Goldstein, bin Laden, and Orwell

When I was a yeshiva student in Israel, a classmate told me of a tour he had taken in Hebron. As the tour bus passed a certain monument, the guide had said: "This is the grave of Dr. Goldstein, who was killed by the Arabs. --Not that I'm defending what he did...."

This is the postmodern response to a politically inconvenient atrocity. When someone affiliated with your favorite cause does something indefensible (e.g., when Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish resident of the West Bank, kills 29 Arabs in cold blood in a mosque during Ramadan), it can be hard to deny that the atrocity happened at all, or argue that it is actually a good thing, or insist that someone else had their finger on the trigger. But you can always utter the appropriate platitudes of shame, in as few words as possible, and direct the audience's attention to the convenient atrocities, i.e., those committed by your enemies.

This rhetorical trick is alive and well, and not just in Hebron. The World Trade Center collapsed less than a week ago, and the estimated death toll is six thousand civilians and counting, but the non-apology for its attack has become a genre unto itself. Consider:

The essays are usually couched as pleas for "understanding". But I do not recall such an outcry from progressives to "understand" Baruch Goldstein as someone whose behavior, while inexcusable, was linked to antisemitism among Arabs in Hebron. (When you read that sentence, did you wince, thinking that I might sympathize with Goldstein? But can you prove that I hold any such sentiments? See how effective the postmodern style is?) In any case, since one soldier's reprisal is another soldier's provocation, you can frame your "understanding" to favor whichever side you like. Fisk roots the World Trade Center bombing in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, but why not go back to the Roman occupation of Judea, or to the Israelites' wars against the Canaanites, or to some riot among the Cro-Magnons?

What we really need to understand is why the essays in this genre are all rubbish. They can be summarized in words of one syllable, as follows:

  1. They did a bad, bad thing.
  2. If we had done as they wished, they would not have hurt us.
  3. In the past, we, as well, did bad, bad things, which hurt them, and we still do. We should stop.
(The precise definitions of "we" and "they" are fuzzy, but unpacking that aspect of the genre might require another essay of this length. Furthermore, If it turns out that someone outside the Islamic world was responsible for this attack, as with the Oklahoma City bombing, that news would undermine the essays I am commenting on, but not my analysis of their style.)

The first of these statements makes up a small proportion of the text of the essay. Sometimes, it doesn't even appear in the first paragraph; journalists call this "burying the lede". (Pilger buries the lede at a crossroads with a stake through its heart.) The second statement begs the question: is it more important to save American lives or comply with the terrorists' desires? (As much as I dislike Bush's foreign policy, not to mention the process that put his handlers in charge of it, I'm not ready to give his job to Osama bin Laden.) The third statement, of course, provides the answer. But when juxtaposed with the first, it raises a new question, one which none of the authors linked to above seem to recognize.

When the above essays complain about the sins of the West, the chief complaint involves Israel, although some go farther afield. (Do people who join bin Laden's organization really care about the Kyoto treaty?) You can argue for Palestinian statehood, or against Israel's treatment of Palestinians, on its own merits: those causes are just as valid today as they were on September 10. Likewise, you can denounce terrorism and war crimes without referring to any specific organizations or states. But if you acknowledge that all terrorism is bad, and link US/Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians to the WTC's destruction, and declare that Palestinians have a just cause, you beg the question: How, if not through terrorism, are the Palestinians going to seek justice?

The best Israeli offers to come out of the Oslo process fall short of what Palestinians consider fair. The US is not pressuring Israel to offer terms more favorable to the Palestinians. If the PA had a conventional war with Israel, and both sides followed the Geneva Conventions to the letter, Israel would almost certainly win. Therefore, if the Palestinians abandon terrorism, what are they supposed to do?

Those people who cheered the WTC's fall, Palestinian or not, did not merely perceive that their enemy had been struck. They perceived that their enemy had been struck in a way that gave them hope of victory. The non-apologists are quick to advise the West on the moral and practical route to prevent terrorism, but say nothing to would-be terrorists about the moral and practical route to achieve their own goals. Fisk calls the carnage inevitable, as if the people who conspired to attack New York had no free will, and therefore no moral responsibility for their decisions. Kamiya proposes terms for the US to dictate to both Israel and the PA, but does not say how to respond if Arafat rejects them. The rest, for all I know, want to reconcile their hatred of terrorism with their love for the causes that motivate certain terrorists. However, when I see those two sentiments appear in the same document, with no statement about how to reconcile them, and measure how many words are spent on each one ... I imagine a cigarette advertisement, a two-page spread depicting happy smokers, with the health warning confined to a square-inch box in the corner.

We all know that those who proclaim "the end justifies the means" are allies of terror. But so, too, are those who mumble "the end is justified" and don't want to think about the means. These are the people who donate to charities with bland names, but do not ask how the money is spent; who cheer the leaders calling for retribution, but dismiss the most bloodthirsty calls as hyperbole; who see evidence of crimes being plotted, but do not risk the stigma of becoming informers. For such people, the words of Fisk, Chomsky, and Zinn provide a balm.

Orwell, in "Notes on Nationalism", wrote: "It is difficult if not impossible for any nationalist to conceal his allegiance. The smallest slur upon his own unit, or any implied praise of a rival organization, fills him with uneasiness which he can only relieve by making some sharp retort." The recent slaughter has inspired many such retorts. Their authors, in the way that they ask us to "understand," prove that they do not understand the depth of their own prejudices.

Seth Gordon / / 17 September 2001 / comments?