Understanding the Retributive Impulse

Understanding the Retributive Impulse

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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