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When Humanism Becomes Fundamentalism

When Humanism Becomes Fundamentalism

Lessons from the murder of Daniel Pearl.

by

Just after 7 p.m. on January 23, 2002, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl got into a car outside the Village Restaurant in downtown Karachi. According to friends, Danny was feeling good. He had lined up a scoop: an interview with Islamic radical Ahmed Omar Sheikh, whom Danny suspected held the key to the case of Richard C. Reid, the al Qaeda recruit who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic jetliner with plastic explosives in his shoes.

Fazal Karim, one of the men in the car with Danny that night, was arrested last May. He told police that Daniel Pearl appeared calm as he was driven around Karachi for several hours, even when he was made to change vehicles.

After all, Danny must have thought, a militant in hiding has to cover his tracks, lest the reporter lead the police to his hideout. The long, circuitous drive, the change of vehicles, was all standard cloak-and-dagger fare for a veteran journalist like Daniel Pearl.

Finally, late in the night, the car drove down a dirt road to a nursery situated in the middle of a vast field. Danny was told to get out, and was taken into a cinder-block storehouse.

At what point did Danny realize that he was no longer a journalist in pursuit of a story, but a Jew in a trap set by Islamic terrorists? When his “escorts” locked the metal door behind him? When he surveyed the 10 X 15-ft. room and realized that his prize interviewee was not there? When they tied him to a chair? When, six days later, three Arabs from Yemen arrived with a satchel filled with assorted knives?

It appears from Fazal Karim’s testimony that Danny was optimistic until the end. One of the Arabs spoke to Danny in a language Mr. Karim did not understand, but Danny’s face seemed to light up. According to a Western official privy to Mr. Karim’s account, "Danny seemed to get some sort of encouragement that he was near release."

Immediately after that, Danny was videotaped saying: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am a Jew." He read a statement criticizing the United States. Then, rather than releasing him, his executioners put a blindfold over Danny’s head and decapitated him. Afterward, the Arabs ordered Mr. Karim and the other guards to cut Danny’s body into pieces.

THE LEGERDEMAIN OF EVIL

The place was Pakistan. The year was 2002. The murderers were Arabs. But something about the tragedy of Daniel Pearl reminds me of another place and time, another set of villains...

"In spite of everything we knew about Nazi Germany, we had an inexplicable confidence in German culture and humanism."

In his memoirs, Elie Wiesel writes of the period before the Holocaust spread to his Transylvanian hometown:

 

"We were told of arbitrary arrests, systematic humiliation, collective persecution, and even of pogroms and massacres. And yet. The truth is that, in spite of everything we knew about Nazi Germany, we had an inexplicable confidence in German culture and humanism. We kept telling ourselves that this was, after all, a civilized people, that we must not give credence to exaggerated rumors about its army’s behavior." [p. 27]

 

Mr. Wiesel goes on to describe how, after the Jews of his town were prohibited from conducting business, were made to wear the yellow star, were ghettoized, and had their valuables confiscated, and even after the deportations began, his family still did not suspect the murderous intentions of the Germans.

Their loyal Catholic maid Maria offered them a hiding place: A remote cabin in the mountains far from the Germans and their Hungarian accomplices. Maria begged them to come with her. She promised to feed and take care of them. The Wiesel family, after a hasty meeting at their kitchen table, refused Maria’s offer. “We surely would have accepted her offer had we known that ‘destination unknown’ meant Birkenau.”

Two days later, the family was deported to the death camp, where Elie’s parents, grandmother, and little sister were killed in the gas chambers.

Citing how kindly the advancing German troops had treated the Jews during World War I, Mr. Wiesel writes: “We all fell into the trap history had set for us.”

The trap was not of history. History, if objectively observed, would have warned that in Europe both educated and uneducated, religious and secular, left-wing and right-wing gentiles have murdered, maimed, raped, and savaged Jews for the last two millennia. Jews at the advent of the Holocaust, no less than Daniel Pearl, fell into the trap not of history, but of humanism.

