How is it that the Bush administration, which is deadly serious in opposing terrorists and those who harbour them, could let Colin Powell declare just over a week ago - on the same day that senior terrorist Yasser Arafat was caught funding the Al Aqsa suicide bombers - that Arafat is no terrorist at all? On April 4, President Bush asked Israel to halt its attacks on Arafat's terrorist infrastructure. What is going on in their minds? Are they serious or aren't they?
Actually, they are serious about fighting terror. But they are also caught in a psychological bind they do not understand. Letting Arafat go is part of a pattern that has recurred so often it cannot simply be a mistake. This pattern caused George Bush Sr. to refrain from finishing off Saddam Hussein when he had overwhelmed him. This week, Europe, the Arab world and the Bush administration are hoping to see a diplomatic initiative develop that will ensure Israel does as Mr. Bush Sr. did in Iraq: not destroy Arafat and his regime.
No one survives as long as Yasser Arafat - 40 years as a terrorist - unless he knows something important about the weak spots in Western psychology. Abba Eban, a former Israeli foreign minister, once quipped that the Palestinians, under Arafat's leadership, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." The remark hasn't aged well. Closer to the truth is that the West has mysteriously never missed an opportunity to revive Arafat. He understands how the Western psyche works in near-death confrontations. As a terrorist who lacks a conscience, he can see things that those who have a conscience cannot. These insights have preserved him.
It would be easy to blame Arafat's endless second chances on a deluded left because the left favours dealing with Arafat not as a criminal but as an equal. But now, the right holds power in Israel and the United States. Besides, those who have revived Arafat have not all been leftists or ideological enemies of Israel. Many of them have known he is a liar and a terrorist. His psychological magic is most evident when he casts his spell on such men.
The list of distinguished fighters of terrorism and tyranny who have overridden their principles to let Arafat go rather than bring him to justice is remarkable. Ronald Reagan brooked no compromise with the "evil empire" and bombed Muammar Gaddafi's home, nearly killing him. Yet in the 1980s, President Reagan pressured Menachem Begin to let Arafat and his fighters go free when the Israeli army had them cornered in West Beirut. Begin, who had made a career of resisting liberal democracies when they offered Israel bad advice, succumbed. Yitzhak Rabin, after fighting Arafat much of his adult life, decriminalized and rearmed him through Oslo, just when Arafat was at his weakest, fresh from endorsing the defeated Saddam Hussein. Ehud Barak had an extraordinary career fighting terrorists before Arafat proved his political undoing. The current President Bush came into office refusing to talk to Arafat or treat him as a normal head of state. Bush's position was reinforced when Palestinians celebrated in the streets on Sept. 11; and he appeared to be viscerally revolted by Palestinian and Fatah suicide bombings in Israel this past December.
Such men eventually do an about-face in their dealings with Arafat; President Bush did his in March. When Israel sent troops into a terrorist nerve centre in Ramallah to prevent further attacks on civilians - when it did what the United States is doing in Afghanistan - Mr. Bush said Israel's action was "not helpful." When dealing with Arafat, the foes of terror become inconsistent and incoherent.
The archetypal releaser of Arafat is a leader who has criticized him many times, has shown himself capable of assertive, deadly force in other situations, and, like Reagan, Bush, Begin, Sharon, Rabin and Barak, has criticized others for letting terrorists go free. The typical last-minute liberator is a reluctant and soon-to-be-regretful redeemer. Usually, he is utterly disquieted as he lets Arafat off, but he feels trapped by some force larger than himself. Something always seems to happen so that the knowledge that it is dangerous to let such men go unpunished is not translated into effective action. It is as though these leaders come under a spell.
