The Extremism that Thwarts Peace and Promotes War

By Keith Kloor | August 15, 2014 1:19 pm

In 2012, science writer John Horgan published a book called The End of War. Its premise is that we have it in ourselves to tame our violent impulses, at least enough to stop waging large-scale, collective war. At first blush, this notion seems as quixotic and naive as a famous John Lennon and Yoko Ono song.

But Horgan wants us to seriously give peace a chance. From the book’s preview:

War is not preordained, and furthermore, it should be thought of as a solvable, scientific problem—like curing cancer. But war and cancer differ in at least one crucial way: whereas cancer is a stubborn aspect of nature, war is our creation. It’s our choice whether to unmake it or not.

Before going any further, I should acknowledge that I have not yet read Horgan’s book, which has just been reissued in paperback. At his Scientific American blog, Horgan discusses the new edition and assures us that he understands the gargantuan leap he thinks humankind is capable of making:

Our biggest challenge is making the transition from our world, which is still armed and dangerous, to a world in which war and even the threat of war have vanished. I am not an absolute pacifist. If someone attacks me or a loved one—or even a stranger–I would do my best to stop him. Sometimes violence is morally justified, even necessary, to thwart greater violence.

So the question is, how should we react to lethal group violence when it erupts in the world today?

But is that the right question? I would think that the greater challenge is eliminating the main reasons why one group of people sets out to kill another group. All through history wars have been fought over land, religion, flag, and ethnicity, to cite just a few of the major triggers. A commenter on a related post of Horgan’s expressed this another way:

I think war arises when we want something that others have and we believe we are entitled to have it.

I also think war arises when we believe so strongly about something that we cannot tolerate the existence and thriving of others who don’t agree with us. Our ideas of God have a lot to do with war when we feel threatened by the existence of others with different ideas.

Indeed, let’s look at the seemingly intractable Israeli/Palestinian issue, a conflict between two peoples that once again has erupted in carnage and tragedy. Rather than delve into the origins of this conflict and the complex forces that have locked Israelis and Palestinians into a vicious cycle of violence, I suggest you read the recent long exchange between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris. They engage in a spirited but civil and edifying debate on the latest outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip. Their discussion is wide-ranging, from the toxic nature of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the meaning of genocide. I will admit that throughout their conversation I found myself nodding along in agreement to much of what Harris was saying.

He makes one point at the outset that I found particularly striking:

First, Andrew, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me. As you know, this began with a blog post I wrote to which you responded. I don’t want to focus too much on those articles—readers who want to do their homework can go back and see what we said. However, I want to begin by acknowledging that certain topics are simply radioactive. It seems to me that one can’t make sense about them fast enough to defuse the bomb that is set to go off in the reader’s brain when one fails to align with his or her every prejudice.

Harris then goes on to say that people are “emotionally hijacked” on some topics, such as the issue of Israel and its enemies:

One sign of this happening is that readers notice only half of what you’re saying—or they discount half of it as something you don’t really mean, as though they knew your mind better than you do.

Harris tells Sullivan that he wanted to talk to him directly “because it seems to me that you have gotten emotionally hijacked” on the subject of Israel and Hamas.

I’ll let readers of their exchange judge whether this is true or not. What’s interesting to me is that Harris has put his finger on a problem–people getting emotionally hijacked–that leads to many sensitive debates going off the rails.

As for the roiling Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one could take the metaphor even further and argue that the two sides have become hijacked by the respective extremist elements in their societies. It is not framed this way by Sullivan and Harris in their exchange, but they both point out the notable examples that fuel the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Harris, for instance, correctly notes that Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls the Gaza strip, “is a death cult, as are ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabab, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Hezbollah and every other jihadist organization we could name.”

What he means by this is that these groups glorify death of their own soldiers (or martyred volunteers) through the killing of their enemies. If you want to see the terrible psychology of this, watch the award-winning 2003 documentary “A Death in Gaza.”

The heart of the documentary, whose British director was shot to death by an Israeli soldier on the last day of filming, is centered on the bleak, war-torn lives of Palestinian children in the Gaza strip. From a young age, they are taught to revile Jews and to embrace martyrdom. It is an incredibly sad thing to watch, this breeding of ethnic and religious hatred. You walk away from the documentary angry at Israel, disgusted by Hamas and in despair over the future of those Palestinian children, who, if they lived to adulthood, are now fully invested in the destruction of Israel, their visceral hatred for Jews certainly reinforced after the latest war between Hamas and Israel, which has resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

The “death cult” that Harris speaks of is on full display in “A Death in Gaza.” The legitimate strivings of Palestinians for an independent state have been hijacked by an extremist militant Islamic group that teaches children to sacrifice themselves to the larger cause of Israel’s destruction. How might Horgan, in his quest to end war, eliminate such a pathology?

