Israel's Pain -- Beyond Human Language

We Jews have experienced so much horror in our long and arduous history that the recurrent pain of Arab/Islamic terrorism seems to be just another episode of indescribable suffering.  For the moment, we must endure.  And in the end, we shall surely prevail.

So it has been before; so it will be again.

It is also true, however, that whatever its particular source, our Jewish pain, in the fashion of all human anguish, is ultimately incommunicable.  This relentlessly primordial fact is deeply and inextricably rooted in the confining space of each individual human body.  Very simply, no human language can ever really describe or communicate pain.

This observation has distinctly important and generic implications for controlling violence in the world.  But with particular respect to Arab/Islamic terror-violence, this observation also has the decidedly very specific effect of often reducing Israeli suffering to a benignly anesthetized statistical inventory of "casualties."

In short, understanding Israel's excruciating pain at the bloodied hands of Arab/Islamic terrorists remains subject to the always stark limitations of grammar and syntax.

Every human has suffered physical pain, and everyone who has suffered knows that bodily anguish not only defies language, but also destroys language.  In the case of persistent Arab/Islamic terror against Israelis, this inexpressibility of pain now stands in the way of acknowledging such terror as pure barbarism.  For example, U.S. President Barack Obama can now speak shamelessly of "justice for two peoples," as if, somehow, there could ever be any reasonable sense of moral equivalence between a murderer and his victims.

Shielded by the inherent limitations of language that impact even world leaders, jihadi suicide-bombers are now able to present themselves before the tribunal of world public opinion as honorable armed combatants.  In fact, of course, these murderers are anything but soldiers, anything but "freedom fighters."  Rather, they remain fearful and gratuitously destructive criminals, killers who combine a very rare species of cowardice with a voluptuously perverse commitment to inflict maximum harm upon defenseless noncombatants.

Significantly, there is, from the Arab/Islamic terrorist point of view, no purposeful hope of transforming Israeli pain into usable Arab/Islamic power.  On the contrary, the terrorist collective's (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, Hezbollah -- it makes no difference) reliance on carnage and mayhem may inevitably stiffen even the most "liberation"-minded hearts.  So why do these terrorists continue to enthusiastically inflict pain upon innocents, tearing up unprotected Jewish bodies with exploding razor blades and ball bearings, and without any foreseeable pragmatic benefit?

Have these particular terrorists simply abandoned the usual political playbook of realistic policy advantage?  Have they casually traded in Clausewitz for de Sade?

One admittedly partial answer to this complex question is that Arab/Islamic terrorists, in exactly the same fashion as their intended "audiences," are imprisoned by the remorseless shortfalls of human language.  The pain experienced by one human body can never be authentically shared with another.  This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if the physical distance between them is short.

Although widely unacknowledged, the stark split between one's own body and the body of another is always absolute.  For reasons that likely have more to do with Darwinian logic than the vagaries of compassion, the "membranes" between bodies remain stubbornly impermeable.  This split, therefore, allows even the most heinous harms brought upon "others" to be viewed "objectively."  Sometimes, these egregious harms can even be accepted as a politically pardonable form of "national liberation."

For Arab/Islamic terrorists and their supporters, the violent death meted out to Israelis is always only an abstraction.  As "infidels," we hear again and again, these Jewish victims lack "sacredness."  For the terrorists, murdering these Jewish victims is not just another minor matter.  For them, it always fulfils "the will of Allah."  It is, for them, a jubilant matter deserving loud family celebration.

Physical pain within the human body not only destroys ordinary language, but it can also bring about a visceral reversion to pre-language human sounds -- that is, to those primal moans and cries and whispers that predate learned speech.  While many surviving Jewish victims of enemy terror writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws dipped so lovingly into rat poison, neither the American president, who bears silent witness, nor the screaming murderers themselves can ever begin to experience the deeper meanings of what is being suffered.  This incapacity, to be sure, is not an excuse for the bystanders or for the perpetrators, but it does help to explain why even callous killing and mutilation by terrorists can sometimes be construed as reasonable "rebellion."

The inherent incommunicability of physical pain further amplifies Israeli injuries from terrorism by insistently reminding the victims that their suffering is not only intense, but also understated.  For the Jewish victims, there can never be an anesthesia strong enough for the pain.  But for the observers, and for the perpetrators, the victims' pain is always anesthetized.

