TCS Daily


War in Pieces: The Blood Feud

By Lee Harris - July 8, 2005 12:00 AM

When 9/11 happened, no one asked me to write an article about it the next day, because no one, outside my immediate circle of friends, had any interest in my opinion. This was fortunate, because I did not need to make a snap judgment about the significance of that fateful morning. Had I rushed my violent first impressions into print, I might have found it difficult to ever get around to having any second thoughts -- second thoughts like the ones that finally came together in the essay "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology," published in Policy Review a full six months after 9/11.

This morning, after Nick Schulz encouraged me to write a piece on the terror attacks in London, I was tempted to put the project off until I had had time to reflect on the events. What else could I say in the immediate aftermath of such an attack than what every other decent man or woman would say about it, namely that it was an outrage against all human decency, and a violation of everything that civilization stands for?

Then a thought went through my mind that has been haunting it for over three years now. A simple idea, really, yet one that when it is clearly stated can offer us a radically different way of understanding events like 9/11, the Bali attack, the Madrid bombings, and now the carnage in London.

Immediately after 9/11, the general consensus was that we were at war. And yet this evocation of the concept of war bothered me because it did not quite fit. Wars were things that Westerners did. They were fought for economic reasons or for territorial expansion; they were instruments of policy; they had a point and an objective. You knew when a war started, and you knew when it was over. On both sides of a war you had diplomacy -- the breakdown in diplomacy normally started wars, and a recommencement of diplomacy inevitably signaled their termination. Finally, wars, when they were fought, tended to resolve into a series of increasingly climactic battles, allowing each side to keep score of its position, as in a game of chess, and ending in some well-established gesture, like waving the white flag or slaughtering your enemies en masse.

If you try to make the random and scattered terrorist attacks since 9/11 fit into this pattern, you will soon realize that it takes a good bit of twisting and squeezing to make these events match the profile of Western warfare. Indeed, when I wrote "Al Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology," I argued that war was not the appropriate model to employ in order to gain an understanding of the enemy that we faced -- and yet at the time I was still unclear what model of conflict would make more sense.

After the London bombing, I feel more than ever that the war model is deeply flawed, and that a truer picture of the present conflict may be gained by studying another, culturally distinct form of violent conflict, namely the blood feud.

In the blood feud, the orientation is not to the future, as in war, but to the past. In the feud you are avenging yourself on your enemy for something that he did in the past. Al Qaeda justified the attack on New York and Washington as revenge against the USA for having defiled the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia by its military presence during the First Gulf War. In the attack on London, the English were being punished for their involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the blood feud, unlike war, you have no interest in bringing your enemy to his knees. You are not looking for your enemy to surrender to you; you are simply interested in killing some of his people in revenge for past injuries, real or imaginary -- nor does it matter in the least whether the people you kill today were the ones guilty of the past injuries that you claim to be avenging. In a blood feud, every member of the enemy tribe is a perfectly valid target for revenge. What is important is that some of their guys must be killed -- not necessarily anyone of any standing in their community. Just kill someone on the other side, and you have done what the logic of the blood feud commands you to do.

In the blood feud there is no concept of decisive victory because there is no desire to end the blood feud. Rather the blood feud functions as a permanent "ethical" institution -- it is the way of life for those who participate in it; it is how they keep score and how they maintain their own rights and privileges. You don't feud to win, you feud to keep your enemy from winning -- and that is why the anthropologist of the Bedouin feud, Emrys Peters, has written the disturbing words: The feud is eternal.

We in the West cannot imagine a war that goes on forever; but those for whom the blood feud is the established mode of settling difference cannot imagine a world without it. We are puzzled when they attack us viciously on a single day, and then wait for years before they attack us again -- an irrational policy from the point of view of Western military strategy, but perfectly sensible when seen from the point of view of the blood feud. If your sole interest lies in annoying and irritating your enemy, and not in vanquishing him, then the sporadic and the occasional attack makes more sense to you than a systematic frontal assault.

Indeed, to those adept at the blood feud, nothing can be more absurd than provoking a feuding partner into an all out war of annihilation -- which perhaps explains why the Islamic terrorists tend to vary the locations of their attacks and to string them out over the course of years, rather than concentrating on a single target and hammering it repeatedly over the course of days and weeks, as in a normal military campaign. If the terrorists attacked the same people continuously, day after day, week after week, they would be bound to stir up a fury that would result in their own extermination. By intermittent and infrequent attacks, on the other hand, they are able to injure and wound their enemy, without the fear that they will be overwhelmed by their enemy's desperate desire to be rid of them once and for all. Even better, such sporadic violence permits the enemy to discount their own suffering, by realizing after each fresh attack that life goes on -- as indeed it does for those who chance to survive.

The art of the blood feud, if it can be called an art, requires the participants in the feud to imitate the random and unpredictable nature of what we in the West call acts of God. Like lightning, you can never predict the next attack; you can never know where it will strike, or who it will strike. You only know that one day it will happen again, as it happened again today in London. By this means, the victims of the attack are lulled into a sense of impotence and helplessness, accepting the attacks the same way we accept tornadoes and other natural disasters.

Contemporary Islamic terrorism has permitted the ancient practitioners of the blood feud to introduce its brutal and primeval logic into a world of modern technology and parliamentary politics. The sooner we grasp this fact, the sooner we will be in a position to know our enemy for who he really is. Until then we will be as dazed and confused as those who, while peacefully riding a commuter train, suddenly find themselves bloodied and blackened, in the midst of maimed corpses and twisted steel, whispering to themselves over and over, "Why? Why?"

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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