Last week an Israeli court dismissed the civil lawsuit brought by Rachel Corrie’s parents, ruling that the March 2003 death of their daughter was accidental and that the state of Israel bears no responsibility for her death. Working as an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, the then-23-year-old college student from Washington state was killed when she stood in the path of an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer to protest against Palestinian home demolitions. “She did not distance herself from the area, as any thinking person would have done,” said Israeli Judge Oded Gershon. “She consciously put herself in danger.”
The one question that has yet to be answered is: Why did she put herself in danger? What, exactly, was Rachel Corrie doing in Gaza?
Judging from Corrie’s letters, it is clear that she desired to help the persecuted. “Many people want their voices to be heard,” she wrote to her friends and family in February 2003 about the Palestinians she was meeting in Rafah, “and I think we need to use some of our privilege as internationals to get those voices heard.” But if Corrie sought to help the downtrodden, she might have gone to many different parts of the world; communities even here in the United States would have benefited from her talents and energies. Instead, she went to the Middle East.
In many precincts of the American and European left, it is a piece of conventional wisdom that the Arab-Israel conflict is one of the central moral dilemmas of the age. Even the bloody, intra-Arab strife coursing throughout the region hasn’t derailed the notion that the conflict in the Holy Land is the most significant conflict in the Mideast: It remains useful as a reflecting pool for a well-known variety of Western narcissism. From this perspective, solving the Palestine question is an important step in righting the sins of the West.
Groups like the International Solidarity Movement, then, act as a sort of tour agency for a particular kind of Western adventurer, searching for a level of raw political engagement and ideological commitment that simply doesn’t exist in the United States. The obvious advantage that Israel offers is that, compared to the rest of the Middle East, it is relatively safe. Corrie herself implicitly acknowledged this fact when she walked into the middle of a war zone to mount a protest. No sensible person could similarly assume the mercies of, say, the Syrian regime were he to walk into the middle of that war zone to complain of government atrocities.
Nonetheless, Corrie had indeed put herself in harm’s way—a wager that culminated with her losing her life.
One way to understand Corrie’s story is as part of a longstanding tradition of adventurous, generous, and sometimes vain Western travelers to the Middle East. Among these crusading spirits, the most famous example is perhaps T.E. Lawrence, who saw in the band of Arab tribesmen and former Ottoman officers he led against the Turks an opportunity to serve the underdog and tie himself to a larger cause. Along the way it appears that Lawrence, embracing local customs and dress, recognized that the Arab Revolt also offered him a staging ground for a kind of charismatic search for the authentic self that had the flavor of salvation.
Given the significance of religion in a part of the world that produced three major faiths, it is hardly surprising that the region would seem to offer itself as a place where communal political activism is a form of spiritual vocation. What this type of Western traveler seeks by going to the Middle East is a politics of personal transcendence—to become someone that they couldn’t in their staid, well-ordered societies.
Consequently, it seems that these new selves must also come to stand in opposition to their cultures of origin. For instance, Lawrence faulted Britain (his homeland) and France when he came to believe that the Sykes-Picot Agreement dividing the region between the Great Powers had cheated the Arabs of their due. Now many who have followed in his footsteps offer themselves as living critiques of the Western societies they come from.
These critics are not entirely wrong in identifying a malaise in a culture much too comfortable with consumerism and reality TV. Indeed, if you are only looking at surface phenomena, nothing could be more of a contrast to the virtually conflict-free political system of the United States than Arab politics—and perhaps this is what Corrie was drawn to. But this is to be misled by appearances. The unhappy fact is that by standing in the path of an IDF bulldozer tasked to demolish structures that were being used to smuggle weapons to Gaza-based militants or conceal Palestinian fighters shooting at Israeli troops, Rachel Corrie was helping not the wretched of the earth but well-armed terrorists.
Unfortunately, this is not an atypical trajectory for those who’ve followed the sort of political path that Lawrence pioneered. From Taliban member John Walker Lindh to al-Qaida spokesman Adam Gadahn, a number of young Americans have crossed lines to side with U.S. enemies, or, in Corrie’s case, the enemies of American allies. Then there is a much larger contingent of middle-class, educated Westerners—academics, journalists, and politicians—that does not actively participate in anti-Western causes but still lends its sympathy to them and their representatives.
I’ve written before about why so many Western intellectuals and journalists are attracted to the region’s hardest and bloodiest men—why the peace activists, NGO workers, and U.N. employees fill the bars of Beirut and Jerusalem where they advocate the positions of Hezbollah and Hamas over beer. It’s not enough, or even entirely accurate, to say that they’re anti-Israel, or anti-Semitic, since their positions also put them at odds with those segments of Arab societies that seek to embrace Western political norms.
Their complaint is precisely with their own liberal societies, which, from a safe distance, look dull and meaningless in comparison to the raw power politics of the region. These Westerners are bored of the mediocrity that Western societies breed. The Middle East, by contrast, is a place where winner takes all, enemies are vanquished, and people fight and die for their beliefs. Hassan Nasrallah fought the Israelis and lives to taunt them. Khaled Meshaal survived an assassination attempt. These men pay no attention to lobbies and competing constituencies but legislate by utterance, blood, and fire.
From Nietzsche through Foucault, a significant thread of Western philosophy has laid out its complaint with liberal democracy and the slave morality it fostered by granting the bourgeois the same political privileges as artists and intellectuals, the aristocrats of spirit. What these philosophers wrote about is not some footnote of intellectual history: It’s a subject that touches every individual to the core. What are the causes you are willing to sacrifice everything for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?
Some of the West’s livelier spirits—from Nietzsche and Lawrence, to Foucault and perhaps Rachel Corrie—thought that these questions no longer mattered to those in the West and that they had to search elsewhere to answer them. The truth is that they remain our questions, too.
The difference is that Western societies long ago struck a clear divide between the political and spiritual realm—a struggle that many killed and died for—so that the individual, rather than the community, would be empowered with the right to answer these existential questions as he or she chose. The necessary tragedy of liberal democracy is that some of our own, born free to choose their lives as they will, do not answer it well.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).