens are prone to the illusory hope that the law can be applied successfully in international affairs between regimes regardless of whether they are democracies or tyrannies, strong or weak. The name for this hope is "international law." But because the law in tyrannies is ultimately the product of one man's whim, a mere vehicle of the preeminent will and power, it cannot restrain the preeminent will and power. Conscientiousness in no way attaches to the law in tyrannies. International agreements with tyrants are meaningless, yet pursuit of such agreements is precisely what the State Department is now endorsing by trying to get Israel to sit at the table with Arafat.

"What is the law?" Saddam Hussein once asked. Then he answered his own question. "The two lines above my signature."

WHEN A TERRORIST such as Arafat or bin Laden uses bombs as well as language, his goal is to weaken the society he targets by manipulating not just fear but also conscience. He seeks to create a fifth column within each individual, sympathetic to his ideals, and a fifth column within the society, an anti-self-defense movement that will righteously lobby the government to open the gates, so that the terrorist can destroy his target with ease. But the mechanism by which societies succumb must be in large part unconscious. After all, few can face themselves if they say, "I am succumbing to fear."

The terrorist therefore must persuade his victims that they are "doing the right thing" by submitting to fear. To do so, the terrorist needs to recruit or take over each victim's conscience and change it. This happens in stages.

Terror does not work simply by killing: It is malignantly theatrical. Terror aims not only to maim its immediate victims but also to induce a second-hand trauma in its audience, to change them against their will. The core tactic of terrorism is the use of random violence on the target population's home turf. This instills a sense that one can never leave the field of battle, because the field of battle is one's home. The genius of terrorism is that it uses infrequent, random violence to create a sense that terror is omnipresent.

During the 1970s, when planes were frequently hijacked and people kidnapped, a bizarre phenomenon occurred. Consciences were hijacked too. People who had been held at gunpoint and forced to beg for their lives, dependent on their captors for their next breath, emerged to describe those captors as just people who treated them well. Former hostages righteously lectured their own governments on the need to support the terrorists' demands. Unremitting terror gave rise to an almost psychotic wishful thinking, which recast the terrorists as good people, nay, even deliverers.

The psychological mechanism involved is called "identification with the aggressor" and was first described by Anna Freud. When this identification occurs, it is as though the terrorist implants his own ideals and moral code inside his victim's conscience.

The paradigmatic example of this occurred in Stockholm in 1973, when four tellers were held at gunpoint for 131 hours in a bank vault. Soon the captives were expressing more fear of the police who were trying to rescue them than of their captors. One prisoner, in a phone call to the Swedish prime minister, Olaf Palme, said, "The robbers are protecting us from the police." After the tellers were released, they expressed no hatred for their captors, and even said they were emotionally indebted to them. Throughout the seventies, the Stockholm Syndrome was demonstrated over and over. Americans captured by terrorists in Lebanon emerged from captivity praising the same Arab terrorists who had murdered their fellows. Patty Hearst, kidnapped in California by the Symbionese Liberation Army, did the same.

The Stockholm Syndrome is not a conscious attempt to ingratiate oneself with one's captors, but an automatic emotional response, seen in many, though not all, captives. With the help of TV, terrorism creates what one might call a "Second-hand Stockholm Syndrome" in the body politic. The goal is to make the target population fall back on wishful thinking, and say, "Maybe if we listen to their demands, they will stop. Maybe the problem is how we are handling the crisis. Maybe we are being too forceful. Maybe they can be reasoned with. Maybe we should hold our fire and give peace a chance." The citizenry becomes progressively more passive and confused and willing to appease. This confusion is manifest whenever pundits who are apologists for terror speak of terrorist violence as caused not by the perpetrators, but by some abstract "cycle of violence," suggesting a moral equivalence between the terrorist and his victims and blotting out the reality of barbarism and human psychopathy. How much nicer to live in a world of abstractions than of Richards, Arafats, Saddams, and bin Ladens.

Like Richard, the terrorist is brazen and relentless. America is new to terror on its home soil, and has yet to see relentlessness in action. It is societies such as Israel, targets of sustained terror campaigns, that are most susceptible to the Second-hand Stockholm Syndrome.