This "spell" is part of a dynamic that operates when the evil being confronted is brazen and relentless, and it occurred when George Bush Sr. let Saddam Hussein off at the end of the Gulf War. The fact that Bush allowed him to escape a just defeat when he was all but conquered is crucial: The person who decides on the ill- advised release does not act from a position of relative weakness. Neville Chamberlain and the others who released Hitler - another representative of brazen evil - at Munich did so before the Führer perfected his war machine. It is as though there were an unwritten psychological law that evil at its most shameless - the most barbaric murder of children and civilians, the most outrageous claims and lies - is somehow, in the minute before midnight, to be treated as an exception worthy of reprieve.
In each such instance, a political imperative is cited to justify snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. In Arafat's case, the imperatives have turned out each time to be based on flawed calculus. In March, U.S. pressure on Israel to loosen its hold on him was justified in the name of shoring up Arab support for Washington's new effort to topple Saddam. That support did not materialize, any more than Oslo's promise had. In fact, Washington's Arab "friends" declared at the Beirut Arab summit that any attack on Iraq was an attack on them. To which Secretary of State Powell replied that Arafat, a man who had boasted of killing the U.S. ambassador and his assistant in Khartoum, was no terrorist.
The student of human nature who seems best to have recognized the importance of this bizarre dynamic, in which a conscientious hero proves unable to finish off a foe he knows to be evil, was Shakespeare. He was obsessed with understanding the phenomenon. Hamlet hesitated to bring Claudius to justice, and he paid with his life and the lives of those he loved. But it is in Richard III that one can learn most from characters who see evil, yet freeze at the key moment. The principal characters are fully aware of Richard's undeniable evil, yet they let him have his way. Richard is the most systematically evil character in Shakespeare's plays. "I can smile, and murder while I smile," he says, swearing he will outdo all the villains of history "and set the murderous Machiavel to school."
The most important thing Richard knows is that while conscience allows us to understand ordinary crimes, it blinds us before the most extraordinary ones.
This is deeply disturbing, for conscience is the sine qua non of civil society. It is supposed to be the faculty that helps us become aware of our effects on others and our motives towards them, notably our baser motives. In Elizabethan English, "conscience" is an equivocal word that can mean either the faculty that allows us to feel guilt or "awareness," as in "consciousness." When Hamlet says, "Conscience does make cowards of us all," he means that consciousness, by reminding us of the possibility of death, makes us cowardly.
Conscience, designed to ferret out evil within, can also narrow our awareness of evil. This happens, according to Freud, because the person with a conscience learns to repress automatically his most destructive inclinations so as not to act on them. He becomes ignorant, for example, of the thrill of evil that a sadist such as Richard III feels when he plays God and exercises the freedom to kill whomever he pleases. But the cost of repressing one's most destructive feelings is an inability to understand, without significant effort, those who give these feelings free rein.
This is seen over and over in Richard III, especially in Richard's seduction of Lady Anne, whose husband he has murdered, and it is seen over and over in our dealings with terrorists. Richard gets Anne to drop her sword when she's about to kill him. Though she knows Richard is evil, she cannot see he has no conscience. She tells him he should hang himself for what he has done. She keeps missing the point. He feels no guilt. Eventually, she marries him, and he murders her.
Conscience, when it is functioning well - automatically, so that we do the right thing without thinking - is not simply rational. It is a blunt instrument before which the conscientious person is guilty until proven innocent. Conscience blocks first, thinks later. Men such as Arafat and Richard know this. That is why they constantly charge others with crimes: to paralyze them. Both know it doesn't matter whether the charges are false. Richard accuses Anne of inspiring the murder of her husband, as Arafat accuses the West of causing terrorism.
It is this force inside the psyche of his enemies that the person without a conscience can so effectively enlist as a fifth column. Having himself no such inner force always second-guessing him, he can see it clearly in others - far more clearly than do those who are in its thrall and take each of its charges seriously. Arafat gets endless second chances because the conscience of the West is doing what a conscience does: second-guessing the West's own actions. That is why Arafat is always playing upon the conscience of the West, especially by his continual recourse to "international law" and invocation of "human rights," an utterly brazen ploy coming from a terrorist.
