Prof. Louis Rene Beres
Prof. Louis Rene BeresProf. Louis René Beres

Even in an “advanced” age of artificial intelligence (AI), we may learn many things from Plato. The ancient Greek philosopher argues famously in The Republic that politics and statecraft are always just a reflection of what is real. Accordingly, what we now accept as counter-terrorism and national security policy is often a mere “shadow” of true objectives.

What are the actual images being reflected, the tangible subject matters for national security policy makers? What are the underlying human values and behaviors that combine to produce war, terror, and

In Israel and the United States, a coherent answer must be ventured, not just as an ad hoc response to day-to-day geopolitical dislocations, but conceptually, thoughtfully, in the uncorrupted syntax of Plato’s “forms.” By definition, this theory-based “grammar” is universal and timeless.

How to proceed? In Israel and the United States, theoreticians and policy-makers will need to acknowledge that specific personal values are never easily discoverable as pre-packaged news. Though most individuals could readily understand the manner in which they rank-order their own private attachments and goals, few would be able to connect such individualized preferences to national or global security. The overarching question should now become: What should be done about this “connection problem?”

For counter-terrorism, defense and national security studies, these are primal matters. And in such genuinely basic matters, it’s high time for Israeli and American decision-makers to become more deliberately “intellectual” in their pertinent analyses. To distinguish true geopolitical reality from mere shadows of such a reality, three concepts should be examined in tandem in Jerusalem and Washington. These core concepts are death,time and immortality.

Let capable scholars cut to the chase. What can these three concepts teach Israelis and Americans about their imperiled national security futures, either singly or in their credible intersections? To answer thoughtfully, analysts in these two countries should begin their most disciplined and long-view national security inquiries with the individual, with the microcosm. Though inherently invisible, power over death represents the ultimate human reward for political compliance or religious submission. In candor, what human reward could possibly exhibit any greater appeal?

Today, the issue of a potentially promised immortality is especially animating or determinative in the Middle East. When American and Israeli strategists think about enemy attractions to power over death, they are thinking about individual flesh-and-blood human beings - the jihadist terrorist. Looking forward, however, analytic explorations of the enemy suicide-bomber (the microcosm) should immediately be expanded to include an enemy state as a whole (the macrocosm). In present or even foreseeable circumstances, it is conceivable that Iran would act as an individual suicide-bomber or “self-sacrificing” individual writ large. For the Islamic Republic, ominously but still plausibly, this “point” could be one that is “post-nuclear.”

For Israel and the United States, that would be a very big problem.

There will be prior analytic responsibilities. The following complex question will need to be answered: How can any one individual human being actually attain power over death, and what can such incomparable power have to do with the fate of a particular state?

It’s a metaphysical and scientific question. To be sure, there will be multiple nuances to such a perplexing and unfamiliar query. On occasion, the terrorist search for power over death has demanded a violent and faith-confirming end to the murderer’s life on earth. As may already be noted from jihadist combatant behavior in the current Gaza War and its several antecedent conflicts, this presumptively ultimate sacrifice is identified by individual “self-sacrificing” murderer as “martyrdom.”

There is more. The Hamas or Hezbollah jihadist who allegedly welcomes death is actually seeking to avoid death. This is because the “death” that he fervidly expects to suffer is never more than a transient inconvenience on a glorious path to eternal life. There is nothing heroic about this terrorist who “loves death.” On the contrary, it is this criminal’s fear of death – an overwhelming fear unmatched anywhere for its cultivated cowardice - that occasions his “suicide.

It is a hideous paradox. Though not easily understood, it remains primary to comprehensive analytic understanding. In more broadly philosophical terms – and not just as a direct aspect of Israeli and American counter-terrorism - the Hamas or Hezbollah killer steeply distorts what Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno earlier called “the hunger for immortality.”

It goes without saying that the doctrine-based Hamas or Hezbollah search for power over death bodes inauspiciously for any “humanitarian cease fire” or codified “peace.” After all, why should these terrorists be interested in a cessation of hostilities with Israel or even in Palestinian Arab statehood when the presumed rewards of “martyrdom” seem vastly greater? Augmenting this query with a return to Plato, the jihadist terrorist’s loudly proclaimed hopes for a Palestinian state are just a “shadow” of what is really uppermost in his mind. This always-highest preference is immortality or power over death.

From the standpoint of Israeli counter-terrorist operations, understanding the overriding attractions of “martyrdom” to terrorist calculations should become more primary to defense and national security planning.

Ominously, an insatiable terrorist “hunger for immortality” can oblige the killing and torture of variously designated "unbelievers," "heathen," “Jews,” “Crusaders,” "apostates," etc. By definition, whatever special circumstances of "sacrifice" may be involved in any jihadist terror attacks, Reason gives way to Unreason. Furthermore, as we should already know from a long and bitter world history, any such surrender would ultimately offer the terror-criminal a gateway not to immortality, but to ritualistic slaughter.