Israel clearly had a bad case throughout Oslo. This is the period when the Israeli left rewrote Israeli textbooks, dropping most references to the Holocaust and its role in the creation of the state, to the Arab armies' attacks of 1948, 1967, and 1973, to the utter failure of Western liberal democracies such as France to help save their Jews (which became a major justification for Zionism), and placing a Palestinianocentric view of events before Israeli teenagers who would soon have to serve in the army. While Shimon Peres was arguing in "The New Middle East" (a place which would have no anti-Semitism) that there would be no need for a Jewish state, Israeli intellectuals like the novelist David Grossman were accepting the aggressor's notion of Jewish self-defense as evil:

"The Jews living in Israel are now being asked not only to give up on geographical territories. We must also implement a 'redeployment'--or even a complete withdrawal--from entire regions in our soul. . . . Slowly, over long years, we will discover that we are beginning to give them up: . . . Giving up on power as a value. On the army itself as a value. . . . On 'It is good to die for one's country,' on 'The best to the air force,' . . . and on 'After me' [the doctrine that commanding officers lead their troops into danger situations]."

The repeated message of that short incantational passage? Israel, drop your sword.

TERRORISTS CAN WORK through language, as did Richard until he had access to violence, or through violence alone. What makes Arafat's career in terror so remarkable is that when he has had limited access to violence, he has been able to use the very means Richard did to convince his enemies not to run him through.

Arafat has been able to paint himself and the Palestinian people as victims because, lacking a conscience, he could glibly encourage Palestinian children to stand as human shields for his snipers. Fighting such an enemy so pricked the conscience of Israel that many Israelis felt they could not live with themselves--even though they knew that Arafat was manipulating them. This was another reason the Israelis ignored common sense, and decided to give in to the Oslo illusion that Arafat could be trusted.

It is interesting that the person who finally defeats Richard III in Shakespeare's play, Richmond, is the one key character who never talks to Richard or gives him a hearing, and thus never comes under his spell. To talk to Arafat, which is what all pundits say must be done to bring peace to the Middle East, is precisely the wrong move, for there is no dialogue with a man without a conscience. Another wrong move is the game of decriminalizing Arafat. By refusing to punish him for horrendous crimes, as a serious nation would, Israel leaves the world, the Arabs, and itself with the sense that maybe his crimes can be justified, and its own attempts to restrain him from further criminal acts are criminal excesses in themselves. Israel would do better to relentlessly show the world pictures of Arafat's victims, including the American ambassador he assassinated.

Not all criminals are equally brazen. Arafat seems to have the power to neutralize the very foes who see him as most evil, perhaps because they, by virtue of seeing him as virtually the devil incarnate, attribute to him a kind supernatural indestructibility. Such superstition has made many who are far more powerful than Arafat hesitate to end his career. He has effectively used his own brazenness to convince the world that bringing him to justice would be a catastrophe, creating more Arafats by making him a martyr (as though the Middle East lacked for martyrs now).

Spooked, America is unwilling to allow Israel to end Arafat's reign of terror. Washington has retreated into approaching him with a kind of primitive behavior-therapy that says, "If he renounces terror" or "If he controls terror," then we will talk to him. It is as though all that matters is to get him to say the right words, never mind his intentions; as if no distinction need be drawn between his strategic goal--the destruction of Israel--and a tactical willingness to say he opposes terror.

Arafat has discovered, as Shakespeare understood, that the more brazen and relentless one's acts of brutality, the more likely it is that one will be allowed a second chance, and find even powerful men of conscience coming to one's door offering to forget, to forgive, and to give forgiveness a bad name.

JWR contributor Norman Doidge is a columnist for the National Post of Canada and a psychiatrist at Columbia University and the University of Toronto. He wrote this piece for the Weekly Standard. Comment by clicking here.


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12/11/01: Teaching an old brain new tricks
11/08/01: The terrorists and their last-night temptresses
09/20/01: Why they did it
06/08/01: Wanna live long? Become a shrink
04/17/01: She changes lives
02/06/01: Up against the tyrants
01/22/01: Why geek geniuses lack social graces

©2001, Dr. Norman Doidge