This is not to say that Israel is without responsibility.  Sullivan, in his conversation with Harris, correctly points to the continuous building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a core issue that severely undermines the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. To understand how this has happened, one needs to reckon with the ultra-orthodox Jewish extremists that have hijacked Israel over the past few decades. As Zack Beauchamp noted last month at Vox:

Right-wing extremists have been a significant force in Israeli politics. The openly racist Kach Party won a seat in the Knesset in 1984, and was polling even higher in the 1988 elections before being banned from participating. Baruch Goldstein, a significant Kach member, killed 29 worshippers at a mosque in the Cave of the Patriarch in the West Bank city of Hebron. Jewish radical Yigal Amir assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, while the minister was in the midst of a major push for a peace deal.

One of the most astonishing documentaries I have seen in years is “The Gatekeepers,” which anyone concerned about Israel’s future should see. In his New Yorker review, David Denby wrote:

“The Gatekeepers,” a documentary history of the country told from the point of view of its internal security chiefs, is both honest and saddening.

Israel is a secular society, but the influence of the country’s ultra-right minority is made apparent in the film. This far-right minority, which agitates for settlement building on the West Bank, also works to scuttle any concessions made to the Palestinians. Their barbaric counterpart is Hamas, which is not interested in coexisting with Israel.

These two implacable foes have successfully hijacked the peace process. Horrific spasmodic cycles of violence and death is the result.

If John Horgan tells me that he explains in his book how to rid the world of extremist groups that sow the seeds of war, then I will purchase it today.

UPDATE: Horgan has replied at Scientific American. One of his main points:

Just as war promotes poverty, tyranny, inequality and resource depletion at least as much as vice versa, so war promotes fanaticism. Once militarism seizes hold of a society, it can transform vast populations into virtual sociopaths. It turns decent, ethical, reasonable people into intolerant fanatics capable of the most heinous acts.

I am persuaded enough to purchase his book.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: extremism, religion, war
  • J M

    Wars only end when one side wins, or both become exhausted by losses. The sad truth is that neither Israelis nor Palestinians are nowhere near that point.

  • DavidAppell

    “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”
    Mahatma Gandhi

  • Buddy199

    Unfortunately, history’s natural order of things is not peace, but instability and war. Peace, as Plato noted, is a brief “parenthesis” between wars. Peace occasionally breaks out only because leaders calculate that the intimidating military forces of their opponents makes war an unattractive option for achieving their goals.

    • J M

      Natural order of things is instability and war…..I think that is only partially true today. Weapons technology has rendered total war or even partial war between leading nations a losing proposition. The US, for example, does not want to fight Russia but has gone to war against countries that are relatively weak and lack the latest weaponry, like Grenada, with no nukes and almost no army. The desire of Iran to get the bomb is understandable in this respect. That aside, we have for the first time in history quite extensive global systems to promote peaceful solutions and stability instead of war, from arms limitation treaties to mediation.
      War has always served as a medium to distribute wealth and land from the weak to the strong. Think about the US and native Americans, for example. Justice has nothing to do with it.
      Today, when wealth is most efficiently obtained by trading and building an efficient economy, the case for war is weaker. It also allows you to buy the expensive weaponry for your army to intimidate potential troublemakers.

      • Buddy199

        What was the interest of the U.S. in fighting WW1, WW2 or the Korean War for that matter? Per Native Americans, they were constantly at war with each other over resources. Moral equivalence between all nations and their motives is flat out ridiculous. ISIL rampaging across Iraq vs. the Invasion of Normandy? I don’t think so.

  • JH

    “the two sides have become hijacked by the respective extremist elements in their societies.”

    Badabing. Exactly the situation in American politics too. The crackpots hold everyone else hostage.

  • i Fred

    In war (and nature) moral or truth don’t win, only the strongest. At the moment Israel is the strongest.

  • JH

    Isn’t there already a science about avoiding war? Diplomacy? Engagement to find mutually beneficial solutions?

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    When somebody defecates upstream of your drinking water, will you drink it or resolve the issue?

  • David Skurnick

    There is no parallel at all between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To mention just a few differences:
    1. On the day Israel was founded, it was attacked by its Arab neighbors who wanted to destroy it. To this day, many Arabs remain are committed to Israel’s destruction. OTOH Israel has no desire to destroy any Arab state
    2. Palestinian children are raised to hate Israel, Suicide bombers are extolled. Israelis just want to live in peace.
    3. In Gaza, people who express positive feelings toward Israel are killed. OTOH Israel has a strong peace movement of people who are sympathetic to Palestinians and critical of Israel.
    4. Arab citizens of Israel have full voting rights. Jews have long since been driven out of Palestinian areas and most other Arab-controlled areas of the middle east.
    5. The current battle was entirely started by Palestinians who fired hundreds of missiles at civilian areas and misused their resources to build tunnels with the aim of mounting unprovoked attacks against civilians.
    6. The prior ruckus was caused by Palestinians kidnapping 3 Israeli soldiers.
    7. Israel treats injured Palestinians at its hospitals. AFAIK the Palestinians do not return the favor.
    I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

    • kkloor

      I hear you, and all true. But I don’t think I was suggesting there was a parallel. But honestly, if you want a vivid tutorial on missed opportunities, watch The Gatekeepers, the documentary I mentioned. None of the main characters lamenting Israel’s coddling of its own extremists are peaceniks, either. They are former heads of Shin Bet.

