On Terror and Its Other Names

By Ernest Sommers

When the Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi, was shot by a Palestinian assassin the other day, it was the first killing of an Israeli cabinet minister by an Arab. It was not, however, the first killing of an Israeli cabinet minister per se: an Israeli Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in late 1995.

Illogically, Ariel Sharon and his Knesset allies denounced the killing as an "act of terror" and vowed retribution against the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. We found this odd because we do not recall the assassination of Rabin being called an "act of terror" nor do we recall Israel vowing retribution against itself on that occasion.

At the same time, the murder reminded us of a number of questions concerning "targeted killings" and when they are justified and when not. Indeed, the day the killing took place the Wall Street Journal published a particularly oafish piece, which sought to argue, more or less, that since our intent was to destroy Osama Bin Laden, why shouldn't Israel be allowed to "target" as many Palestinian terrorists as it likes?

It seemed to us that it might be useful to try to disentangle the terminology of terrorism, assassination, targeted killings and related terms.

Terror and Collective Responsibility

Terrorism can be defined in a number of ways, but a key element has to do with the attitude, and the position, of the perpetrator as well as the victim. From an emotional point of view, "terrorism" is simply something terrible, and in this sense the act has no meaning. Rationally speaking, however, it is clear that terrorist acts are motivated by specific goals and specific grievances.

But what are the goals of the terrorist? Here is where we have to change the perspective and realize that what is experienced by the victim as "terror" is meant as "collective responsibility" by the perpetrator.

Collective responsibility is one of the oldest forms of social control and social manipulation known to mankind. The situation in which an entire community, or some randomly chosen segment thereof, is destroyed for the sins of a few is a very common theme throughout history. Communities and tribes, even in the Bible, were not decimated or destroyed to the last man out of blood lust. There was a calculated message being sent: the slightest infraction of one will lead to the destruction of all, or at least an arbitrary portion.

Collective responsibility, far from seeking the fragmentation of social order, as Arendt argued, or being symptomatic of the "creeping rape of man" as Buchheim has held, seeks to shape the target society to police itself so that the party administering the violence can proceed unmolested. Of course, while this is the basic aim of collective responsibility, anyone on the receiving end will experience it as terror, because the violence is bound to seem arbitrary and unpredictable, and will not be meted out on an individual basis. Hence, "What did I do to deserve this?" is a typical response. This is a legitimate response in our culture that has slowly come to esteem the dignity of individual human beings. But we should always keep in mind that the idea of the sanctity of the individual in a political sense is a relatively new idea even in the West, and largely unknown outside of it.

It was precisely in the spirit of collective responsibility that the Germans shot Belgian civilians in the First World War: the policy of Schrecklichkeit was meant to force the Belgians to contain the snipers who were harrying the German ranks. In this case, the Germans were simply employing a strategy that had been employed numberless times by Europeans against each other since the Dark Ages, whenever the threat of guerilla warfare or chaos raised its head.

The same idea of collective responsibility lay at the root of the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign in World War Two against Germany, as well as the American bombings of Japan. Together, these bombing campaigns claimed the lives of more than one million people, people who were quite clearly "innocent" on an individual basis of any war making. To be sure, there were purported military considerations in many cases: oftentimes "strategic" violence is just "collective responsibility" in new dress. Even so, it is amply clear from the records and sometimes the explicitly stated aims that an underlying purpose of many of these bombings and indeed the only purpose of the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Tokyo was to impose collective responsibility. Most of the bombing attacks on Germany were meant to destroy "morale", that is, to cause the German people to turn against their government, leading either its overthrow or to its unconditional surrender. The purposes of the nuclear attacks were variously to compel the Japanese government for the sake of its people, or to compel the people to force their government, to sue for peace. An explicitly stated purpose for the final fire bombing of Tokyo was to teach the Japanese that they should never again make war against the United States.

The strategic bombing campaigns of World War Two also reminds us that there is an ignoble side to the application of collective responsibility. That is, while traditionally employed to shape an enemy society's policy, it is sometimes used, in addition, because of a failure to succeed in face-to-face encounters with the designated warriors of the target society. We should keep in mind that the Anglo-American bombing of Germany was pursued partly because of the frustrations of the western allies against their German counterparts in the field. Indeed, it has often been pointed out that the British bombed cities like Hamburg because their string of military defeats made it impossible for them to harm the Germans in any other way.

