crowds, belonging and victory over death
UNDERSTANDING SYRIA AND IRAQ
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue
University. He is author of many books and articles dealing
with international politics. His columns have appeared in the
New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem
Post and OUPblog
(Oxford University Press). This article originally appeared
make genuine sense of world politics, it is first necessary
to look behind the news. Only once this particular responsibility
has been identified can observers and policymakers finally progress
beyond narrowly second-order narratives of transient names and
places. It follows that wherever this core responsibility has
already been declined, humankind will remain unable to implement
alternatives to growing global violence and chaos.
the relevant forms of improved understanding are unhidden. For
millennia, as anyone can already figure out, the lead engines
of human destructiveness have been war and genocide. Reciprocally,
these egregious collective crimes (in law, we usually label
them ‘aggression’ and ‘crimes against humanity’)
have stemmed from starkly individual human needs and imperfections.
In essence, therefore, while generally inconspicuous in world
politics, the personal and the political have always been more-or-less
intersecting and interdependent.
form of understanding is absolutely vital to planet-wide reforms.
Always, world politics is epiphenomenal. Always, it is merely
a reflection of what is happening ‘underneath.’
a timely example, the escalating sectarian violence continuously
unfolding in Iraq, Syria and certain other places is not the
root cause of regional chaos. Rather, it is a result of something
else. It is the outcome or expression of much more primal and
individual human needs. Among these needs, none is ever more
harshly compelling than the historically unwavering desire to
art can elucidate world politics. Pablo Picasso once reminded
us that art is a lie that lets us see the truth. In this connection,
sculptor Alberto Giacometti's "Man Pointing" may offer
an illuminating representation of human isolation and alienation,
one that could lead to a better understanding of genocide, war
Giacometti hints, each individual feels empty and insignificant
apart from membership in the crowd. Sometimes, this sustaining
crowd is the state. Sometimes it is the tribe. Sometimes, as
with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Hezbollah
or Muslim Brotherhood, it is the faith (always, of course, the
"one true faith"). And sometimes it is the ‘resistance
movement,’ as in the plausibly similar cases of Hamas
the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is a persistent
craving for membership that ultimately threatens to subvert
individual moral responsibility. Significantly, the relentlessly
lethal consequence of such craving, as humankind has been witnessing
from time immemorial, is a convulsive and sometimes even orgasmic
triumph of collective will. The most easily recognized 20th-century
case of any such presumed supremacy is Nazi Germany.
most recent and ongoing cases of uncontrolled group murderousness
are Iraq and Syria, in the fevered grip of ISIS.
the United States and its assorted allies still seek safety
and remediation at the limited levels of diplomacy and power
politics. Inevitably, this search, so long as it remains confined
to these expressly superficial realms, will fail. For the outcome
to be any different, the search would first have to probe for
more viable solutions at the irreducibly base level of individual
is a lie that may permit us to see the truth. Reading Giacometti's
emaciated figure between the lines, an insightfully pragmatic
conclusion may present itself. It is that unless we humans can
finally learn how to temper our overwhelming and nearly ubiquitous
desire to belong at all costs, our military and political schemes
to remedy genocide, war and terrorism will fall apart. Without
augmentation by far more basic sorts of human transformations,
these time-dishonored strategies for national security, collective
security (United Nations) or collective defense (alliances)
will remain largely beside the point.
finally succeed in its indispensable planetary search for peace
and justice, humankind would benefit from major national leaderships
that are authentically learned. In this connection, however
improbable, getting our own American political leaders to read
real books would represent a good start. Significantly, such
an optimistic expectation is not entirely fanciful. To wit,
Ralph Waldo Emerson had once exhorted capable governance by
"high-thinking" (and "plain living") American
leaders. Earlier, Thomas Jefferson, even without a computer,
managed to read and understand Hugo Grotius, Emer de Vattel,
Samuel von Pufendorf and John Locke — together, the cumulative
intellectual mainsprings of his Declaration of Independence.
might we reasonably expect today, in the state capitals, and,
above all, in our national capital? To be sure, charitably,
there are presently fewer than a half dozen senators or state
officials who are even remotely familiar with this fact about
the origins of the Declaration of Independence, let alone with
the pertinent writings.
philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche longed openly for a world "beyond
Good and Evil." Sigmund Freud, who had preferred the term
"primal horde" to Nietzsche's "herd," sought
to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might
actually have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned
out to be his own lived-in world, one where Eros was still unable
to play a world-unifying role, and, instead, only reinforced
baneful or "narcissistic" identifications with the
evening news about Iraq, Syria and ISIS is really about "disease"
manifestations; it is not about any deeply underlying pathologies.
Nonetheless, our most pressing dangers of genocide, war and
terrorism continue to stem from the organized or unwitting combining
of susceptible individuals into various mass-centered herds.
Not every human herd need be insidious or destructive; yet,
correspondingly, crimes against humanity can never take place
in the absence of herds.
individuals join together and form a herd, certain latently
destructive dynamics of mob psychology may be released. This
dreadful fusion lowers each single person's ethical and intellectual
level to a point where mass killing may become acceptable. In
the case of such rabidly barbarous groups as ISIS, murderous
behavior is not merely agreeable. Here, rather, it is utterly
ecstatic or lascivious.
the surface, ongoing brutalities in Iraq, Syria and other area
places represent fragmenting struggles between warring herds.
In turn, these herds are themselves the product of certain critically
underlying individual needs to belong. Arguably, in turn, these
needs are themselves related to the most primary human search
of all — that is, the search for immortality.
in the world, but especially in the chaotic Middle East, there
is no more revered or respected form of power than victory over
death. For many of our current jihadist adversaries, war, terrorism
and even a hoped-for capacity to unleash genocides are really
an expression of religious sacrifice. As such, choreographed
spasms of violence are intended to catapult Islamist fighters
far above the insufferably mortal limits of a profane chronology.
Above all, as indicated in their sacred writings, violence against
infidels and unbelievers is the best way to escape the "terrors
of the grave."
if ISIS and related death cults could begin to reject such catastrophic
events in Iraq, Syria and so many other places must remain only
symptoms. But, as a start to more enduring solutions, Giacometti's
"Man Pointing" may be taken as an imaginative signpost
of what is most genuinely determinative in spawning war, terrorism
and genocide. Inevitably, such potentially remediating action
must involve a conscious and thoroughgoing detachment of individual
human meanings from membership in herds.
the end, to make meaningful sense of current world politics,
it will first be necessary to look behind the news.