Some just want to watch the world burn

9 October 2023, 0900 EDT

During a pivotal scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne talks with his butler/confidante Alfred about The Joker. Wayne suggests he can make sense of The Joker’s motivation as a first step towards stopping his rampage. Alfred tells a story about an operation from his paramilitary career, in which a bandit leader was stealing precious jewels the government had handed out and tossing them in a river. Alfred suggest this was because some don’t have a clear goal behind their violence; in his words, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”

I thought of this as I watched the horrific news coming out of Israel. We can try to make sense of Hamas’ brutality, but ultimately I suspect they, like The Joker, just want to see the world–specifically Israel–burn. Both scholars and policymakers will have to accept this.

A Brutal Surprise Attack

Early on Saturday, Hamas launched a massive surprise attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip. This included a huge barrage of rockets–between 2,500 and 5,000–and an infiltration of Hamas fighters into Israel. They attacked towns bordering the Gaza Strip, killing and capturing Israelis. One major target was a music festival, where Hamas militants killed numerous attendees, and abducted others.

I am writing this on the evening of Sunday, October 8th, so details may change by the time I post this. But as of now 700 Israelis are dead, with 150 confirmed abducted; I wouldn’t be surprised if both numbers increased. Details of the violence are harrowing, including possible sexual violence; I’m not going to link to any of the reports as it can be tough to read, but they are not difficult to find. Meanwhile about 400 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli counter-attacks.

Many are drawing comparisons to the Yom Kippur war, the 1973 conflict in which Egypt and Syria led a surprise attack against Israel, nearly overwhelming it. Others are pointing to 9/11, with a sudden terrorist attack shattering any sense of normality for a society. I was reminded of the 2015 IS attack on Paris, in which the terrorists seemed to have taken control of parts of the city for a time.

Why did they do this?

Pundits are jumping to issue their commentary. I’ve seen some banal statements, general placeholders to keep someone’s name at the top of search results. But others seem to be truly attempting to make sense of the attack. A New York Times article gathered a few theories. Some have suggested this is an attempt to scuttle a potential normalization pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Others claim it is an attempt to take prisoners to exchange with Israel. Still others that it is a desire to gain more attention and prestige. There was some indication of growing anger among Palestinians over increased visits to the Temple Mount, the contested sacred site in Jerusalem, so that may have prompted it. Hamas itself said it had to do with Israel’s “attacks on women,” the status of the al-Aqsa mosque and the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Many attempts to explain severe violence assume violence holds an intrinsic value to terrorists. That should prompt a deeper–and more important–question: why?

None of these are sufficient. The “spoiler” explanation is popular but if that were their goal a more rational strategy would be to launch a limited strike–such as a small rocket barrage–provoking a massive Israeli counter-attack; this would generate much less sympathy for Israel. If Hamas was hoping to seize prisoners for an exchange, they wouldn’t need to gun down elderly couples waiting for the bus. And this may be a way to gain more prestige, but that leaves unanswered why Hamas sees such brutal violence as the only way to increase its status.

Some have placed the blame on Israel. Qatar, for example, announced that it “holds Israel alone responsible for the current escalation due to its ongoing violence of the rights of the Palestinian people.” I expect to see others argue that this is only to be expected given Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians; some may even argue it was justified.

Of course, Hamas does not represent all Palestinians. Occupation produces a variety of responses from the occupied; something more than that is needed to explain this attack. And I try not to get into ethical debates, but one thing I’m firm on is that terrorism is never justified.

This mirrors a debate in the academic literature on the motivations behind suicide terrorism and other extreme violence. Pape argued for a strategic logic in suicide terrorism, as it is the only rational way to coerce an occupying power to change its behavior. Bloom suggested suicide terrorism holds an intrinsic value to groups as an outbidding strategy. Abrahms claimed terrorists misperceive the impact of their violence while also being motivated by organizational concerns. Kydd and Walter offered a variety of strategies, including the aforementioned spoiling and provocation of a governmental response.

I’ve taken down Pape’s work here…ten years ago, but there are also a few general issues with most of these theories:

  • First, they rely on post hoc strategic calculations. Yes, we can observe what a group did and work from there to a potential strategic logic. But this assumes a lot of organizations that often lack the luxury of ample time for strategic planning.
  • Second, they are indeterminate. We can come up with equally plausible explanations of an attack as provocation or coercion.
  • Third, they rely on unexplored assumptions about the value of violence. Those theories that point to organizational or social motivations assume violence holds an intrinsic value to terrorists. That should prompt a deeper–and more important–question: why?

A Cosmic War

A rich strain of research has eschewed the rationalist obsession with strategic calculations, and instead focused on the meaning of the violence to those who wield it. Much of this has looked specifically at religious violence.

One of the more influential of these thinkers is Mark Juergensmeyer. In a series of works, Juergensmeyer discusses the concept of a cosmic war. When religion becomes connected to a conflict, combatants externalize their religion’s struggle with evil onto the opposing side, justifying–and often necessitating–extreme violence in response. This creates a cosmic war, explaining the relative severity of religious violence.

We want to make sense of things. We want to think the unthinkable is easily explained via conventional models. But that is not always the case.

To me, this was a convincing claim when I began my graduate studies. My first article applied it and similar work to argue that when terrorists frame their struggle in religious terms they enable more destructive violence; I tested this quantitatively in an explicit critique of rationalist and materialist studies. I received such pushback that I gave up on my initial desire to test claims of religious violence’s distinctiveness via rigorous methods in my dissertation, but I still think there’s something there.

And that brings us back to Hamas. The group formed during the first Intifadah, growing out of the Muslim Brotherhood and in opposition to both Israel and the relatively secular Fatah. Hamas has always defined its struggle in religious terms, taking a maximalist stance towards Israel. There may be a strategy behind specific operations, but in general its reliance on severe violence seems to indicate an attachment to violence as a sacred duty. Attacks like the one Israel is currently dealing with are expressive rather than instrumental.

Where this leaves us

I realize this may be unsatisfying to many scholars. We want to make sense of things. We want to think the unthinkable is easily explained via conventional models. But that is not always the case.

This does not mean we have to give up explaining Hamas, but the focus has to shift from complex strategic modeling to an understanding of its ideology and how it mobilizes it.

It also definitely does not mean we should reject the legitimacy of Palestinian complaints against Israel. Part of the reason that arguing this attack was inevitable is problematic is that it conflates Hamas with all Palestinians.

Policymakers will struggle as well. What can one do in the face of such hatred? Massive retaliation against Palestinians is not effective, as it again conflates Hamas with all of the people. Negotiation likely won’t work either. This does represent a massive failure on the part of Netanyahu, as I’ll discuss in a future post. Beyond that, I know I’m not supposed to say this, but I don’t really have any suggestions. Understanding what we’re up against is a good first step, though.