To See Ourselves

Probably the most memorable image out of the 1989 Tian An Men Square protests was the picture of a lone man blocking a line of tanks.  It was a wonderful, heart-stopping moment.  It epitomizes, for many of us, the best of the human spirit: facing overwhelming force, willing to die, armed only with the righteousness of one’s cause.

It was also, of course, a totally, brilliantly irrational moment.

This is relevant only because I have been contemplating the recent triumphs of the irrational in public affairs.  Or perhaps I should say the recent triumphs of “delusion.”  Right after September 11, and regularly ever since, pundits have tried to answer the question, Why do they hate us? …with a singular lack of success.  I suggest that lack of success and the answer to that question both lie in our self-image being wildly out of sync with the way others see us.

Rather than try to prove that point directly, let me offer a parallel example drawn from my favorite lunatic asylum, the Middle East.

The Defense Department used to have (and may still) an annual ritual where they did evaluations of possible conflicts around the world.  In these evaluations they would take worst case scenarios and calculate the consequences to determine if the United States would have to intervene, and how.

In the case of Israel, the planners asked what would happen if every single one of Israel’s Arab neighbors simultaneously attacked her with everything they had.  Year after year, the result was the same: Israel would beat the crap out of the invaders.  Insofar as US action was concerned, there was a low probability that we would have to intervene…to stop the Israelis.

In terms of purely conventional military forces (and ignoring the arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction that Israel possesses), Israel is the 800-pound gorilla in her neighborhood.  Her forces are so overwhelming that she is virtually immune from successful attack.  That is not, however, the image that Israel projects to the outside world, nor is it that which the average Israeli holds.  That image is one of an endangered Israel surrounded by powerful enemies intent upon driving her into the sea.

I have no doubt that there are plenty of Muslims who would like to see the Israelis driven into the sea.  But, even ignoring that the only remaining superpower stands behind Israel, Israel’s enemies simply lack the power to drive even one Israeli into the sea.  On the other hand, Israel’s vision of herself as a victim constantly fighting for her very existence has been used by her Supreme Court as an excuse to legalize both torture of Palestinian prisoners and state-sponsored assassination.  The international community’s disapproval of these (and many other) policies has only deepened the Israeli sense of victimhood.

Now let’s look at the Palestinians.

They see themselves as facing, with the most primitive weapons, an 800-pound gorilla equipped with tanks, jet planes, and attack helicopters.  Ever since its establishment, Israel has been seizing Arab lands.  She drove out Palestinians and took their land in 1948, and repeated the process in 1967.  She is a well-armed, highly successful imperialist state, with an aggressive vision of a “Greater Israel” that happens to encompass all the lands the Palestinians are sitting on.  She is also, of course, the invading client state of a Christian superpower intent on both controlling the Middle East’s oil and crippling Islam.

The figures rise daily, but since the Intifada II began, something like 600 Israelis have been killed versus 2500 Palestinians.  600 Israelis is a tragedy, but it drives the Palestinians crazy to see the 600 Israelis make headlines in the West while their own 2500 are largely ignored.  It makes them even more crazy to hear only the Israelis described as “innocent victims.”  The Israelis the average Palestinians see are either gun-toting settlers (who typically carry Uzis when outside the settlements) or much more heavily armed members of the Israel Defense Force.  Propaganda tells the Israelis that they are all soldiers on the front line…and the Palestinians believe it.  They have trouble seeing any Israelis as civilians.  The world ignores their dying at a rate of better than 4 to 1 while their attempts to strike back are labeled “terrorism.”

Switching perspectives again, the Israelis see very clearly that the dead and maimed from suicide bombers are far too often teenagers at discos or bus passengers.  In that light, they are clearly innocent and their killers the very worst sort of terrorists.  They do not believe the Palestinians who are killed in the Territories are innocent at all.  At best they are young thugs throwing chunks of concrete at soldiers doing their duty.  At worst they are screens for terrorist snipers armed with AK-47s.  Israelis see that better than 4 to 1 kill ratio as at least necessary to discourage the terrorists and at worst not nearly enough.

We are used to the idea that one of the first effects of conflict is to make people demonize their enemies.  But I would suggest that the delusion that does even more harm is peoples’ distorted images of themselves.

I doubt that most Palestinians can really believe that what they see as an invading 800-pound gorilla sees itself as an eternal victim standing with its back to the sea.  Equally, I doubt if the Israelis can even imagine that the child-murdering terrorists see themselves as blood brothers to that defenseless Chinese standing unarmed in front of that line of tanks.

The fact the world does not see us as we see ourselves, nor see our actions as being motivated by and in tune with our own self-image, is a problem.  For the danger in this world is pretty much in direct proportion to the difference between our self-image and the way others, particularly those who do not like us, see us.  To estimate and combat that danger, we first need step outside and look at ourselves from there.  That’s unfortunate, because we human beings are willing to give up almost anything before we will abandon our self image.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
— Robert Burns, “To a Louse”

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