'Unlike so many of his colleagues on the Left, he had no illusions about the purity or sanity of the underdog' (Carl Court/Getty Images)

October 18, 2023   6 mins

Norman Geras, who died 10 years ago today, was an unusual figure on the Western Left: he was a Marxist who steadfastly and unequivocally opposed militant Islamism and jihadi terrorism. As a free-thinking political theorist, he was as strident in his opposition to the abuses of Western imperial power as he was in his support for individual human rights, especially free speech. But he was also a formidable critic of the worst tendencies of his own side, often making him a pariah in that quarter. This week, his most relevant legacy is this iconoclasm: a willingness to expose the moral and intellectual nullity of Left-wing apologia for terrorism and war crimes.

When I first embarked on an academic career 20 years ago, I became friends with Geras after reading his blog, which he launched in 2003. What I most admired about him was his moral clarity and unerring political judgment, as well as his congenital aversion to bullshit. If I was ever uncertain about a political issue, or couldn’t articulate why I felt the way I did about it, Norm’s blog, which he assiduously kept right up until his death from cancer, would invariably supply the answers. The world has changed dramatically since he left it, but his thinking, especially on evil and political atrocity, provides an essential guide for navigating its darker fringes.

Long before BLM and Harvard students were siding with the murderers of partygoers and children in Israel, Geras was contending with the same diseased mindset that saw the September 11 attacks and subsequent jihadi atrocities in the West as a form of retribution for the crimes of imperialism. The dean of this school of casuistry was Noam Chomsky, who is now lauded by some on the Right as a champion of free speech. He responded to 9/11 by changing the subject: he compared it to far worse atrocities that the US had committed, according to his calculus.

“Nothing,” Chomsky remarked, “can justify crimes such as those of September 11. But we can think of the United States as an ‘innocent victim’ only if we adopt the convenient path of ignoring the record of its actions and those of its allies, which are, after all, hardly a secret.” Howard Zinn similarly argued that 9/11 served as a reminder of “the resentment all over the world felt by people who have been the victims of American military action — in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Iraq”. And Tariq Ali, another prominent figure on the Left, was even more forthright: 9/11 was first and foremost an act of anti-colonial resistance. “The subjects of the Empire had struck back,” he declared.

Christopher Hitchens famously and acrimoniously broke with the Left over 9/11. But Geras remained within the fold, forensically criticising its worst excesses in the hope that he could salvage what honour it still had. He wrote scathingly of the callousness of those comrades whose grudging acknowledgment of the horror of 9/11 contrasted starkly with their extravagant efforts to “contextualise” it. “Half the world stood aghast,” he observed, “but in no time at all there was a great chorus of Left and liberal opinion
 saying, ‘Yes, terrible, appalling, but
’; the ‘but’ following so close upon the ‘yes’ as to squeeze out any adequate registration of either the significance or the horror of what occurred.”

Geras was no less scathing about the unwarranted slippage inherent in the rhetoric of the apologists. “For it was not American imperialism or the US government that they struck at,” he noted, referring to al-Qaeda. “It was a large number of (mostly) American citizens.” He continued: “It is no more a response to imperialism and its effects to massacre thousands of civilians at random, than it would be a response to bad conditions in some inner-city for a person aggrieved about them to rape the child of a wealthy family or kill a few passers-by.”

I don’t need to wonder what Geras, who identified as a “non-Jewish Jew” and had a deep concern for the future of his people, would have made of Hamas’s recent war crimes against thousands of innocents in Israel. He would have vehemently repudiated them, along with any efforts to minimise or excuse the horror that was inflicted on the victims and their families. While he opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, he was categorical that nothing justified the indiscriminate murder of Israeli civilians. And he would have been outraged by Hamas’s barbarism, knowing full well of the group’s genocidal ambition to destroy Jews.