    • JH

      I don’t think it’s appropriate (in either the article or your comment) to lump together “Palestinians”. No one from the west bank is lobbing rockets on Israel.

      The issue here is not with “Palestinians” but with Hamas in particular.

      with regard to the rest of your comments:

      1. On the day Israel was founded, it was attacked by its Arab neighbors who wanted to destroy it.

      After years of violent terrorist activity on the part of zionist groups, including direct attacks on the British Government.

      2. Palestinian children are raised to hate Israel, Suicide bombers are extolled. Israelis just want to live in peace.

      In their settlements on Palestinian land.

      3. In Gaza, people who express positive feelings toward Israel are killed.

      By Hamas.

      4. Arab citizens of Israel have full voting rights. Jews have long
      since been driven out of Palestinian areas and most other
      Arab-controlled areas of the middle east.

      Many Jews happily occupied homes that were once owned by Palestinians following the wars of Israeli independence when many Palestinians were driven out of Israel.

      5. The current battle was entirely started by Palestinians who fired
      hundreds of missiles at civilian areas and misused their resources to
      build tunnels with the aim of mounting unprovoked attacks against
      civilians.


      hundreds of missiles” Killing or injuring – no one?
      “started by Palestinians”. No it wasn’t. It was started by Hamas fighters. Israel responded by slaughtering over a thousand Palestinians, some certainly fighters but most civilians wanting no part in the conflict.

      Your points are all valid. The trouble is the other side has valid points as well, and one can go on and on and on for both sides.

      • David Skurnick

        JH — Perhaps you are not aware that over the years many thousands of Jews were driven out of Arab countries. The “Jewish land” they owned was taken over by Arabs.
        If Israel responded by aiming hundreds of rockets at Arab civilian areas, would you defend that? Suppose Israel planned a massive attack on Arab civilian, using tunnels built with cement that had donated to help them build housing and other structures. Would you defend that? I hope not.

        I would like to agree with your point about Hamas. However, Palestinians and other Arabs have been attacking Israel non-stop even before Hamas was a factor. I wish peace would prevail if only Hamas disappeared, but I see no evidence that such is the case.

        • JH

          Yeah, I’m aware of that. It doesn’t justify Zionists expelling Palestinians.

          At some point you have to step back and say that history is history and live in the present – and that goes for both Israelis and Palestinians.

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Why are facts pertinent to defining political connivance? First the execution, second the verdict, third the trial.

  • John P

    Interesting, and thank you. I’m a way off – like all of us – completing my homework on this, let alone your pointers, and am currently reading John Gray’s book Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, which came to mind as I read your piece. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/124548.Al_Qaeda_and_What_It_Means_to_Be_Modern

  • SirWilhelm

    “I was ordered to fight all men until they say “There is no god but Allah. ‘” With these farewell words the Prophet Muhammad summed up the international vision of the faith he had brought to the world. As a universal religion, Islam envisages a global politcal order in which all humankind will live under Muslim rule as either believers or subject communities. In order to achieve this goal it is incumbent on all free, male, adult Muslims to carry out an uncompromising struggle “in the path of Allah,” or jihad. This in turn makes those parts of the world that have not yet been conquered by the House of Islam an abode of permanent conflict (Dar al-Harb, the House of War) which will only end with Islam’s eventual triumph. In the meantime, there can be no peace between these two world systems, only the temporary suspensions of hostilities for reasons of necessity or expediency. In the words of Ibn Khaldun:

    In the Muslim community, the jihad is a religious duty because of he universalism of the Islamic mission and the obligation [to convert] everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force…[By contrast] the other religions had no such universal mission and the holy war was [therefore] not a religious duty to them apart from self-defense.

    (from Chapter 4, page 66 of Islamic Imperialism A History by Efraim Karsh)

    Against such a universalist Islamic mission, can anything the Israeli Jews, or any other non-Muslims do, be anything but self-defensive? On the other hand, if all non-Muslims finally realize that, because of Islam’s mission, there can never be any peace with Islam, will they finally decide the only course of action possible to deal with Islam, that will eventually bring peace? Isn’t it obvious? Or do you have to have it spelled out to you?

  • George Levanduski

    Now that the false flag method of instigating some wars in the past is more widely known, the dogs of war have gotten more inventive in stirring up cause for conflict. It’s uncanny that there’s no end to the emergence of troublemaker factions that gain enough influence to promote mayhem.

    I know somebody who worked in a plant that made turbines for nuclear submarines. With an eye towards greater business opportunities, the CEO’s wife was heard saying, “We need a war.”

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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