The Mind of the "Enemy"

November 11, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

I recently had an e-mail dialogue with someone whom I'm tempted to call "close-minded," although that may be an unfair label. The topic of discussion was the recent film Paradise Now, which tells the story of two potential suicide bombers. The film, written and directed by Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad, goes out of its way not to condone the bombers' actions. It does not ask that we sympathize or empathize with them. Instead, it offers a window into their way of thinking and a chance to gain a measure of understanding about what would drive a man to mass murder in the name of a cause.

I was told in no uncertain terms that "No real American would watch such filth" and "the movie is nothing more than propeganda for terrorists." This, of course, is from someone who has not seen the film. That, by the way, is a pet peeve of mine - condemning something without seeing/reading it. The old Catholic League argument of "I don't need to see trash to know it's trash" doesn't sound any more rational today than when it was first put forth.

I have a couple of points to make. The first is that, if you're involved in war (which is what the struggle with terrorists is, albeit of a kind we have never previously engaged in), isn't it sound advice to gain the most thorough knowledge possible about the enemy? That includes an understanding of what drives them. Comprehension of the mindset of a terrorist will give a picture of how far they are willing to go. If the passengers on one of the WTC flights had realized they were being held hostage by would-be martyrs, that plane might not have reached its destination. In my view, Paradise Now never crosses the line into propeganda because the director condemns the actions of the main characters. But he does it in such a way that we can understand their motivations.

But the thing that concerns me the most about the e-mailer is his rigid unwillingness to see the terrorists as people. And that puts him on dangerous moral ground. One of the most horrific things about terrorists is that they don't see their victims as human beings. They are focused on their goal, and it involves killing people. The more, the better. But to the terrorist about to commit the crime, these aren't human beings. They are sinners and infidels. They have been demonized. Now, by demonizing the terrorist, we strip him of his humanity. His actions are inhuman, but it's important to understand the social, political, and religious context from which his murderous actions arise. One can condemn the actions of a terrorist while still trying to figure out what makes him do what he does.

Understanding not only better prepares us for this war, but it gives us a weapon that our enemies do not have - the ability to see members of the other side not as icons but as individuals. And, in a war like this, any weapon gives an advantage. That's why Paradise Now is an important film and should not be dismissed out-of-hand as something to be discarded. If you're looking for entertainment, you won't find it here. But if you're looking for something a little more substantive and disturbing, Hany Abu-Assad's movie has it.