Jewish World Review Sept. 25, 2001 /8 Tishrei, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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On understanding terrorism

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- HE who kills a single human being, said an ancient sage, it is as if he had destroyed the whole world.

That's not just a nice sentiment or poetic fancy. If each of us sees a unique world, as human beings do, then to destroy one of us is indeed to destroy a world.

The terrorist has his own worldview, and it has no room for any other. His response to those who see the world differently is simple: Destroy them. All his ideology boils down to nothing more than that.

Terrorists like Lenin have constructed whole intellectual structures that are nothing but elaborations on that one, murderous instinct.

Wallace Stevens, the poet who ran an insurance company on the side, or maybe he was a corporate executive who wrote poetry on the side, understood the straitened mind of the fanatic:

The politics of emotion must appear
To be an intellectual structure. The cause
Creates a logic not to be distinguished
From lunacy . . .

We are about to hear a great deal of explanatory logic, a lot of reasoned discourses and many a learned disquisition about terrorism. And soon enough the explanations will become rationalizations.

We will be lectured on the origins and history of terrorism not in the way one would study a disease that needs to be eradicated, but in a way we would study a social phenomenon that deserves equal time in our pluralistic, postmodern, oh-so-tolerant multicultic (cq) time. First we'll be asked to understand the terrorist mentality, then to enter into it.

Some neutral Peter Jennings type will soon be gingerly holding up terrorism for our inspection, without committing himself one way or another. For that would be to take sides. And we will be warned against being judgmental. In the name of an inauthentic objectivity, it will be made clear that we are to remain neutral between good and evil, civilization and barbarism.

In the 1930s, the experts explained how German feelings about the injustices of the Versailles Treaty were understandably reflected in Herr Hitler's demands for redress and the occasional pogrom. His rantings would become perfectly understandable once we grasped the historical context that produced them.

In the 1920s, The New York Times' Walter Duranty performed a similar function in his coverage of the Soviet Union, minimizing the occasional liquidation of millions as understandable within the context of a vast social experiment.

Even before the shockwaves had subsided from the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we were being asked to understand what prompted these atrocities -- not because anyone approved of them, you understand, but only to broaden our education and human sympathies.

Soon enough we will be asked to understand terrorism not as pathology but philosophy. The politics of emotion must appear/To be an intellectual structure.

It is not yet clear who will take the lead in educating us in this perversion of scholarship, which begins as moral neutrality and soon enough becomes a suicidal tolerance of evil. But I'd put my money on National Public Radio, which has had plenty of experience rationalizing terrorism in the Middle East.

Once again we will be told to look for the Root Causes of the violence, and the usual suspects will be rounded up: international capitalism, the materialistic West, American foreign policy, Third World poverty, Wall Street, the Pentagon, the Israelis, or maybe the Jews in general ... .

Lest you think I'm being hasty, the proceedings of the just concluded international conference at Durban, if anybody can still remember them, provided a handy-dandy list of just such scapegoats. This supposed conference against racism featured the greatest outburst of racist sentiment since the Nuremberg Rallies. Following its kind of logical lunacy, it can be shown that everyone is responsible for terrorism in the world except the terrorists.

It is still early in this game. The bodies have yet to buried, or even all found. But after a remarkably short interval, the kind of intellectuals whose function it is to obscure the obvious will be asking us to understand the terrorists, their anguish, their sense of isolation, their pent-up frustrations, the experiences that shaped them, the historical context that produced them ... .

The one thing all these great explainers will not explain, the one thing they themselves don't seem to understand, is that the world of the terrorists needs to be destroyed before it destroys ours.

Yes, some of us are interested in studying Osama bin Laden, his extensive network of agents and all those who have ever given him aid and comfort, all right, but only to the extent it would help us eradicate him, it and them.

If you listen closely, you can hear the first still tentative, oh-so-reasonable justifications for the unjustifiable. The pleas for understanding terrorism will grow more numerous and elevated as we move past all the funerals and encounter the first frustrations of what will be a long and arduous struggle if we mean to prevail.

Every time I hear these pleas for understanding terrorism, I think of the film "M,'' the old stark black-and-white classic about a child-murderer. At the end, after all the clumsy failures of the Nice People to apprehend the menace, Peter Lorre is hounded down by a rough justice. Whereupon he, too, pleads for a broader view of his particular eccentricity. "You don't understand,'' he says, "what it's like to be me ... .''

To which the police inspector responds with the only words appropriate under such circumstances: "You're under arrest.''

Don't misunderstand me. I'm all for understanding these terrorists -- the way a learned doctor understands a patient after the autopsy.

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