For all who shall still learn about the latest Palestinian or Hezbollah attack upon a nursery school, a kindergarten van, a city bus, an ice cream parlor, a pizza shop, or a falafel stand, the suffering intentionally ignited upon Jewish civilians will never be truly felt.  Even then, this unfathomable suffering will flicker only for a moment before it disappears.  Although it will be years before the "merely wounded" are ever again able to move their own violated bodies beyond immeasurable boundaries of torment, newspaper readers and American presidents will pause for only a second before proceeding to less annoying forms of discourse.

By its very nature, physical pain has no decipherable voice, no touchable referent.  When, at last, it may find some dimming sound at all, the listener will no longer want to be bothered.  This human listener, mortal and fragile, always wishes, pathetically (but also understandably), to deny his or her own flesh-and-blood vulnerabilities.

All things move in the midst of death, and the denial of death is surely humankind's most ingrained preoccupation.  As a result, the pain of others is necessarily kept at a comfortably safe distance, and the horror of that pain is purposefully blunted by language.  It follows that Arab/Islamic terrorists are always much worse, much more sinister, than they might first appear (they are certainly not "freedom fighters"), and their crimes are not always immediately recognized as repellent and unforgivable.

This is a problem of justice that can never be "solved."  Still, the sources of any possible improvement must lie embedded in suffering, blood, and the inevitably common agony of extinction.

From the standpoint of Israel's ongoing struggle for survival in an incontestably genocidal region, the country's leaders must quickly come to admit that the time for a vaporous "Two State" peace process is plainly over; that any political "road map" is merely another invented cartography leading, without detours, to Jewish annihilation; that Israeli pain is infinitely more important than any pretentious diplomatic logic; and that a deliberately targeted Jewish child's cry of despair is always far more consequential than even the most refined political calculations.

In both Washington and Jerusalem, it is finally time to understand that flowing human tears must always have a far deeper meaning than the most learned human smiles.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters and international law.  He was the chair of Project Daniel (Israel).


We Jews have experienced so much horror in our long and arduous history that the recurrent pain of Arab/Islamic terrorism seems to be just another episode of indescribable suffering.  For the moment, we must endure.  And in the end, we shall surely prevail.

So it has been before; so it will be again.

It is also true, however, that whatever its particular source, our Jewish pain, in the fashion of all human anguish, is ultimately incommunicable.  This relentlessly primordial fact is deeply and inextricably rooted in the confining space of each individual human body.  Very simply, no human language can ever really describe or communicate pain.

This observation has distinctly important and generic implications for controlling violence in the world.  But with particular respect to Arab/Islamic terror-violence, this observation also has the decidedly very specific effect of often reducing Israeli suffering to a benignly anesthetized statistical inventory of "casualties."

In short, understanding Israel's excruciating pain at the bloodied hands of Arab/Islamic terrorists remains subject to the always stark limitations of grammar and syntax.

Every human has suffered physical pain, and everyone who has suffered knows that bodily anguish not only defies language, but also destroys language.  In the case of persistent Arab/Islamic terror against Israelis, this inexpressibility of pain now stands in the way of acknowledging such terror as pure barbarism.  For example, U.S. President Barack Obama can now speak shamelessly of "justice for two peoples," as if, somehow, there could ever be any reasonable sense of moral equivalence between a murderer and his victims.

Shielded by the inherent limitations of language that impact even world leaders, jihadi suicide-bombers are now able to present themselves before the tribunal of world public opinion as honorable armed combatants.  In fact, of course, these murderers are anything but soldiers, anything but "freedom fighters."  Rather, they remain fearful and gratuitously destructive criminals, killers who combine a very rare species of cowardice with a voluptuously perverse commitment to inflict maximum harm upon defenseless noncombatants.

Significantly, there is, from the Arab/Islamic terrorist point of view, no purposeful hope of transforming Israeli pain into usable Arab/Islamic power.  On the contrary, the terrorist collective's (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah, Hezbollah -- it makes no difference) reliance on carnage and mayhem may inevitably stiffen even the most "liberation"-minded hearts.  So why do these terrorists continue to enthusiastically inflict pain upon innocents, tearing up unprotected Jewish bodies with exploding razor blades and ball bearings, and without any foreseeable pragmatic benefit?

