We should think — think about what we’re doing, and why
‘We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business.’
— White House spokesman Scott McClellan, 2006
By Herbert Rothschild
Demons have no rational motives for inflicting harm. That’s what demons do — it’s their nature. In the contemporary Western world, not many of us would say we believe in demons. In practice, however, perhaps a majority of us act as if they exist. If to be human means to have understandable motives for our actions, then our enemies aren’t really human beings. They are megalomaniacal tyrants, they are bloodthirsty fanatics, they are animals. So, when they do us harm, we need not try to understand why, and especially we need not examine our own conduct to discover whether anything we did provoked their enmity. All they respect is brute force, so that is how we must deal with them.
Surely, that’s how we regarded and dealt with Osama bin Laden. He did signal in the 1990s that he had grievances with us. Beyond the general resentment of U.S. military presence in the Middle East, he particularly objected to our stationing troops after the First Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam. In addition, he was disturbed by our sanctions on Iraq, which were contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its most vulnerable people. And then there was our unflagging support of Israel despite the brutality of its occupation of Palestinian territories. In 1996 and 1998 he issued fatwas, or declarations of jihad, against us.
I didn’t know of that background until after 9/11, just as I didn’t know of Timothy McVeigh’s grievances about the FBI’s actions at Ruby Ridge and Waco until after his 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Both caught me by surprise. Our vast security apparatus should have known about both in advance. In bin Laden’s case I’m sure they did. Perhaps they didn’t put much store in whatever knowledge they had. Or maybe they assumed there was nothing to do but prepare for his attacks, which they failed to do. One thing is clear — no one considered that his grievances might have some legitimacy.
On Jan. 20, 2006, NPR reported that Al-Jazeera had aired an audiotape the day before on which bin Laden in his own voice offered “a long-term truce” with us on what he said were fair conditions: that we withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and stop supporting Israel’s occupation. The Bush administration, as expected, immediately dismissed the offer, not because they didn’t like the terms, but because, as White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business.”
More than 17 years later, the people we call terrorists are still in business. My best guess is that Israel’s destruction of Gaza will put a lot more of them in business.
Much of the world beyond our shores, and certainly the Muslim world, doesn’t regard the enemies of Israel and the U.S. as demons — people of “motiveless malignancy,” to quote Coleridge’s take on Iago. The global response to 9/11, which was largely sympathetic to our suffering, suggested that most people are repulsed by horrible acts of vengeance such as what happened then and what just happened in Israel on 10/7. Nonetheless, they understand the motives for them and would prefer that both the U.S. and Israel acknowledge those motives and re-think our longstanding behaviors. And our responses to our injuries, so disproportionate to what we endured and falling so heavily on those who bore no responsibility for the crimes, erased their sympathy.
While I may be correct in asserting that most people have difficulty viewing world events through any lens other than a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, I credit those who shape governmental policies with more acumen. I think they recognize that those who resist their policies have motives, sometimes even legitimate motives, but many political leaders are determined, nonetheless, to pursue what they believe to be their self-interest.
I can think of no more candid confession of that stance than a statement by David Ben-Gurion, a major Zionist leader and the first prime minister of Israel. Nahum Goldman, co-founder and president of the World Jewish Congress from 1948 to 1977, was close to Ben-Gurion. In “The Jewish Paradox: A Personal Memoir” published in 1978, Goldmann quoted something Ben-Gurion told him in conversation:
“I don’t understand your optimism. Why should the Arabs make peace? If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but 2,000 years ago, and what is that to them? There has been antisemitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see only one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance. So, it’s simple: We have to stay strong and maintain a powerful army. Our whole policy is there. Otherwise the Arabs will wipe us out.”
There was another possibility, one that wouldn’t compensate Palestinians for all their losses but would have made possible a life of self-determination and dignity. There are always other possibilities if we acknowledge the humanity of those with whom we are in conflict, which entails listening to their claims and evaluating them fairly. That is what I was raised to think we Jews did.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.