In a recent op-ed article for The New York Times ("Kids With Bombs," April 5, 2002), Nicholas Kristof interviewed a group of young Palestinian boys from Gaza City, all of whom were eager to be martyred by gelignite-colored vests. In Mr. Kristof's descriptions, they foamed at the mouth at the chance to kill themselves and take out busloads of Israeli girls in the process. When pressed about who was off limits, they drew the line at attacking pre-schoolers. "They beamed in pride at their humanitarianism," Kristof says, "as I ached at their lack of it."
The reams of copy that have been scribbled in response to the hideous events in the West Bank vary in tone: some finger-wagging tsks of disapproval, some bloodthirsty rants about how best to roast the bastards when we catch 'em. Kristof's, no better or worse than any of them, leaned slightly to the former. But his work is mostly cited here as an example, because it contains a thread that they all share: Comparing the Palestinian suicide bombers, and the populace that cheerfully celebrates them, to the rest of humanity and finding them wanting.
Inhuman is a popular word in these hand-wringing pronouncements, usually used in connection with the act of detonating a bomb in a crowded street. The concept of humanity -- what it does and does not include -- is a thorny one. Most journalists believe this debate is better suited for some languorous graduate seminar, a purely semantic argument for horn-rimmed William Safire devotees. But one can not denounce an entire nation as lacking in human qualities without acknowledging all the qualities that humans possess.
First off, we need to define the term human as an adjective: descriptive of the behavior of humans. It does not necessarily mean the same thing as humane, despite that word's obvious etymological roots. This conceit is natural; humans are, after all, a chauvinistic species. We like to think that we are the pinnacle of decency when compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, priding ourselves in not eating our own vomit or biting our mate's head off during copulation. But we cannot say something is human only when we like what a human is doing.
Confusion between human and humane is a relatively modern one. Our ancestors -- particularly the people of the medieval world -- had no trouble believing that humans were capable of hideous things; constantly pillaging hordes of Visigoths and the ham-fisted despotism of inbred feudal tyrants will easily breed such cynicism. In this world, tightly controlled by a distant, monolithic Catholic Church, evil and human were practically synonymous. Hell was only just punishment for the rottenness inherent in being alive. The damned in Dante's Inferno did not question their fates, even when their punishment was due to what the modern mind might call technicalities. Life was nasty, brutish, and short, and then your soul was roasted for all eternity. Deal with it.
The Enlightenment was the beginning of the end to this attitude, essentially a self-esteem boost for the human race. The philosophers of this era -- Rousseau in particular -- insisted we were wonderful, righteous creatures made of pure sunshine and goodness. Evil came from faceless institutions: cities, laws, governments, things that predated us and would long outlast us. Humans were good in design, as God and Nature made us, and we were corrupted by the immovable forces of History and Society. All the good in the world came from humans. All the bad in the world came from things that acted upon humanity.
These ideas, which suppose that humanity is a perfectible species, led to the championing of democracy and human rights; but they also led to the removal of evil from human possibility. If someone shot the Archduke or marched POWs through Bataan, they were no longer human; they were merely debris, plastic bags and old newspapers riding a gust of history. Black Shirts marched into Rome on such presuppositions, as most people shrugged their shoulders and said, well, that's the way the wind is blowing right now...
Suicide has been called the most human act by many sociologists and anthropologists, because only humans perform it. The closest to us in this respect are lemmings, but no one has proven that they actually know they are headed for a watery death of their own design. Animals do not off themselves for a number of reasons. For one, they do not have the same notions of ambition and happiness that, in the absence of their fulfillment, lead to depression. They simply eat (or get eaten) and reproduce. They do not ponder their existence and the point thereof, as far as anyone can tell. And while animals kill each other (a lot), the act is done for survivalist reasons: to get food or avoid becoming food, to protect the harem, to mark territory. They do not kill each other over ideology. A bear does not hate, or even disagree with, the trout he plucks from the stream; he's just hungry.
The suicide bombers of Hamas are not the first people to consider murdered innocents to be nothing more than collateral damage. So while what they are doing is unquestionably inhumane (to say the least), to call it inhuman is to kid ourselves about what humans are capable of in the evil department. Though it is painful to say it, they are tragically, pathetically, and typically human. To call them anything else is to grant them some wholly other status they do not warrant; alien invaders, angry interlopers who have fallen from a distant planet to wreak havoc among our otherwise peaceful species. It turns the Middle East into a Star Wars episode writ large, where all the bad guys are either cold robots or masked foot soldiers merely following the orders of a villain in a dark helmet (voiced by a narrator safely ensconced in a far away sound booth).
But the menace we have to face here lies not in phantoms, but in ourselves. Calling this evil -- or any other evil that men do -- inhuman renders its perpetrators incapable of being brought to justice or recognizing the evil of their acts. It also makes their redemption impossible, and it's only a few short skips from this postulate to sending the inhuman away on a special train they're sending in. The suicide bombers clearly think along these lines already, or they could not spread shrapnel and their intestines all over public squares. We can not conquer this attitude by adopting it ourselves, however tempting it is divorce these people from humanity.
Humans made the Taj Mahal and napalm. We have both constructed the Great Sphinx and blown its nose off. While it is comforting to accentuate the positive, we can not eliminate the negative until we recognize it in each and every one of us.