There is more. Any high-minded hopes that an individual jihadist terrorist can somehow rise "above mortality" could have critical consequences for many nations, but especially for Israel and the United States. To identify and recognize such consequences at this fragile historical moment is possible but unspeakably worrisome. As for the assignment of specific statistical probabilities to expected terror-inflicted harms, that process could not comport with the rudimentary rules of science, logic and mathematics. More precisely, in science, logic and mathematics, meaningful judgments of probability must always be based upon the determinable frequency of pertinent past events. Here, however, some of the most perilous scenarios are unprecedented or sui generis. For these scenarios there simply are no “pertinent past events.”

In the nineteenth century, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined in Philosophy of Right (1820) that the state represents "the march of God in the world." Such widely-believed views elevate the state to an object of worship. Ultimately, they link loyalty to the state with the promise of power over death.

This is a monumental promise, one recognizable only in the “shadows” of geopolitical activity but with unparalleled appeal in the expanding universe of jihad. Most timely in the present context is this: The same ominous links between individual immortality and the deified state are discoverable in current world politics, most conspicuously among certain anti-Israel and anti-American terror organizations. Such links, it follows, should become an integral part of Israeli and American counter-terrorist planning.

There is more. The visceral Palestinian Arab chants of “from the river to the sea” and “by any means necessary” are merely sanitized calls for a war of annihilation against Israel. Ipso facto, they represent self-defiling calls for the crime of genocide.

Though compelling on its face, immortality should always represent an unworthy human goal. This prescriptive judgment owes both to its unhidden expression of scientific nonsense ("An immortal person is a contradiction in terms," reminds philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) and to the fact that the search for immortality would foster continuous patterns of war, terrorism and genocide. Derivatively, the dignified human task should not be to remove individual hopes of soaring above death (that is, to achieve some palpable form of immortality), but instead to "de-link" such an evidently futile search from incessantly destructive terrorist behaviors.

Karl Jaspers writes in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952): "There is something inside all of us that yearns not for reason but for mystery - not for penetrating clear thought but for the whisperings of the irrational...." The most seductive of these irrational whisperings are those that offer to confer some selective power over death. It is somewhere within the expressed or mysterious criteria of "selection" that geopolitical evils are spawned. For jihadist terrorists and potentially for jihadist mentoring states (e.g., Iran), this is because the promised power over death requires the “sacrifice” of certain expressly despised “others” (here, Israelis and Americans).

We return to Plato. To deal more satisfactorily with the interrelated horrors of national and global politics, Israeli and American planners will first have to recognize the true sources of reflection. These underpinnings of our terrorist and other geopolitical dangers, they could then discover, are rooted in complex conceptual intersections of death, time and immortality. They are not rooted in any political or juridical hopes for a Palestinian Arab state.

"Is it an end that draws near," inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) "or a beginning." The correct answer is by no means obvious. But determining such an answer represents a sine qua non of effective Israeli and American counter-terrorist operations.

There are further final conclusions. To look suitably beyond mere shadows of geopolitical reality, Israeli and American planners should first identify two additional sources of global power struggle. These animating forces concern meaning and belonging. They represent true images of universal politics – images additional to immortality or “power over death” - that can bestow personal or collective feelings of self-worth and “membership.” Once again, the associated national security problem worldwide is that such feelings are not necessarily benign. Per humankind’s perpetually murderous history, they also elicit war, terrorism and/or genocide.

“In the end,” says Goethe, “we are creatures of our own making.” To best ensure that such human “creatures” are dignified, decent and wittingly cooperative, Israeli and American national-security thinkers must first distinguish authentic terrorist preferences from mere “shadows” of these preferences. Still, this capacity for distinction can be accomplished only after Israeli and American thinkers acknowledge the unsurpassable jihadist preference for power over death, or what philosopher Karl Jaspers calls “whisperings of the irrational.”

In the final analysis, Hamas, Hezbollah and state-mentor Iran are “shadows” of what constitutes the true jihadist terror threat. Among other things, no Israeli surrender of allegedly “occupied lands” could ever be enough to limit or remove this criminal threat. Even if Israel were to agree to a Palestinian Arab state (a “shadow” of geopolitical reality), this agreement would fall short of the enemy’s overriding desire for “martyrdom” (Hamas’ true or unreflected reality). Though this jihadist desire is delusional on its face, it still represents a primary source of national security harms to Israel and the United States.

Counter-terrorist policymakers in Israel and the United States, please take note. Shadows sometimes hide the true sources of terror crimes.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of twelve books and several hundred journal articles dealing with international relations and international law. His publications have appeared in The Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); The Atlantic; US News & World Report;The National Interest; e-Global (University of California, Santa Barbara); Yale Global;World Politics (Princeton); The Brown Journal of World Affairs; The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs;Israel National News; The New York Times; The Hudson Review; American Political Science Review;American Journal of International Law; Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (West Point); Air-Space Operations Review (USAF); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); INSS (Tel Aviv); Horasis (Zurich); and Oxford University Press. Professor Beres was born in Zürich at the end of World War II.