Allied bombing victims in Hamburg -- July 1943
Victims of the Allied bombing attack on July 24/25 1943

By the same token, the techniques of collective responsibility - like area bombing - were often resorted to because of military failure. Monte Cassino, Caen, and many other cities and towns in France, Italy, Holland, and Belgium were leveled by British and American bombers - causing many thousands of innocent civilian casualties - because of an inability to break through German lines. Dresden was bombed, theoretically at least, because the Red Army was tied up in its advance towards the city. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed basically because it was felt that it was better to kill 200,000 innocent Japanese than to risk having any more young American boys killed. So the threshold is crossed where collective responsibility, or more accurately the techniques thereof, becomes a sign of weakness, or at least an unwillingness to fight and die by the rules of ordinary warfare.

The Turn to Terror

It is at this point where we make the transition from collective responsibility according to the usages of war to the "terrorism" with which we are most familiar. And we also see the rationale that animates its cruel violence. Unable to defeat the police, or the army, the terrorist strikes at innocent men, women, and children in order to cause the surviving innocent men, women, and children to cause their armed forces to lay down their weapons or their governments to make appropriate changes in policy. It is precisely in this manner, that is, as a form of collective responsibility, that terrorism has been practiced since the late 19th Century: in France, in Russia, in Palestine, throughout the Third World in our lifetimes, and, of course, today in Israel, the United States, and again Palestine.

With regard to the 911 attacks on America, the mass murders were clearly meant to get the United States to meet some specific goals, articulated by Bin Laden himself: abandonment of American bases in Saudi Arabia, relaxation of the embargo against Iraq, and the removal of the Jews from Palestine. (In the last case, according to Joseph Sobran, the West Bank and Gaza are meant, not the abandonment of Israel as such.)

Some of these goals might not be objectionable to some degree, if they did not contradict geopolitical imperatives. For example, the Saudi bases are necessary to prevent more Iraqi incursions, which would threaten the oil supply and then the world economy. So this goal, for example, could not easily be met. Furthermore, it is politically and perhaps morally impossible for Israel to be abandoned altogether, although a case can easily be made against continued Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Yet such musings are problematic in this case for at least two reasons. First, because acquiescence to applied collective responsibility, either in the form of terror or in common usage, means that one has lost the war, and losing a war brings with it all kinds of consequences that one should carefully consider before surrender. Second, the scale of destruction, loss of life, and cruelty of the mass murders of September 11 is so out of proportion to the specific grievances that it oversteps any conception of collective responsibility or terrorism to become sheer madness. There can be no parley with such people: they must be destroyed.

At the same time, we shouldn't have any illusions about the consequences of our stance against terror, or more accurately collective responsibility in the terrorist mode. Stirring pronouncements against it cannot disguise the fact that collective responsibility is a typical mode of warfare that has been used by all those who decry it today. To claim that collective responsibility via indiscriminate bombing strikes is just, while collective responsibility through truck bombs, hijackings, or suicide bombings is not, is essentially to argue that the weak have no right to attack the strong. Of course, we can be hypocrites about the whole matter, which is the easiest path: we will baptize our collective responsibility as right, and that of our enemies wrong, and declare any comparison "moral equivalency." That may satisfy the masses, but that is an utterly futile way of addressing the problem. The weak will always fight against the strong, especially if the strong is overbearing, arrogant, or greedy; and they will use whatever weapons they can find. In the short term, of course, we can kill. But in the long term, we must address the inequalities.

Terrorism in Israel

The situation is slightly different in Israel. There, the Israelis have occupied territories since 1967 that the United Nations has repeatedly claimed that Israel has no right to inhabit. This is important, because the United Nations ratified Israel's existence itself. In effect, Israel uses the authority of the United Nations to justify its existence on half of the original Palestinian Mandate, and then defies the authority of the United Nations to occupy the other half. Israel has repeatedly built settlements, accommodating hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews, throughout these occupied territories. Israel has seized all of the water in the region, and doles out to the native Palestinians a fraction of what the ground holds. Finally, Israel repeatedly seizes Arab land for further settlements or "security zones", destroys Palestinian homes, crops, orchards, and olive groves, sometimes as a policy of collective responsibility, sometimes in order to build access roads to its illegal settlements, and sometimes, it appears, out of sheer spite.

