In Paris two armed men murdered twelve people. The killers were apparently religious fanatics or zealots. They conducted the operation with a cool efficiency that showed military training. They killed expressly in the name of their God and faith. They did so to create terror among other people for their own purposes. They killed people who they believed were acting against their faith.
About three thousand years ago at a little village called Ai in what used to be called the Holy Land armed men killed twelve thousand people. They were apparently religious fanatics or zealots. They conducted the operation with a cool efficiency that showed military training. They killed expressly in the name of their God and faith. They did so to create terror among other people for their own purposes. They killed people who they believed were acting against their faith.
The massacre at Ai is described in the book of Joshua in a book, the Bible, that provides a foundation for three religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Different numbers were involved in Paris and Ai. In Paris, two killers killed twelve people; in Ai, thirty thousand warriors killed twelve thousand people.
Another difference is in the reason for the killings. In Paris, it appears that the murderers killed people that they thought were involved in insulting their religion. The victims, including police, were in their perverted thinking guilty. In Ai, men, women and children were massacred and the city destroyed because they were part of the Promised Land, that is, part of the land promised by Jehovah to the tribes of Israel. At least, that is what the Bible says. Their ‘guilt’, including the guilt of their children, was to be on the wrong side of the tribal and religious divide. The dice rolled badly for them.
The indigenous or aboriginal peoples at Ai were all liable to massacre under the Law of God expressed in the Bible, to which Jews, Christians, and Muslems owe allegiance. The book of Deuteronomy (chapter 20, 13-17) records that Moses told the people of Israel that if they took a foreign city, they were to kill every male: the women and children ‘thou shall take unto thyself’. ‘But the cities of these people which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance thou shalt save nothing alive that breatheth.’ This is an injunction to commit acts of terror. It is a prescription for what we call ethnic cleansing or genocide. Under it, Joshua and the tribes blew their trumpets at Jericho so that ‘the wall fell down flat’; and ‘they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and ass, with the edge of the sword’. At Ai, Joshua set up a clever ambush to enable the massacre of all inhabitants. He did so with ‘thirty thousand mighty men of valour,’ and ‘so it was that all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai’(Joshua 8:25.)
Most historians say that Islam was spread by the sword. Well, the Promised Land had been taken by the sword for the tribes of Israel by mighty men of valour with the help of God. Most of the people of Islam now believe that the promised land of Israel is being increased by the sword, with or without help from God. On any view, the history of both of these faiths is marked by violence and terror in the name of their religion and the world as whole is worse off as a result of at least that part of their history.
There is another difference between the murders at Paris and Ai. Leaders of Islam have condemned the murders in Paris as being against their religion. If anyone has said the same for the murders at Ai on behalf of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, I have not heard it. It will be difficult to say that those murders were committed against the word of God. Did the author of the Bible get it wrong or has God changed the rules since then?
This two-facedness makes unbelievers angry. On what ground do the followers of Judaism, Christianity or Islam say that they do not follow a God whose word enjoins terrorism and the doctrine that might makes right? On what basis do they maintain that the God of the Bible is not a terrorist, and a much more lethal terrorist than any of the Greek or Roman gods?
A Jewish zealot shot and killed the Prime Minister of Israel Yitzhak Rabin. The killer used a Beretta 84F .380 ACP semi-automatic pistol. He said that he did it for God because in his view the Prime Minister was betraying Israel. Mr Rabin had been awarded the Nobel Prize for his part in the Oslo Accords for peace in Palestine. The murderer, Yigal Amir, also said:
There is no moral problem. If I was conquering the land now, I would have to kill babies and children as it is written in the book of Joshua.
Was he wrong? Yigal Amir killed for a belief. He killed in the belief that his religion justified his killing. The judges expressly repudiated this argument saying that it was ‘completely inappropriate and amounts to cynical exploitation of Jewish law for goals that are alien to Judaism’. In passing sentence, the Court said: ‘He who so calmly cuts short another’s life, only proves the depth of wretchedness to which [his] values have fallen, and thus he does not merit any regard whatsoever, except pity, because he has lost his humanity.’
Regardless of what the judges said, it hardly seems right to say that this killer was a radical Jew, or that his Judaism radicalised him and made him a killer. Is it fair or even open to blame Judaism for the acts of this killer whose beliefs are seen as a perversion of Judaism? We do not after all call the Ku Klux Klan radical Christians. Christians would be affronted by that description. Is it fair or even open to blame Christianity for the acts of the Ku Klux Klan whose beliefs are seen as a perversion of Christianity?
We need to have this in mind when applying labels like ‘radical Muslems’ to people who kill for a perverted belief in Islam. These labels do not conduce to fairness or sense. I am aware that many Muslems around the world tacitly sympathize with some of these people, just as many so called Christians in the American South tacitly sympathised with the Klan. But to brand every member of a creed by the actions of a few just because they hold that belief is to commit the moral and intellectual crime that lies at the very core of racism.
To the victims of people like Yigal Amir or the Klan, or the terrorists in Paris, the nature of the belief driving their killers hardly matters. It matters to the rest of us, believers or not, in trying to protect ourselves against others who are prepared to kill for a belief. The great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes stopped three bullets during the American Civil War. More than thirty years after the end of that war in an address called ‘The Soldier’s Faith’, Holmes spoke with admiration of those ‘able to face annihilation for a blind belief.’
The faith of Justice Holmes is in a different universe. The killers we are talking of kill for a belief that excludes tolerance for any contrary belief and any diversion or softening on other moral grounds. I believe – therefore I kill. Credo ergo caedo. They become what might be called credo killers – people like the terrorists in Paris, the Klan, Yigal Amir, and Joshua.
As it happens, the worst credo killers of the twentieth century were killing against God rather than with him, but that is not much help to the rest of us. It matters little to the dead and their families whether the belief for which they were killed is a perversion of a religious faith or a political idea, but it will matter if we the victims spread the poison by judging others just by their creed.
For those who may be interested, I attach a brief extract from the book Terror and the Police State from the chapter Religion, propaganda, and cults. Extract
And as a footnote to the note on A law of suspects?, I set out the following remarks by David Bromwich in a piece entitled Working on the Dark Side from the current (8 January) London Review of Books. In discussing the Senate Select Committee report on CIA detention and interrogation, the learned author says:
Cheney worked hard to eradicate from the minds of Americans the idea that there can be such a thing as a ‘suspect’. Due process of law rests on the acknowledged possibility that a suspect may be innocent; but for Cheney, a person interrogated on suspicion of terrorism is a terrorist. To elaborate a view beyond that point, as he sees it, only involves government in a wasteful tangle of doubts. Cheney concedes from time to time that mistakes can happen; but the leading quality of the man is a perfect freedom from remorse. ‘I’d do it again in a minute.’
Unfortunately for us, Mr Cheney is not alone in having a perfect freedom from remorse, or in being eager to come back for more.