Friday, March 6, 2009

How to respond to terrorists and terror

The newspapers report a sharp increase in anti-Semitic events in England. A week earlier an opinion survey in all of Europe discovered high rates of very traditional anti-Semitic prejudice. Many people, when asked, agreed that the Jews were running the world economic system and, by implication, were responsible for the current worldwide economic crisis. This is very traditional anti-Semitism. The Jews are despised for their commercial successes and are blamed for whatever goes wrong in the world.

Without any doubt, the current surge of anti-Semitism is, in part, a response to a widespread perception that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is completely out of proportion to the provocation, that the recent attack on Gaza that killed 1400 Palestinians was in no way justified by the 14 Israelis who died. More generally, the Israeli response to Palestinian resistance has seemed too many people quite disproportionate to the provocation.

The leadership in Israel as well as of prominent Jewish organizations elsewhere bears some responsibility for this upsurge in anti-Semitic manifestations in response to the actions of the Israeli government. Israeli and Jewish leaders everywhere always respond to any criticism of Israel by crying “anti-semitism." They have, all along, tended to confuse criticisms of the policies of the State of Israel with blind prejudice against all Jews. The world believes them and reacts to Israeli excesses with traditional anti-Semitic outbreaks. But the two are, of course, quite distinct.

But it would be utterly callous to end here. We do not know what it is like to live in Sderot or Askelon, two Israeli towns that are regularly the targets of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza strip. We do not really understand what it is to live in a small country in the part of the world where it is acceptable for leaders and followers to proclaim that you and your state should be utterly destroyed.

We do not know what it is like to be a Jew in Israel, but we do have some experiences likes theirs. 9/11 taught us a lot about the experience of terrorism. Most us were deeply frightened even though that was quite out of proportion to the actual events. I live at the edge of Worcester, where the city fades into the forests that cover most of New England. Did I have reason to expect a terrorist attack on my street, or even on Worcester? Once I think about it, I can see that there was occasion to sorrow for the victims in New York, in Washington DC, and in a field in Pennsylvania. But there was no call for being afraid.

But that's what terrorism is intended to do and does. It frightens people—not only the actual victims but everyone else because you never know what will happen next. Fear extends in large waves from the actual event as waves spread out from the rock dropped into the water.

That fear is not only uncomfortable to those terrorized, it makes them act utterly irrationally. We had an overwhelming feeling that we had been attacked, that we “needed to do something” preferably something to show our power ( perhaps in order to assure ourselves that we had nothing to fear) to show the world that we would not be attacked without responding with massive violence—as Israel did in Gaza.

Seven years later it is clear that that was a terrible mistake. Americans were scared; Congress gave the President the power to do anything he chose. The result are more than 4200 American soldiers and additional civilians dead in Iraq as well as hundreds of thousands Iraqis. We needed to punish the Taliban in Afghanistan for not handing over Osama bin Laden. Seven years later we do not have Osama bin Laden and the Taliban control most of Afghanistan. In the intervening years a lot of Afghan civilians died and some US and allied soldiers. We have spent huge sums of money we cannot afford. The world is a more dangerous place than it was in 2001.

When you allow fear to direct your thinking, you are bound to act irrationally and only do a great deal of harm to yourself and others. Leaders in the US as well as in Israel and Palestine are overmastered by fear. Politicians like to run on platforms encouraging popular fears because that is one way to get elected. Right, Left and Center in the recent Israeli elections agreed that they needed to be super-tough with the Palestinians. Hamas and Hezbollah get a lot of support because they are tough and will not compromise, even if that leads to the destruction of a $1billion worth of housing and many, many lives in Gaza in the recent war. Politicians on both sides played the fear card; they encouraged the population to be as irrational as humans get when they are afraid.

That's what George Bush did and the current administration is not doing much better with its plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

In Israel and in Palestine there are people who have overcome their fear and think clearly about the prevailing conflicts. Moreover, they act on their thinking; they have joint projects. They actively work for peace. If the new administration is serious about new departures for America's role in the Mid-East, Secretary Clinton and President Obama and Senator George Mitchell, President Obama's envoy to the Mid-East, must seek out the small groups of people who have overcome their fear, who are courageous enough to work with their supposed enemies—Israelis working with Palestinians, Palestinians working with Israelis. Talking to the leaders will be talking to more people who are committed to violence for political profit or because they too, drown in fear. They are unable to produce a solution because like all fearful people, they only know how to lash out in their panic and perpetuate fear and violence.

If we can do any good in the Mid-East we need to seek out those people who quietly and persistently, with great courage and reasonableness join those of the other side who are serious about peace, we need to support them and hold them up as models of what is possible.

That means that we too need to stop acting violently from fear and find the courageous peace makers and ally with and support them.