This month, as good people throughout the world remember the senseless brutality of last September 11, we must also mourn the second anniversary of the outbreak of the intifada.
Even while remaining wary of promiscuous analogizing, comparing and contrasting can be instructive. Israelis and their supporters have much to learn from the way Americans and their supporters responded to vicious terrorist attacks against innocent civilians.
Americans responded to the September 11 massacres with shock, fury and unity. From the start, there were two main goals: to comfort the victims and punish the perpetrators. A torrent of love, support and generosity succored the victims and their families. Thousands of volunteers were turned away from relief efforts, millions of dollars poured into relief funds. At the same time, the cries for justice were resolute and mature. Most Americans were careful not to jump to conclusions — or demonize all Muslims. And even the supposedly warmongering Republicans waited weeks before attacking Afghanistan, methodically gathering evidence, assembling a coalition, mustering forces and maintaining the national consensus for just and comprehensive action.
The results were pretty impressive. The families of the victims were well-tended to spiritually, psychologically and materially. During those dark autumn days, Americans from coast to coast rediscovered the magic of community, the value of living life integrated in family and friendship networks.
Moreover, the massive embrace that enveloped the families of the victims sent a clear message to the evildoers: This will not stand. Anyone who doubted American resolve, anyone who wondered if terrorism would work, saw just how effective the United States could be, both communally and militarily, at home and abroad, and saw how illegitimate it was to slaughter innocents. American military action reinforced the message by targeting the Al Qaeda terrorists and their hosts — and demonstrating that host regimes, which are easily targeted, have much to lose by aiding these psychopaths.
While mourning and fighting, many Americans continued thinking. The surge in books purchased about Islam, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden reflected a need to make sense of the events of September 11, to understand the context in which these murders occurred. But while asking, as Newsweek did, "Why do they hate us?", most Americans justifiably refused to wallow in guilt. Unlike too many of their intellectual leaders in academia, Americans could ask "What went wrong?" — with Islam, as Bernard Lewis did in his best-selling analysis, "What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" — without unduly blaming themselves or legitimizing the terrorists.
By contrast, Israel responded to the Palestinian resort to violence with denial, dithering and division. Too many Israelis minimized the Palestinians' dramatic abrogation of the Oslo accords.
Lured by the siren song of Oslo, addicted to the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Israelis minimized the Palestinian offenses, while the government and the army simply played defense, being reactive not proactive. Moreover, many Israelis blamed themselves and not Yasser Arafat, the settlers and not the terrorists, the victims and not the victimizers.
Israel's prime ministers during the intifada, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, responded with a confusing mix of revenge and restraint, of condemnations and concessions. It took Israel a year-and-a-half of enduring thousands of attacks, and the deaths of 130 Israelis in March 2002 alone, before finally the military entered the territories in April and brought the war home to the terrorists.
And yet the man chiefly responsible for this wave of terrorism, the head of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat, remains in power.
It is hard to prove whether a massive Israeli response early on would have solved the problem. Some Israeli dithering and confusion has been the result of laudable humanitarian, diplomatic and strategic considerations. Still, the contrast is worth pondering. The massive and united American response resulted in a year free of the kind of catastrophic terrorism so many terrorism "experts" warned us to expect.
At the same time, Israeli half-measures have helped the conflict to fester, so that we now enter the third year of the intifada with hundreds of casualties on both sides, deep despair all around and little resolution in sight.
The lesson here is clear: As a vulgar and violent form of political theater, terrorism exploits indecision, uncertainty and sympathy for the weak. Palestinians have begun to reconsider their support for suicide bombings only now, after repeated examples of Israeli resolve, not after the initial miasma of half-measures and concessions.
Moreover, terrorists watch the news. When much of the world embraced the United States on September 11, Al Qaeda terrorists were weakened. Similarly, when much of the Western world criticized Israel for responding to Palestinian attacks, Palestinians felt emboldened.
And yet there is a danger in learning this lesson too well. On some levels, Israeli wavering reflected Israel's strength, not weakness — Israel as a humanitarian and liberal democracy truly committed to finding a just peace with its neighbors. History is littered with instances of civilizations that lost their way when they plunged ahead into war with little restraint and no self-doubt.
This, then, is the great political, ideological and psychological challenge for the United States, Israel and other Western democracies in this age of terrorism. How do we withstand the Islamicist threat resolutely, how do we root out terrorists prospering in our midst, exploiting the culture of humanitarianism and dissent so essential to a vibrant democracy, without risking our own ability to learn from self-criticism and without stifling our consciences? How do we win this war against terrorism without losing our souls?
"damn, I didnt know prince could Ball like that" - Charlie Murphy