Under these conditions it is only natural that the Palestinian population would object, and that has been the root cause of the two uprisings (intifidas) that Israel has faced. Of course, we can see on our TV's how Israel carries out collective responsibility on its end: with battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, attack helicopters with rockets, and F-16 fighter jets. The Palestinians do not have such weapons at their disposal, so they use what they can get: rocks, guns, the occasional grenade or mortar, and most recently suicide bombers.

Of course, the Palestinians, divided into their separate cells, have no hope in defeating any contingent of the Israel Defense Forces face to face. They are outnumbered and outgunned. For this reason, the Palestinians have been compelled, not only to resort to a policy of collective responsibility, but also a policy of killing mostly innocent civilians. Yet their aim is not mere murder: their aim is to retaliate against the IDF, which they cannot defeat, and also to influence Israeli public opinion to call off its warriors, and leave the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Proof that these are indeed the limited aims of the Palestinians, rather than the total destruction of Israel, is shown by the fact that the first intifada came to an end when the Israelis accepted the Oslo process in 1993. At that time, the Palestinians explicitly accepted the right of Israel to exist in exchange for a return to the pre-1967 borders. The second intifida, on the other hand, began after the Camp David meetings in 2000 during which the Israelis made it clear that they had no intention of returning to the 1967 borders, a position punctuated by a provocative and tactless visit to the Al Aqsa mosque by Ariel Sharon.

The Israeli reaction, meanwhile, has been to hold the entire Palestinian population collectively responsible for the violence of fanatic sectarians. True, the Israelis have used largely non-lethal means in penning the Arab population into essentially large prison cantons. At the same time, they have penalized the entire Palestinian population by refusing any further dialogue or any further concessions. In the process they have killed some 700 Palestinians, including many innocents bystanders, and a large majority who were shot dead simply for the unforgivable crime of throwing rocks at their jailers.

Even so, the actions of the Palestinian suicide bombers in particular have been, in our opinion, at times clearly over the line that separates an inevitable struggle for human rights from gratuitous destruction.

A Moment of Clarity

And indeed there are innocents dying, on both sides. Just as collective responsibility and terror are two sides of the same coin, depending on who's giving and who's getting, so now "murder of innocents" and "collateral damage" are also to a large extent terms determined by our perspective. Some say that there's a difference: "murder of innocents" is deliberate, while "collateral damage" is simply a by-product of the larger objective. This would be scant comfort to those murdered in New York. After all, it is clear that the terrorists mainly wanted to destroy the World Trade Center, to destroy a symbol, and inspire terror. If they had wanted to kill, they would have flown later, and lower. But it would be impossible to characterize our fellow citizens murdered that day as "collateral damage," it would violate any standards of humanity and decency. Quite so: just like the term itself.

Now this finally leads us back to the killing of Rehavam Zeevi. Once again, we have a dual terminology. If one accepts the validity of the homicide, it is a "targeted killing." On the other hand, if one objects, it is "murder" or an "assassination." However, it must be said that it was not an act of terror. It was not carried out as an act of collective responsibility: on the contrary, Zeevi was singled out as an individual for his often expressed contempt for Arab aspirations. Nor was it carried out in order to influence either Israeli public opinion or the Israeli government. In fact, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed that the killing was carried out to avenge Israel's killing of its own leader, Mustafa Zibri, in a helicopter missile attack on August 27.

It follows then that the death of Zeevi, however unjust, and however deserving of our sympathy, was not an act of terrorism at all. If anything, it was reminiscent of a gangland execution carried out in retaliation for the gangland execution that preceded it, and so on, back to infinity, and perhaps, forward as well. It is precisely for these reasons that the United States, heavily stung by assassinations in the 20th Century, constantly rebukes Israel for its "targeted killings" because it knows where such killing leads. It leads to endless killing, and ultimately the collapse of the rule of law. That should be a sufficient moment of clarity for anyone.


Source: The Revisionist, Codoh Series, No. 2, 2002, pp. .
Back to Table of Contents