Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Irish Republican Army

Timothy Shanahan. The Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Morality of Terrorism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.  ISBN: 0748635300.

Richard English. Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.  ISBN: 0195177533.

Both of these books tell much of the modern story of the Irish civil war and its ongoing bloody aftermath.  English's book is more historical (offering evidence and trying to interpret events with an eye toward understanding what really happened), while Shanahan's is more philosophical (going beyond what happened to inquire why it happened and whether it should have happened, i.e. how it can or cannot be justified).  If you want a timeline (from the nineteenth-century Fenian movement to the 1916 Easter Rising to the 1969 schism that produced the Provisional IRA), English is good.  If you want a discussion of moral positions, English is still good, but Shanahan is better.

Reading these books piecemeal, distracted by my real life, I cannot claim to have digested them thoroughly.  But I know enough to articulate better some of insights from my study of terrorism.  I am going to go through these quickly here.

(1) Terrorists are people, too.  There was a point in my life when I thought of terrorists the way other Tolkien characters think of orcs.  Terrorists were pond scum, whose human form was just some kind of disguise.  In English and Shanahan's books, however, you see that the IRA are just people: they live, long, believe, suffer, and die the same way the rest of us do.  They don't like blowing up babies.  They don't do it for fun, but like many of us, they can be suckered into doing stupid things "for the greater good."

(2) Terrorists believe in absolute truth.  The most frightening insight into the terrorist mind that my research has revealed is its obsession with the one "true" way of being.  All terrorists are dedicated to a cause that is bigger than they are, a cause which they see as the work of God, a cause before which every knee must bow and every tongue confess.  This insight is frightening because of my former belief in absolute truth.  Now that time has worn off some of the initial shock of learning that absolute truth stokes some very dangerous ideological fires, I can see that the mirage of absolute truth offers some benefits too (along with stultifying mental rigidity and the occasional bomb).  It helps people (especially those with truly miserable lives) find purpose and meaning in their suffering.  In the case of the Irish revolutionaries, it redeems their feelings of helplessness in the face of coercion, whether from the British military (who outgun them), or from their own countrymen (who outnumber, hate, and fear them).  It gives them a means for exerting some influence over the course of their own lives.  Their lives are not just wastes of time and space: they are contributions to a glorious Irish destiny, which the soldiers of the IRA see as a republic uniting all the counties in perfect harmony.  This harmony is entirely unhistorical and impossible, of course, since a significant number of Irish people do not believe in it.  As with the Basques, so among the Irish there are deep ideological fissures separating members of a single culture.

(3) Violence is never a good long-term strategy.  The real problem that terrorists consistently run into is that their way of finding meaning in life brings them into violent conflict with other people.  Their meaning requires that other meanings submit or die.  They cannot compromise (because their truth is absolute).  They cannot back down.  They cannot change their minds.  What is it that gives them this impossible rigidity?  It is the power of conviction.  Faith in their absolute truth leads them to do and say things that cause their fellowmen significant (and even irreparable) harm.  As a result, they are naturally feared and hated.  Their cause falls into disrepute among non-believers, who denounce them as monsters and/or crackpots and even (in the case of the IRA) mount armed counter-resistance against them.  Uncompromising hatred breeds uncompromising hatred, and the terrorist dream of heaven ends up creating hell on earth.  Instead of an Ireland divided but civil, we get an Ireland divided, blown up, and extremely angry.    

I think there are many important lessons to learn from terrorism.  For me, the most important lesson has been that I need to make a conscious effort to find ways of dreaming and believing that do not put me on the warpath with other people.  I do not want my dreams of heaven to make life on earth hell.  I am not interested in fighting wars (whether the "cultural" wars we talk about today in the USA or actual shooting wars like the one fought by the IRA).  In the context of Mormonism, my study in terrorism is one of the reasons I refuse to be a bitter ex-Mormon.  I don't think that would make anything better, really, for me or for anyone else.  It would just pile more fuel on the awful fire of uncompromising emotional enthusiasm that has destroyed so many good things in this world (including much of modern Ireland).  My studies are also part of the reason I cannot ever have the faith I once had, either.  I cannot believe in something so fervently that I become closed to compromise, to doubt, to mercy.  I cannot believe in absolute truth.  I find it immoral.

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