Law, in the democracies, is like a civic conscience, and like conscience, it is a blunt instrument. Because law, in democracies, is made by the people, it has their respect. Democratic citizens are prone to the illusory hope that the law can be applied successfully in international affairs between regimes regardless of whether they are democracies or tyrannies, strong or weak. The name for this hope is "international law." But because the law in tyrannies is ultimately the product of one man's whim, a mere vehicle of the pre-eminent will and power, it cannot restrain that pre-eminent will and power. Conscientiousness in no way attaches to the law in tyrannies. International agreements with tyrants are meaningless, yet the State Department is now endorsing the pursuit of such agreements by trying to get Israel to sit at the table with Arafat.
A terrorist uses bombs to manipulate not just fear but also conscience. Since few can face themselves if they say, "I am succumbing to fear," they search for reasons to persuade themselves they are "doing the right thing" by submitting. The terrorist invents these "reasons," knowing desperate people will grasp at these pseudo-moral justifications, no matter how absurd. This is why the political leaders of Europe and Canada never speak of their patently obvious fear of Islamic terrorism - now the Arab world's most significant export besides oil - but increasingly of the injustice of Israel in fighting it. And that is why they speak of the "legitimacy" of Arafat - the same man who, hijacking not just conscience, but language, daily glorifies mass-murderers as noble and just "martyrs" to Arabic-speaking audiences, deploring it - when begged - to non-Arabic-speaking ones.
Terrorists can work through language, as did Richard until he had access to violence, or through violence alone. Arafat's career in terror is remarkable because when he has had limited access to violence, he has managed to use the same means as Richard did to convince his enemies not to run him through.
Arafat has been able to paint himself and the Palestinian people as victims because, lacking a conscience, he could glibly encourage Palestinian children to stand as human shields for his snipers. Fighting such an enemy so pricked the conscience of Israel that many Israelis felt they could not live with themselves - though they knew Arafat was manipulating them. This was one of the reasons the Israelis ignored common sense and gave in to the Oslo illusion that Arafat could be trusted.
The person who finally defeats Richard III in Shakespeare's play, Richmond, is the one key character who never talks to Richard or gives him a hearing, and thus never comes under his spell. To talk to Arafat, as all pundits say must be done to bring peace to the Middle East, is precisely the wrong move, for there is no dialogue with a man without a conscience. Another wrong move is the game of decriminalizing Arafat. By refusing to punish him for horrendous crimes, as a serious nation would, Israel leaves the world, the Arabs and itself with the sense that maybe his crimes can be justified, and that its attempts to restrain him from further criminal acts are themselves criminal excesses. Israel would do better to relentlessly show the world pictures of Arafat's victims, including the U.S. ambassador he assassinated.
Not all criminals are equally brazen. Arafat seems to have the power to neutralize the very foes who see him as most evil, perhaps because they, seeing him as virtually the devil incarnate, attribute to him a kind of supernatural indestructibility. This superstition has made many who are far more powerful than he is hesitate to end his career. He has convinced the world that bringing him to justice would be a catastrophe, creating more Arafats by making him a martyr (as though the Middle East were short of martyrs).
Spooked, America is unwilling to let Israel end Arafat's reign of terror. Washington has retreated into approaching him with a kind of primitive behaviour-therapy that says, "If he renounces terror" or "If he controls terror," then we will talk to him. It is as though all that matters is to get him to say the right words, never mind his intentions; as if no distinction need be drawn between his strategic goal - the destruction of Israel - and a tactical willingness to say he opposes terror (when a lie serves his strategy).
Arafat has discovered, as Shakespeare understood, that the more brazen and relentless one's acts of brutality, the more likely it is that one will be allowed a second chance, and find even powerful men of conscience coming to one's door offering to forget, to forgive and to give forgiveness a bad name.
Norman Doidge, M.D., is a columnist for the National Post and a psychiatrist at Columbia University and the University of Toronto.
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