Humanism is the philosophy “that emphasizes the dignity and worth of the individual, with the basic premise that people are rational beings who possess the capacity for truth and goodness.”

Jews believe that human beings were created in the image of God, which most Jews take to mean that all human beings are essentially good. Peel away the misguided notions of this or that system, and you have a good, decent, kind human being who would not deliberately choose evil.

But it’s precisely the ability to choose evil that is the uniqueness of human beings. “Created in the image of God,” as the sages inform us, means that human beings were created, like God, with free choice. Animals act from instinct. Humans have the unique ability to choose between good and evil.

The starting point of each human being’s free choice varies, according mostly to his or her upbringing. Thus, I suspect that none of the readers of this article would murder for money -- even a lot of money. It is simply beyond our choice box, given the values our parents inculcated in us. But many of us would cheat on our income tax; others of us would not bother to report a bank error in our favor; while some of us would gladly pocket the extra change a supermarket cashier mistakenly gives us. Each of these scenarios poses a choice to the average, ethical human being. “Choice” implies it could go either way.

We are created by our choices. The person who chooses not to report a bank error in his favor will go on to choose to cheat in small ways, which will grow to bigger, more egregious deceptions. Enron executives are not born swindlers; they got there by a myriad of graduated choices.

The word “evil” to a humanist is like the word “God” to an atheist.

But once they are there, do not trust them with your money! A person or a nation who has chosen perversity becomes perverse. “The capacity for truth and goodness” which humanism credits to all people can be deactivated by consistently choosing evil. The result is evil people, evil groups, evil nations.

When President Bush speaks about the “axis of evil,” humanists shift uncomfortably in their seats. The word “evil” to a humanist is like the word “God” to an atheist. It is simply not part of his or her belief system.

Evil is a reality, not a matter of taste or relative values. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is a repudiation of any meaningful values. Such mesmerizing of our moral capacities is the ultimate legerdemain of evil; if you can’t see it, you can’t fight it.

Humanists, who usually inhabit the liberal end of the political spectrum, are quick to array themselves against those they call “fundamentalists.” Such “fundamentalists” are usually painted as Bible-thumping, religious fanatics. But “fundamentalism” also refers to “a point of view characterized by rigid adherence to fundamental or basic principles.” What could be more rigid than adhering to the belief in the essential goodness of man after the Holocaust? After the Ramallah lynching? After the beheading of Daniel Pearl?

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IF THEY KNEW US, THEY WOULD LOVE US

Professor Judea Pearl of UCLA marked the yahrzeit of his son by writing an article published in the Wall Street Journal (February 20):

 

The murder weapon in Danny's case was aimed not at a faceless enemy or institution, but at a gentle human being -- one whose face is now familiar to millions of people around the world. Danny's murderers spent a week with him; they must have seen his radiating humanity. Killing him so brutally, and in front of a video camera, marked a new low in man's inhumanity to man. People of all faiths were thus shocked to realize that mankind can still be dragged to such depths by certain myths and ideologies.

 

Personally, I am shocked that two years after the Ramallah lynching, 58 years after the Holocaust, and 74 years after the Hebron massacre, that we could be “shocked to realize that mankind can still be dragged to such depths.”

In Jewish history, there are no “new lows in man’s inhumanity to man,” only old lows, repeated and recycled.

The whole world saw the video of Arabs murdering two hapless Israeli reservists who took a wrong turn into Ramallah a year and a half before Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping. The Arab mob disemboweled their victims and danced with their entrails.

In Jewish history, both former and recent, there are no “new lows in man’s inhumanity to man,” only old lows, repeated and recycled. In fact, the way Danny was murdered, by decapitation, was the murder mode of choice during the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49, when nearly 100,000 Jews were slaughtered.

In his grief, Professor Pearl finds it hard to comprehend why, after spending a week with his gentle son, seeing “his radiating humanity,” his captors did not repent of their hatred. After knowing him for a week at close range, how could they have killed him?

