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October 15, 2007

Understanding the Retributive Impulse
Posted by Shadi Hamid

I was talking to an American friend the other day, in an unassuming but quite satisfying Indian restaurant in London, somewhere along Queen’s Way. The conversation turned to the matter of "dignity," in the context of our difficulties in the Arab world. I told him about a disturbing, but illustrative, conversation I had with my uncle in Egypt. It was the summer before last, during the height of the Israel-Hezbollah war.

My uncle and I launched into a heated debate about Hezbollah’s initial strike across the green line in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed. I took upon myself the thankless task of trying to convince him that Hezbollah’s move was not only a mistake, but a stupid, self-defeating one. Apart from the fact that it was illegal and unprovoked, it was also damaging to the Palestinian cause, and certainly to the Lebanese themselves. Put aside your emotions for a moment, I told him. What did Hezbollah actually accomplish in doing this? How did it help the Palestinians or the Lebanese? I challenged him to cite any positive result. He had nothing to say, because there was nothing to say. These, after all, weren’t the questions he was interested in. I pushed him some more. Why? Then came the answer. He said one word, and that was enough, and, in his own way, he was able to capture the depth of the tragedy unfolding before us. Karameh, he said, looking hard into my eyes, with a mixture of sadness, anger, and exhaustion, as if needing to ready himself for a fight he didn't want to fight, but knew he had to. 

Karameh is the Arabic for "dignity." Back to my friend in London. After telling him about my uncle, I concluded: “It's critical for Americans to understand the centrality of dignity in the Arab psyche.” I pulled back feeling I had gone too far. “Well, I know that sounds ethnocentric, but still…” Indeed, this was not the right thing to say, because this was not unique to the Arab world, although it may appear, at the current moment, a more pronounced cultural trait. “Shadi,” my friend responded, “you’re certainly right, but we have the same problem.”

He went on to talk about the retributive impulse that had defined the post-9/11 American “psyche;” how we, too, have acted irrationally and done things that have not only failed to help us, but have so obviously hurt us. Our pride and our honor took a hit on 9/11. And what came out of it was a visceral reaction, one full of confused anger. Such impulses are necessary at first, even healthy. Anger can be a good thing, particularly when channeled constructively in support of a national cause. But we went far beyond healthy responses, and we’ve drawn out a long, six-year process of cathartic retribution, in some way aiming to erase the humiliation - the affront to our dignity – that the attacks of September 11th brought upon us. And, in doing so, we have descended into a spiral of irrationality, both self-destructive and self-defeating.

Well, my friend was right. We may have more in common with our Arab counterparts after all.


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Well said. Desire for retribution is hardly unique to any part of the world.

There may be some differences in reaction to more cultural phenomenon, see Rushdie et al, but those may often just be proxies for more life and death issues.

I'm glad the conversation took the turn it did, towards America's self-defeating choices. Too often, when I read about people from the Middle East or from Asia or Native Americans fighting for "pride" or "Honor" is sounds like Star Trek Klingon talk. Let's remember that everyone, as an individual, has done something irrational over a perceived or very real slight. We all want to protect our identities and our power in the world, after all.

That said, Americas mistakes after 9/11 were not committed by any sort of "us." They were committed by the Bush Administration. Let's be clear on that. The American people reacted to 9/11 in a level-headed manner. The American government, including some Democrats, reacted like a bunch of morons, first with the Patriot Act and then with the invasion of Iraq.

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I would like to say if we do compare with the action taken in Afganistan to road rage then we are ignoring the instinctual act of self preservation.The equivalence of road rage would be nipping or snarling at an intruder on a piece of meat.

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