TCS Daily

Mob Mentality

By Lee Harris - April 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The fate of the American mission in Iraq depends on the answer to a simple question: Who is our enemy there?

If our enemy is made up of die-hard followers of Saddam Hussein, a handful of Brown Shirt Shi'ites, and/or imported cliques of terrorists, then it may be possible for the Bush administration to eliminate these highly specific toxic elements from the body politic of Iraq; and to eliminate them without evoking general outrage among the ordinary Iraqis whose future we are determined to make brighter.

But if our enemy cannot be isolated and localized in this manner, then we face an altogether different, and far less optimistic, scenario -- one in which our enemy in Iraqi may not be a handful of terrorist factions, but virtually the entire population of young male Iraqis under the age of twenty-five or so, with huge numbers of them being mere boys. If so, then our battle is no longer a battle against a foreign toxin that can be localized and eliminated, but against the sons of those mature and sober-minded Iraqis upon whom we placed our hopes for a better future for their unhappy country.

Mobs of young males do not fight for a reason; they fight for turf. For them it is easy to spot the enemy: it is whoever has violated their turf. And in their reading of the American mission to Iraq, it is the United States that has intruded on their turf, and this includes the harmless civilians butchered at Fallujah just as much as the American soldiers murdered by guerilla attacks. You may fire at the mob, or scare it off temporarily, but you cannot appease its collective hatred -- it will simply lie dormant until it sees a new chance to express its fury against those it sees as the intruder.

The hatred of the mob is the most primordial form that hatred of an enemy can take, and it exhibits the most horrendous lack of compassion imaginable -- the massacres at Fallujah witness this fact. The closest most of us can get to imagining such blind emotional fury is through an analogy: it is the way a person feels discovering his wife in the arms of other man. Blind with rage, he wants to kill, and he couldn't care less what comes after.

Now imagine feeling this way about an entire nation, and that's how the Iraqi mob feels about America. There was nothing we could have done to prevent this feeling. We are there, and we are on their turf. That is all they know, and all they need to know, in order to want to kill us.

This has nothing to do with ideology, or religion, or capitalism. It is a truth anchored deeply in human nature -- so deeply that it can sweep aside all those more serious differences that adults take for granted, like the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite.

If our enemy in Iraq is the Arab street itself, with its gangs of young males, then this fact has the following unsettling consequences.

First, it means that the U.S. cannot hope to eliminate the enemy by surgical operations against this or that isolated militant group; instead, it would mean an all out war on the Iraqi street, and, eventually, on the entire demographic group that is susceptible to the lure of a turf fight.

Secondly, it means that the cost of eliminating the enemy will inevitably mean the alienation of those mature and sensible Iraqi adults whose moderation was essential for the success of the American mission. This is because the demographic group that we see as terrorists and militants is the exact same group that they recognize as their boys. Yes, we might be able to win in a test of wills with the sons by killing enough of them; but how can we hope to persuade their fathers and mothers that anything we can give them was worth that price?

Precisely because these conclusions are so disturbing, there is a natural temptation to try to blame the outbreaks of violence in Iraq on isolated elements; but there is a point at which this insistence becomes dangerously close to wishful thinking. If our enemy in Iraq is nothing less than the rising generation of young Iraqi men, then it would be fatal to ignore this fact, especially given the danger that these young men might discover in their hatred of us a bond that unites them across divisions of tribe and sect.

Lee Harris is the author of Civilization and Its Enemies. He recently wrote for TCS about Orientalism as Racism.


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