The Jewish tendency to trust in the humanity of those who hate us is as old as Jew-hatred itself. In the Hebron Massacre of 1929, 67 Jews were tortured and brutally murdered by their Arab neighbors who had lived next door to them for decades. The story of Ben Tzion Gershon was typical.

Ben Tzion, who had worked for years as a pharmacist in the Hadassah clinic in Hebron, was known for his acts of kindness to his Arab neighbors. He was so sure of their gratitude, so compassionate for their plight, that he opened his door to an Arab woman feigning labor pains on the first night of the rampage. The mob, hiding in the shadows, rushed in, tied up Ben Tzion, and gang-raped his wife. When he pleaded with them, calling them by their names to stop, they replied, “If you don’t want to see it, you don’t have to,” and proceeded to poke out his eyes. In front of the Gershons’ two daughters, their neighbors dismembered both Ben Tzion and his wife. The story was testified to by one of the daughters, who lived for a week before dying of her wounds. The other daughter spent the rest of her life in a mental institution.

Danny Pearl’s captors knew him for six days. Ben Tzion Gershon’s murderers had known him -- had benefited from his kindnesses -- for decades. The assumption that if they only knew how good, how humane we are, they wouldn’t hate us is a tenet of humanistic fundamentalist that its proponents hold despite all the historical evidence to the contrary.

Trusting the compassion and essential goodness of our enemies is a naiveté Jews cannot afford. In today’s Israel, surrounded by Arabs committed to eradicating the only non-Muslim state in the Middle East, trusting in the humane intentions of our “peace partners” is worse than naiveté; it is sheer madness.

THE WAR WITH IRAQ

There is no more patent example of this refusal to recognize evil than the worldwide opposition to America’s effort to dethrone Saddam Hussein. How many thousands of his own citizens does he have to gas to death, how many millions does he have to kill and maim in aggressive wars, how many weapons of mass destruction does he have to amass before he will deserve the appellation of evil in the eyes of the demonstrators in Paris, Berlin, and Moscow?

Here in Israel, the country most likely to be targeted by Iraqi missiles carrying chemical warheads, the preparation for the upcoming war is in full swing. The entire population, now including foreign workers and tourists, has been outfitted with gas masks. Every supermarket is selling “war plastic,” “war tape,” and first aid kits as impulse items at the checkout counters. Every household has received a 52-page color booklet instructing us, among other things, on how to seal a room, what to stock in our “protected space,” where is the nearest emergency medical station, and the anticipated “behavior of children in an emergency situation,” starting at 0-2 years of age.

Last week drills were held in every school in Israel to rehearse the students for what to do in the event of an Iraqi missile attack. (We had 39 such missile attacks during the first Gulf War.) When the siren sounds, everyone is supposed to dash to a designated sealed space.

My eight-year-old son studies at a small religious boys’ school on Mt. Zion, some ten minutes away from our home in Jerusalem’s Old City. Mt. Zion has three principle buildings: A giant cathedral called the Church of the Ascension, an ancient Crusader complex which houses my son’s school, and the “Chamber of the Holocaust.”

This last structure, put together by survivors in the early 1950s, was the very first museum in the world to commemorate the Holocaust. Unlike the large, well-endowed Holocaust museums at Yad Vashem, Washington, and Los Angeles, this one has a single stark room of exhibits: a lamp shade and shoe insole cut out from a Torah scroll, soap made from Jewish fat, and photographs of piles of naked corpses, their ribs protruding under their starvation-stretched skin. The rest of the Chamber of the Holocaust consists of walls covered with memorial plaques, each one commemorating not an individual, but an entire Jewish community.

The evening after the civil defense drill in the schools, I asked my son where the children from his Talmud Torah were supposed to go when the siren sounds. He answered: “The Chamber of the Holocaust.”