But, especially, he would have been taken aback by the ghoulish howls of support emitted by some progressives in the West. Najma Sharif, who describes herself as “a Somali-American writer based in the digital world”, tweeted: “What did y’all think decolonisation meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers.” Zareena Grewal, an anthropologist at Yale University, proclaimed on the same platform: “Settlers are not civilians. This is not hard.” She was criticising the idea that Israeli civilians are entitled to non-combatant immunity from murderous violence. Among this contingent, not even the most perfunctory throat-clearing was considered necessary. Indeed, to read their pronouncements, you wouldn’t have had the slightest idea that a terrible and monumental crime had been committed against innocent Israelis, because they made no reference to it.

It is an irony that many of those who gloried in Hamas’s attack on Israel see themselves as anti-racists whose goal is to create a more just and equitable world. And it is a further irony that many of them have condemned and sought to cancel their political adversaries for using speech that was somehow “violent”, even when it incontrovertibly wasn’t. Perhaps these people are unaware of this and of Hamas’s explicit and genocidal racism towards Jews, or perhaps they just don’t care. But their indifference to the systematic slaughter of innocents by Hamas suggests a grotesque devaluation of human life that borders on evil.

Geras knew all about evil and the all-too-human capacity for it. Evil, as he saw it, wasn’t some metaphysical entity that mysteriously ebbs and flows into the world, but is something that men and women do to one another. Like Dostoyevsky and Conrad, whom he had closely read, Geras was acutely alive to the darker emotional forces that animate not a few of us: resentment, greed, spite and the horrible allure of bloody vengeance and violence. It is hard to imagine how he could not have been so attuned, having spent so much of his academic career thinking and writing about the Holocaust and crimes against humanity.

Although he saw much of value in Hannah Arendt’s work on the “banality of evil”, he was aware of its explanatory limits, because it failed to capture the sheer bestiality and sadism that marked so much of the killing in the Holocaust. Arendt’s emphasis on the “social and administrative structures” that facilitated the industrial slaughter of the Jews, he wrote, “gives insufficient weight to — where it does not altogether deny — those human-natural impulses of cruelty, the actual enjoyment of the misfortunes of others, regularly unleashed when the usual restraining circumstances allow them to be”. Anyone who has followed the reporting and testimony coming out of Israel over the last few days will be hard-pressed not to use the word “evil” in trying to make sense of the horror that was inflicted there. But it’s obviously not the kind of evil that Arendt had in mind when she described Adolf Eichmann as “neither perverted nor sadistic
[but] terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

From an ethical perspective, anyone who goes door to door machine-gunning defenceless civilians, including babies, and kidnapping women and children, forgoes that descriptor. What they emphatically are not, as Arendt had described Eichmann, is “thoughtless” with an “inability to think”. On the contrary, these Hamas murderers can and did think. And they had no doubt spent a lot of time wolfishly fantasising about how they would inflict maximum degradation on Jews. And they would have been able to entertain these demonic thoughts because they were raised in a culture that is saturated in a genocidal hatred toward Jews.

Despite this, Western liberals tend to be uncomfortable using the term evil, unless they’re applying it to the historical record and foreign policies of their own governments. Geras was a trenchant critic of that schizoid impulse — not because he thought Western societies were above criticism or had not done terrible things in the past, but because he found it dangerously reductive. Not all the ills of the world stem from the West, he argued, just as not all resistance to the West is driven by a humanistic impulse to change it for the better. Geras warned that Islamist fanatics had no such impulses and that, in an Islamist utopia, progressive liberals would be the first to be cleansed from its dominion. Unlike so many of his colleagues on the Left, he had no illusions about the purity or sanity of the underdog.

At the same time, he never lost hope in the idea of a better social order free of the familiar horrors of human history, although he was always more of a “pessimism-of-the-intellect” type himself. He worried that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would worsen, and that, as he put it, “it may yet turn into a further great catastrophe for the Jews, one way or another”. Optimism is certainly hard to cling to these days, but in a political climate poisoned by tribal division and creeping nihilism masked as progressive activism, Geras’s voice — sane, humanistic and proportionate — is now more urgent that ever.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.