Rationalizing homicidal aggression

One major lesson of history is that humans are frequently vile chumps. Unfortunately, because we are the audience as well as the topic, the lesson often fails to sink in.

I strongly suspect the same problem lies behind our frequent inability, or unwillingness, to draw obvious historical analogies. Presumably we all know exactly what to do the next time Hitler demands part of Czechoslovakia. But we nevertheless stare in bafflement, or worse, at North Korea or Hamas. Why?

Consider this luminous passage about appeasement I just encountered while rereading Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint's 1972 book Total War for a seminar I'm teaching on America at war. "Hitler's ravings," the authors say, "were passed over and he was regarded as a man who would make bargains and stick to them because it was difficult to see what to do if he was really a totally different kind of person."

Does this observation not shine a brilliant light on what's happening today, starting with Western regimes begging the Chinese government to help them do something about North Korea sinking a South Korean warship?

I would not say Western governments are completely unwilling to understand the North Korean regime. It is so evidently insane you just look stupid denying it. On the other hand, our would-be statesmen consistently insist that the correct response to any North Korean behaviour, comparatively tame or psychotically violent, is restraint by us. Is it not clear that the North Korean regime does not react well to restraint?

It may be objected with some justice that Pyongyang doesn't react well to anything, but, if it did, it wouldn't be to empty words or carefully harmless sanctions. That tyrannically insane government couldn't care less if the country's entire population starved to death, and they laugh at our reproaches. So what impact are mild sanctions or hollow condemnations meant to have? In short, Western policy toward North Korea is in substance (or lack thereof) driven by assumptions with nothing to recommend them except the difficulty of seeing what to do if they are unfounded.

When it comes to the People's Republic of China, the problem is considerably more acute because China is both stronger and less clearly insane (though Hitler was pretty obviously demented and people didn't let it affect their judgment that he was reasonable). But China is unlikely to be a useful partner in reining in North Korea because the Chinese are its strongest backer. And they are its strongest backer because....

Oh dear. How very many unpleasant ways there are of finishing that sentence and how few pleasant ones. So we assume that China's rulers have limited, reasonable geopolitical ambitions and a fundamentally peaceful diplomatic orientation not because anything they ever do supports that assumption, but because it is difficult to see what to do if they are really totally different kinds of people.

My ruminations on this disquieting subject earlier this week were rudely interrupted by the latest news that Israeli efforts to inspect a convoy headed for Gaza resulted in pacifists attacking IDF members with clubs, knives and guns and getting shot.

Now it is perfectly obvious that Israel is not going to permit uninspected cargoes to enter Gaza and it is obvious why: Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which is sworn not only to destroy Israel, but also to exterminate Jews. (See, again, Article 7 of the Hamas Charter, where rocks and trees erupt in anti-Semitic fury.) No one but Israel would ever be asked to let such an entity import uninspected cargoes for murderous purposes; not only would Canada not permit it under similar circumstances, but also we would not ask Syria to stand for it, or North Korea.

Admit it. If a convoy of activists insisted on bringing uninspected cargoes into North Korea, attacked customs officials who tried to inspect them and got killed, there would be no outcry. We'd soberly note that nations have a right to protect their borders, urge restraint, and perhaps make a grovelling submission to the Chinese government to help us persuade North Korea to shoot the next bunch with smaller calibre weapons.

So what's the deal with Hamas? Why does the press insist on running headlines like "After deadly raid, Israel stands alone" and "Israel's alliances hit the hardest" and "Bloody Israeli raid on flotilla sparks crisis"? I'll tell you. It's because Western diplomats, politicians and journalists pass over Hamas's ravings and members of the convoy chanting about Muhammad's army coming to kill Jews and insist on regarding Hamas as an organization that will make bargains and stick to them because it is very difficult to see what to do otherwise.

So what do we learn from history? So little that, if Hitler did demand the Sudetenland again, we'd probably give it to him.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson