Wishful Seeing

On War-nography and Radical Willfulness

While Sontag acknowledges how images of horror and degradation can be used as brutalist propaganda, and how they may inspire "repulsive attractions," Berman delves into the practical mechanics of this development, into the receptivity of international audiences toward the discourse of bombs, madness, and mutilation. He explores the suicide terror assaults launched against Israel and the peace process by Hamas and Islamic Jihad as a kind of deranged public relations campaign, and a perversely successful one at that. The more it escalated, Berman believes, the more sympathy the campaign generated in certain quarters: Palestinian violence becomes the measure of Israeli guilt, proof of the insane extremes to which the Zionist Entity is capable of driving helpless people. Here the pain—and rage, despair, fundamentalist nihilism—of others transformed itself into militant role-playing, in order to take its place in the iconography of rebellion rather than that of murder/suicide-cult fascism (like Crash merged with The Battle of Algiers, though at least for the Western public the morbid titillation waned as jadedness set in).

In such an airtight, ambiguity-free scenario, the Jews literally can't win. They're both condemned as craven parasites (that disgusting attachment to their own survival!) and damned as the New Aryans. Israel's continuing existence proves that eliminationist anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, even as the nation's repressive policies are used to retroactively validate the conspiracy claims of the venerable Elders of Zion school of anti-Semitism: As a people, they have gone from the main cancer on the white race to the leading exponent of white racism in barely half a century. Through the magic of well-meaning rationalizations and one-sided justifications—as much aesthetically correct as politically—the Americans and the Israelis thus assume the place of Nazi Germany in the rad-chic imagination of oppression.

Regarding the commentaries of QUTB: Terror and Liberalism author Paul Berman
photo: Joshua Lucas Farley
Regarding the commentaries of QUTB: Terror and Liberalism author Paul Berman


Regarding the Pain of Others
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 131 pp., $20
Buy this book

Terror and Liberalism
By Paul Berman
W.W. Norton, 214 pp., $21
Buy this book

But that's mythology for you, always something up its reversible sleeve: Turn Reagan's rap about the "Evil Empire" and G-Dub's black-and-white "Axis of Evil" inside out and you've got the Chomskyite/Edward Said-ist vision of the Am-Israeli Great Satan. The negative image of American—and Jewish—exceptionalism becomes another pristine form of wishful thinking, a cloak of intellectual innocence. Sontag and Berman both grapple with the issue of smart, civilized people who are at once hypersensitive and desensitized, deeply sheltered from reality yet overexposed to the secondhand smoke of warfare, unable or unwilling to comprehend "the particular viciousness and intransigence" of present-day terrorism. (Using the word not in a generic-amorphous sense, but referring to a specific belief system: an ideo-theology whose temples are mobile crematoria and infinitely portable abattoirs.) Regarding the Pain of Others places itself, and the reader, behind a scrim of mediation—the underlying assumption is that history is something that happens elsewhere, to other people. Terror and Liberalism's New Deals on Armored Wheels solution—rather more Mister Rogers' Neighborhood than Christopher Hitchens—is for America to join the fray as a kind of militarized hyper-Peace Corps, though the crossed-fingers hope that the Bush junta will wind up spreading the values of liberalism in spite of themselves (certainly not on the war's home front) is surely as misguidedly "reasonable" as all those nice apologias Berman debunks. He does offer a useful pipe dream of an idea: rejecting nihilism, which is at least a start. Yet supporters and opponents of the war alike believed they were fighting for "the freedom of others"—imagined that either winning or stopping the war would keep us safe from the clutches of history, comfortably superior to the murky, chthonic world of unreason, pain, and death. To which the world may answer: Welcome to History 101.

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