Know Thy Enemy
by Carl Saab* (May 18, 2005)
[Text in PDF]
‘Unless you know your enemy, you won’t know your friend’, and ‘unless you
experience pain, you won’t experience pleasure’, are compelling arguments. It
was recounted that a man was once afflicted with a rare genetic disease and
rendered insensitive to pain. He worked in the circus and stabbed himself daily
for a living, with needles and daggers, in front of a baffled audience. While
spectators frowned with awe and paid tribute to this seemingly agonizing guy in
petty cash, he smiled and cared less about his scars. This same man committed
suicide at an early age leaving a depressive note behind, explaining, since he
never experienced pain, he could never experience pleasure either.
Many political strategists are guided by similar arguments, devoting their
careers identifying their enemies, even creating them in case they don’t exist,
like kids playing Dungeons and Dragons when Dragons are hard to find. Nations
play this game too, and people are lead to believe that their entire existence
revolves around an antithesis, ‘search for and destroy the enemy’.
The little bit of truth I find in these arguments is attributed to a wider
vision of ‘what’ the enemy is, rather than ‘who’. Laws of evolution by natural
selection make it known to living creatures that many forces of ‘evil’ lure us
into extinction. We’ve just got to be constantly alert to these evil forces to
better adapt and survive. To ignore these forces is to lessen our probability of
survival. These evil forces are the ‘enemy’, and ways to adapt are our ‘friend’.
To speak of ‘enemy’ in strictly human terms, that is to restrict our class of
enemies to humans, is shortsighted.
Furthermore, submitting to the logic of ‘evil forces’, one consequently admits
different gradation of forces, and a sort of relative ‘evilness’ among these
forces. There are forces requiring more vigilance than others. A spectrum of
‘animosity’ thus emerges and the dichotomy between friend and foe is blurred.
I go about my daily routine constantly trying to identify ‘what’ wishes to hurt
me, ‘what’ masks the physical laws of entropy churning my bones and maximizing
chaos in the universe: Is it a speeding car or a tornado? But with lions and
hyenas absent from our urban lives, man seems to be behind most remaining evil
forces: A drunk driver or an armed robber. However, a drunk driver is
indiscriminate in his evil to me as a pedestrian, whereas an armed robber is
after my wallet. The evil in these forces could be indiscriminate, or
pre-meditated. It is the pre-meditated evil in man that strikes me as brutal and
vicious (at the risk of sounding naively angelic).
I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, in a region torn by tumultuous
conflicts and plagued by pre-meditated forms of human evil. I was thus born and
raised (and trained) to identify my enemy at first sight… And I had a bunch! A
lot of people simply wanted to torture or kill me; none knew much about me,
except that I lived in a certain area with an ethnic majority that needed to be
cleansed. Others decried that I belonged to a sect that is malicious, while the
rest hated my guts by birth, citizenship, religion, creed or other preferences,
including dress code and music. My enemies hated me even before I was born!
I am a friendly person (here I sound naively angelic again!). Short of going on
national television and showing how friendly and peaceful a person I am, I
sucked their animosity up and dodged every bullet, every Howitzer and every
mortar thrown at me for more than 25 years (talk about survival adaptation!) How
and whether that made me appreciate my friends better is yet undetermined. But
I’m still alive now to reflect back on this concept of identifying my enemy.
Our enemies come in ranks; there is the archenemy, the common enemy, and the
fly-by-night enemy. Particularly in the Middle East, entire civilizations are
self-determined based on their enemies. Like onion shells, they keep on pealing
off layers after layers of enemies until they exhaust all possible enemies, then
they create some more. Although this logic might be comprehensible if viewed
from a wider angle, the methods seem to be flawed. Enemies in the Middle East
are based on deep-rooted beliefs and ethos that may or may not have anything to
do with promoting survival of the species. On the contrary, people there seem to
be headed to their doom, to extinction, as some of the most persistently
stubborn and less adapted species on earth, determined to self-destruction and
I rank evil forces in the Middle East by a different order. Today, water
resources are shrinking at an alarming rate, including other serious
environmental hazards such as waste management and desecration of landscape.
Housing, poverty, ignorance, and extremism, all interplay and feed into a cycle
of violence and blind us from the true forces of evil.
You are my enemy if you wish me evil. But look behind you and you’ll find the
angel of death breathing upon your neck in the form of religious fanaticism,
poverty and disease. And what do we see being done now in the Middle East to
ward off evil forces? Building a gigantic apartheid wall (as if physical walls
ever defend us against poverty, disease and lack of water) and spreading
Particularly in Lebanon, once the layer of the Israeli is pealed, there surfaces
the Syrian, then the Palestinian, Armenian, Christian, Maronite, Protestant,
Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Phalangist, Communist, Agnostic, Atheist, Leftist,
Rightist, Capitalist, Imperialist… Mind you different people have aversions to
different onions (and they peal them differently too!)
I have yet to meet in the Middle East more who share with me the same aversion
for the same onion, more who would like to peal off its layers in the right
order, starting with ignorance, poverty and fanaticism first, and on to
environmental issues, including those related to architecture, design and urban
planning. These would be my good friends and we would share that onion together
over a plate of fava beans and virgin olive oil.
* Carl Saab, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Research at Brown University,
Department of Surgery, and pursuing basic science research in the field of