of honor radically different for terrorists
John Tierney The New York Times
Hezbollah, there is no such thing as "collateral damage "
from its missiles. Israel keeps telling the world that its army aims
only at military targets, but Hezbollah doesnt even pretend to.
Its soldiers proudly fire away at civilians. These terrorists
consider themselves men of honor, and unfortunately they are
by their own definition. We in the West can call them
barbaric, which they also are, but theyre following an ancient
social code, even if we cant recognize it anymore.
The best guide to this code is James Bowmans new book, "Honor:
which is not a quaint collection of stories about dueling noblemen in
Heidelberg. If the obsession with defending ones honor seems remote
now, its not because the urge has disappeared. Weve just
forgotten how powerful it is.
In the West weve redefined "honorable" as being virtuous,
fair, truthful and sincere, but thats not the traditional
meaning. Honor meant simply the respect of the local "honor group"
the family, the extended clan, the tribe, the religious sect.
It meant maintaining a reputation for courage and loyalty, not being
charitable to enemy civilians. Telling the truth was secondary to saving
This "tyranny of the face " continually frustrates Westerners
trying to understand the Middle East. When I interviewed villagers in
Iraq, I discovered we usually had separate agendas: I wanted the facts,
but the villager wanted to avoid embarrassing either of us. So he would
tactfully search for the answer that would both please me and not dishonor
his family. When American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Western television
viewers were astonished at the sight of the Iraqi information minister
steadfastly denying that anything was going wrong. But it made sense
from a traditional honor system. The only thing worse than being
defeated is the shame of admitting defeat.
He was just following the strategy of Sir Lancelot when the knight was
accused of adultery with Guinevere, King Arthurs wife. Everyone,
including Lancelot, knew the accusation was true, but Lancelot insisted
on fighting his accusers and after he defeated them, he proclaimed
that his victories proved his innocence. He had saved face; therefore
he must be honorable.
Lancelots strategy, as Bowman explains, ultimately didnt
work because his traditional view of honor was going out of fashion,
made obsolete by the influence of Christianity. Instead of might-makes-right,
Christianity preached turning the other cheek. Instead of according
special honors to an elite class of men, it preached egalitarianism
and love toward strangers. It emphasized inner virtue, not outward glory.
The result was a new honor system in the West, chivalry, an uneasy
combination of Christian virtues and knightly violence. Eventually,
with the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the bourgeois and
democracy, the system evolved into what Bowman calls honor-by-merit,
epitomized by the Victorian ideal of the gentleman who earns his reputation
by working hard, playing fair, defending the weak and fighting for his
The problem today, as Bowman sees it, is that the whole concept of defending
ones honor has been devalued in the West mocked as an archaic
bit of male vanity or childish macho chest-thumping. But if you dont
create a civilized honor culture, you risk ending up [Ed. comment: you
WILL end up -- ] with the primitive variety.
"The honor system in Arab culture is the default honor system,
the one you see in street gangs in America you dis me, I shoot
you," says Bowman, a conservative scholar at the Ethics and Public
Policy Center. "We need a better system that makes it honorable
to be protective of those who are weaker instead of lording it over
When youre confronted with an honor culture like the one in the
Middle East, there are two rules to keep in mind. One is that you are
not going to placate the enemy with the kind of concessions that appeal
to Western diplomats. "Hezbollah is fighting for honor, to humiliate
the enemy, not for any particular objective," Bowman says. "Israel
has no choice in what its doing. Nothing short of victory by either
side will change anything."
The other rule is that youre not going to quickly transform an
honor culture. The Iraq war was predicated on the assumption that democracy
would turn Iraqis into loyal citizens with new civic virtues. But for
now the old loyalties to tribes and sects still matter more than any
universal concept of justice. The men would rather have honor than peace.
John Tierney is a columnist for The New York Times.
New York Times News Service