It’s like the old joke: Why do Jewish men die before their wives? Because they want to. Civilizations for the most part die because they no longer want to live. That is the nub of my 2011 book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too). They cease to believe in their own future and distract themselves from the prospect of extinction as best they can. Hellenistic Greece was the first universal demographic disaster; it gave us prototypes of the steam engine and the computer (via Hero of Alexandria) as well as the modern literary forms. But even wealthy men exposed their daughters and the population imploded. When Aristotle taught that men naturally seek the good, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence had already turned against him. Most men seek nothingness. Soon the last surviving remnants of the classical world will disappear. In another generation, more people will speak Hebrew than Greek.
Hamas wants to die, obviously and visibly. That thought horrifies Westerners. As a number of Israeli commentators observe, Hamas doesn’t particularly care about having a Palestinian State. It wants to destroy the Jewish State and is willing to die in the process. It wants to die in such a way that Israel will die, too. There is something utterly surreal to Hamas crowding civilians around military targets, and Israeli pilots declining to attack them. It recalls the joke about the sadist and the masochist. The masochist says, “Beat me!,” and the sadist says, No…suffer.”
Hamas, to be sure, proposes to die in an accelerated time frame and a particularly disgusting fashion, but it should be kept in mind that self-willed extinction is the norm. West of the Indus, Israel is the only survivor among the thousands of little nations that flourished between 10,000 BC and 600 AD. To be sure, there have been plenty of small tribes that wanted to live but were trampled by conquering hordes. The rule, however, is that civilizations die of their own disgust with life. Most of the industrial nations are dying, some very quickly. Most of the Muslim world would rather die than accommodate modernity (although some of it may choose to cease to be Islamic).
I do not mean to sound cruel, but the best thing you can do for victims of a dying culture is: Don’t be one of them. Individuals who want to live have the option of changing cultures. I do not mean that Israel (or anyone else) should go about killing off enemies in order to satisfy their death wish. God forbid: life is still sacred to us even if it is repugnant to them. Neither do we have to commit suicide in order to accommodate our crazy neighbor’s death-wish. We might try to talk him down from the roof, but we are entitled to step aside when he jumps. It is not in our power to persuade suicidal civilizations to carry on living. Ultimately it is our job to contain the damage to ourselves. We cannot help but accept some civilian deaths while engaging an enemy that seeks the maximum number of civilian casualties.