I was taken aback. Then I realized that the partly subterranean chamber is no doubt the only sealable space on Mt. Zion. A good choice from a tactical point of view.

I am haunted, however, by the image of my son and his young classmates, wearing their juvenile-sized gasmasks during an Iraqi attack, sitting amidst the artifacts of the genocide of European Jewry.

And I realize that only the circumstances of time and place distinguish the evil of the Holocaust from the evil of the Arab jihad against us. Essentially there is no difference between Elie Wiesel's family and Daniel Pearl. They both walked unsuspectingly into the clutches of evil. If we don’t learn from the tragedy of Daniel Pearl, will our humanistic fundamentalism be our final folly?

 

In loving memory of:
Herbert Wulf

 

For Sara Yoheved Rigler's FREE WEBINAR FOR SINGLE WOMEN, go to http://www.sararigler.com/ie/ladder8242014.php.

Published: March 1, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 28

(28) Anonymous, May 15, 2014 3:37 PM

The nature of evil

This article explains the nature of evil so profoundly to me. I was raised in such an extreme humanist environment that I feel tremendous guilt over evil acts that are done against me or others who are close to me, making excuses for them, excusing their actions because of their past, and taking the blame for provoking them by not being more giving, for example. And really, this attitude has been an insult to them, by living in denial that those who have done harm have their own power to make their own choices. I have turned betrayers into victims in my mind. The idea that evil is a result of small consecutive steps is particularly revealing to me. Thank you so much for this article. I am not as articulate as you, but I hope I am able to at least convey how meaningful the article is to me.

(27) L. Grefe, March 16, 2003 12:00 AM

American Mentality or Child of the 60's /70's

As a child of the 60's/70's, "peace" movements, Vietnam, etc; growing through the idealism of the Kennedy era, we would like to think that the world has changed. We have learned from history... or have we? This article is quite striking! It makes the valid point that we are a composite of the right and wrong or "evil" choices that we make. If the same is so about countries and societies; in what lifetime do we think that the Europeans, Germans, or Arabs/"Palestinians" are ever going to act as "humanists"? At times they barely acted as humans!

(26) Nancy, March 15, 2003 12:00 AM

A Rose by any other Name

Humanism is a disease. It may sound fair and nonjudegemental but it isn't! It is extremely judgemental and dangerous. It erodes our natural instincts to what is bad and dangerous. And by not addressing what might really be evil, evil only flourishes.
Just as a rose by any other name smells the same, so goes evil. Whitewashing, ignoring, giving it medical names or blaming victims, is actually the real evil.
The story was moving, frightening, and something we all need to reflect on not just with this story but in our everyday lives.
Thank you.
Nancy

(25) Anonymous, March 8, 2003 12:00 AM

I agree with that humanists are too uneasy about villifying criminals like Saddam as evil. He has well and truly earnt the title.

I am scared though, that the article encourages us to be too suspicious of the outside. If Daniel Pearl never trusted Arabs at all, he would not have ventured into Karachi to pursue journalism.

An argument can be made that if we never trust non jews because they may be leading us off to be dismembered or decapitated, then how can we ever advance with peaceful negotiations?

Maybe as citizens on Earth, we have no choice but to trust sometimes? Still, trust is something that should be applied with common sense, and I agree that anti-war protestors place too much trust in regimes like Iraq, based on some humanist premise.

(24) Erik Olson, March 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Why are American Jews liberal?

Many Americans, even American Jews, do not see the folly of trying to negotiate with a people so hateful of their neighbors that they will strap explosives around themselves and detonate, just to kill as many Israeli Jews as possible.

We hear often, in the mainstream American media, of the Israelis and Palestinians in their drawn-out struggle, as if they are morally equivalent. As if both groups are equally accountable.

Was the Holocaust so long ago that we have forgotten that evil can't be persuaded out of evildoers? That talking won't stop anyone from hating anyone else? We are so soft in our belief that everyone else is pretty much just like we are. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

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