Letter from Berlin
A philosopher's defense of suicide bombers shakes up Germany
NOTHING SPOILS A PARTY in Germany like accusations of anti-Semitism. This month, the mood of a 40th anniversary celebration at Suhrkamp, Germany's most intellectually respected commercial publisher, certainly soured after the firm's publication of Ted Honderich's "After the Terror," in which the Canadian-British philosopher argues that some forms of terrorism -- including Palestinian suicide attacks against Israeli civilians -- are morally justifiable.
When Honderich's book appeared in English last September, Noam Chomsky praised it as "a compelling and impressive contribution" to our thinking about 9/11. But the British historian Noel Malcolm, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, described it as "quite possibly the worst book I have ever read." A hostile review in the Toronto Star and protests from Jewish groups led the hunger relief organization Oxfam to refuse a 5,000 donation from an advance on Honderich's royalties.
But that was nothing compared with the furor over the German edition. No sooner had it hit the stands than Frankfurt sociology professor and Suhrkamp consultant Micha Brumlik publicly denounced its "anti-Semitic anti-Zionism." Brumlik highlighted a particularly inflammatory passage: "Having been among the principal victims of racism in history, Jews now seem to have learned from their abusers."
Suhrkamp defended the book -- for 24 hours -- before announcing that it had canceled the second edition and was transferring the rights back to the author. Honderich, the publisher concluded, had "exceeded the bounds within which the investigation of topical and hotly debated conflicts is possible and necessary." Honderich responded by branding Brumlik an enemy of academic freedom and calling for his dismissal from his university post.
Middle East politics are an especially touchy issue in Germany, where, as critic Hellmuth Karasek wrote in the Berliner Tagesspiegel after Suhrkamp pulled the book, feelings of national guilt over the Holocaust may inspire an unconscious desire to see Israel accused of similar moral outrages. But does that justify censorship?
Honderich, a 70-year-old professor emeritus of University College London, the author of "How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem" (1993), and the editor of "The Oxford Companion to Philosophy" (1995), told an interviewer that "After the Terror" was intended as a political intervention, not a fully developed system of ethics. Honderich's arguments are based on the proposition that prosperous capitalist nations are morally culpable for failing to combat poverty and exploitation in the world's poorer regions.
While condemning the hijackers of 9/11, Honderich insists that civilians in the well-off West recognize a role of their own in inspiring the terrorists' anger. "We need to escape the illusion that to be ordinary is to be innocent," he wrote for The Journal of Ethics in a follow-up essay to "After the Terror."
In a recent lecture, titled "Terrorism for Humanity," delivered at the International Social Philosophy Conference at Boston's Northeastern University, Honderich reiterated his more controversial belief that acts of terror are morally justifiable if they aim to better people's lives.
As for Palestinian suicide bombers, Honderich (whose wife is Jewish and who refuses to lecture in Germany on moral grounds) believes they are freedom fighters exercising their "moral right" to national liberation and basic human entitlements. His ethical system appears to mix a version of Kantian idealism ("There are not degrees of being right or of being wrong," he writes) with a harsh political utilitarianism. Applied to the Middle East, this yields a simple conclusion: In failing to make bad lives good, the West in general and Israel in particular are absolutely wrong and therefore legitimately subject to any kind of attack concretely aimed at making those lives better.
Whether the disadvantaged have had a hand in shaping their own situation is, for Honderich, irrelevant.For all its sophomoric logic and dubious historical arguments, Honderich's book initially won some distinguished backers. Indeed, Suhrkamp accepted "After the Terror" following a recommendation from the philosopher Jrgen Habermas, best known for his advocacy of liberal values and open discussion within the public sphere. But the day Suhrkamp announced it was dropping the book, the great defender of debate publicly revoked his recommendation, saying that "After the Terror," if read without the proper "hermeneutic forbearance," might be open to anti-Semitic readings.
This retreat gave rise to speculations that neither Habermas nor Suhrkamp's editors had read Honderich's book with any thoroughness to begin with, and it also points up an ultimate irony. In the scandal surrounding "After the Terror," Honderich's arguments have reached a far broader audience than they would have otherwise. As of this writing, "After the Terror" is on the list of top-selling English-language books on Amazon.com's German website.
Jefferson Chase is a writer living in Berlin.
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