Have these particular terrorists simply abandoned the usual political playbook of realistic policy advantage?  Have they casually traded in Clausewitz for de Sade?

One admittedly partial answer to this complex question is that Arab/Islamic terrorists, in exactly the same fashion as their intended "audiences," are imprisoned by the remorseless shortfalls of human language.  The pain experienced by one human body can never be authentically shared with another.  This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if the physical distance between them is short.

Although widely unacknowledged, the stark split between one's own body and the body of another is always absolute.  For reasons that likely have more to do with Darwinian logic than the vagaries of compassion, the "membranes" between bodies remain stubbornly impermeable.  This split, therefore, allows even the most heinous harms brought upon "others" to be viewed "objectively."  Sometimes, these egregious harms can even be accepted as a politically pardonable form of "national liberation."

For Arab/Islamic terrorists and their supporters, the violent death meted out to Israelis is always only an abstraction.  As "infidels," we hear again and again, these Jewish victims lack "sacredness."  For the terrorists, murdering these Jewish victims is not just another minor matter.  For them, it always fulfils "the will of Allah."  It is, for them, a jubilant matter deserving loud family celebration.

Physical pain within the human body not only destroys ordinary language, but it can also bring about a visceral reversion to pre-language human sounds -- that is, to those primal moans and cries and whispers that predate learned speech.  While many surviving Jewish victims of enemy terror writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws dipped so lovingly into rat poison, neither the American president, who bears silent witness, nor the screaming murderers themselves can ever begin to experience the deeper meanings of what is being suffered.  This incapacity, to be sure, is not an excuse for the bystanders or for the perpetrators, but it does help to explain why even callous killing and mutilation by terrorists can sometimes be construed as reasonable "rebellion."

The inherent incommunicability of physical pain further amplifies Israeli injuries from terrorism by insistently reminding the victims that their suffering is not only intense, but also understated.  For the Jewish victims, there can never be an anesthesia strong enough for the pain.  But for the observers, and for the perpetrators, the victims' pain is always anesthetized.

For all who shall still learn about the latest Palestinian or Hezbollah attack upon a nursery school, a kindergarten van, a city bus, an ice cream parlor, a pizza shop, or a falafel stand, the suffering intentionally ignited upon Jewish civilians will never be truly felt.  Even then, this unfathomable suffering will flicker only for a moment before it disappears.  Although it will be years before the "merely wounded" are ever again able to move their own violated bodies beyond immeasurable boundaries of torment, newspaper readers and American presidents will pause for only a second before proceeding to less annoying forms of discourse.

By its very nature, physical pain has no decipherable voice, no touchable referent.  When, at last, it may find some dimming sound at all, the listener will no longer want to be bothered.  This human listener, mortal and fragile, always wishes, pathetically (but also understandably), to deny his or her own flesh-and-blood vulnerabilities.

All things move in the midst of death, and the denial of death is surely humankind's most ingrained preoccupation.  As a result, the pain of others is necessarily kept at a comfortably safe distance, and the horror of that pain is purposefully blunted by language.  It follows that Arab/Islamic terrorists are always much worse, much more sinister, than they might first appear (they are certainly not "freedom fighters"), and their crimes are not always immediately recognized as repellent and unforgivable.

This is a problem of justice that can never be "solved."  Still, the sources of any possible improvement must lie embedded in suffering, blood, and the inevitably common agony of extinction.

From the standpoint of Israel's ongoing struggle for survival in an incontestably genocidal region, the country's leaders must quickly come to admit that the time for a vaporous "Two State" peace process is plainly over; that any political "road map" is merely another invented cartography leading, without detours, to Jewish annihilation; that Israeli pain is infinitely more important than any pretentious diplomatic logic; and that a deliberately targeted Jewish child's cry of despair is always far more consequential than even the most refined political calculations.

In both Washington and Jerusalem, it is finally time to understand that flowing human tears must always have a far deeper meaning than the most learned human smiles.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on Israeli security matters and international law.  He was the chair of Project Daniel (Israel).


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