Buruma's Morals and Ours


posted to www.marxmail.org on July 18, 2005


Over the years Leon Botstein and his deep-pocketed patron George Soros have transformed my alma mater Bard College from what Walter Winchell once called "the little red whorehouse on the Hudson" into a kind of extension of the New York Review of Books. A number of the regular contributors to this high-toned periodical have ended up on the faculty, each contributing their own particular kind of State Department liberalism. You get never-ending justifications for the interventions in Yugoslavia from NYR regular Mark Danner, who is a Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism at Bard College. (Being named Henry R. Luce Professor of Human Rights and Journalism is a little bit like being named Henry Kissinger Professor of Peace Studies or Jerry Bruckheimer Film Studies Professor.)


Ian Buruma is another NYR contributor and Henry Luce professor at Bard. His most recent book is titled "Occidentalism," which is an assault on Islamic radicalism similar to the one published by Paul Berman a while back. Ironically, his affinity for Berman has not prevented Buruma for trashing him in the NYR (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/16211). One suspects that turf possessiveness has as much to do with the hostile review as anything else. After all, if you are staking out territory as the best defender of Western Civilization against Islamo-fascism, why brook rivals in such a lucrative market?


Three days ago Buruma weighed in on the London bombings in the pages of the Financial Times. You can read this slashing attack on Tariq Ali--and others who have the temerity to connect the war in Iraq to this tragedy--at:




Buruma's arguments are drawn from the talking points of the pro-war left. You can find them articulated by Guardian reporter Jonathan Hari and blogsters like Norm Geras and the crew at Harry's Place. These are all people who feel that the antiwar movement is in the back pocket of Osama bin-Laden. Buruma writes:


"The war in Iraq may not have been a sensible move. It probably did galvanise religious extremism. For the record, I was against it. But to claim that we should not have gone to war with Saddam Hussein because it puts us in the firing line of holy warriors seems a bad, and certainly cowardly argument. Britain would have been in their firing line anyway. Contrary to what Faisal Bodi says, jihadis do have an axe to grind with the western world."


Whenever I read this sort of thing, I wonder why suicide bombers and airplane hijackers have not targeted Reykjavik, Iceland. Surely, there must be ample supplies of Madonna videos and copies of "The Satanic Verses" there. Of course, the fact that Iceland never sent its military to wrest control of the Suez Canal or supplied F-16's to Israel is purely coincidental. Any fool can understand that in the eyes of Islamic radicalism, Iceland must be destroyed.


Actually, Buruma was derelict in not wagging his finger at another "apologist" for Islamic terrorism. We learn from the indispensable Lenin's Tomb (http://www.leninology.blogspot.com/) that in the immediate aftermath of the subway bombings, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, known colloquially as Chatham House, came out with findings not that far apart from Tariq Ali's:


Britain's involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to the terrorist attacks in London, a respected independent thinktank on foreign affairs, the Chatham House organisation, says today.


"According to the body, which includes leading academics and former civil servants among its members, the key problem in the UK for preventing terrorism is that the country is "riding as a pillion passenger with the United States in the war against terror".


It says Britain's ability to carry out counter-terrorism measures has also been hampered because the US is always in the driving seat in deciding policy. ...


In the most politically sensitive finding, Chatham House, which used to be known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, concludes there is "no doubt" the invasion of Iraq has "given a boost to the al-Qaida network" in "propaganda, recruitment and fundraising", while providing an ideal targeting and training area for terrorists. "Riding pillion with a powerful ally has proved costly in terms of British and US military lives, Iraqi lives, military expenditure and the damage caused to the counter-terrorism campaign."


Well, everybody knows that Chatam House is secretly in bed with al-Qaida.


Buruma seems particularly bothered by the fact that the Leeds terrorists had neither uniform nor dog-tags:


"The Islamist revolutionaries who are assumed to be behind the murders are not like the Luftwaffe, or the IRA, or any other enemy that Britain, or indeed the world has faced before. The Germans were deadly, but at least one knew who they were; their bombers bore markings that were familiar to any schoolboy plane-spotter. Their pilots wore uniforms, their raids were ordered by a state, with which Britain was at war. The IRA was the armed wing of a political party, whose aims, as we now know, were at least negotiable. Suicide bombers and jihadis, however, represent no state; indeed they do not recognise one outside the wholly imaginary community of pure faith. There is nothing to negotiate with people who wish to kill as many infidels as they can to establish a divine realm of the faithful. Worse, those holy warriors who see mass murder as an existential act, who cannot conceive of themselves as anything else but divinely inspired assassins, are even beyond the pale of religious orthodoxy; they are pure killers."


Let me see if I understand this. The Luftwaffe was better than the Leeds terrorists because its pilots wore swastikas and followed orders? When the Nazi state with the blood of tens of millions of civilians on its hands rates higher than a handful of terrorists who sought a kind of revenge against a much more powerful state terrorism, then Trotsky's pithy observation in "Their Morals and Ours" takes on a new resonance:


Is individual terror, for example, permissible or impermissible from the point of view of "pure morals"? In this abstract form the question does not exist at all for us. Conservative Swiss bourgeois even now render official praise to the terrorist William Tell. Our sympathies are fully on the side of Irish, Russian, Polish or Hindu terrorists in their struggle against national and political oppression. The assassinated Kirov, a rude satrap, does not call forth any sympathy. Our relation to the assassin remains neutral only because we know not what motives guided him. If it became known that Nikolayev acted as a conscious avenger for workers" rights trampled upon by Kirov, our sympathies would be fully on the side of the assassin.


full: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1938/1938-mor.htm