The horrific attacks in Brussels, the seat of the new Europe, sent shockwaves throughout the democratic world, providing yet another tragic reminder of the savaging effects of the proliferation of unfettered political violence. Too many reactions to these devastating events — by repeating a series of inanities and misconceptions and by freely dispensing half-baked advice — have sadly sown even greater confusion. They have also glibly sidestepped the most critical and pressing question posed by these assaults: how can democracies deal with growing terrorist threats aimed at undermining their essential pluralist values without compromising these very tenets?
The common denominator of terrorism in all its varied forms is its quest to upend the existing order by sowing widespread uncertainty and thereby delegitimizing its leadership, undermining its institutions and questioning its basic precepts. Historically, this political instrument has been used in a variety of cultures and circumstances to yield political change, wreaking substantial psychological, social and structural damage in the process. The struggle against terrorism is therefore double-edged: it requires, simultaneously, vigorous action against its particular perpetrators together with the reaffirmation and entrenchment of guiding societal principles and norms. The employment of the one without the other is bound to fail.
This is why the unsolicited advice dispensed by Israeli officials to their European counterparts during the past week has so painfully missed the mark. In what has become an almost embarrassing chorus led by the prime minister, Israeli leaders have insisted that they not only have a superior grasp of the phenomenon and its roots, but also possess the answer to how it should be treated. As Benjamin Netanyahu put it, “We’re in a global war against terror. It’s a war of the civilized world versus the sons of darkness. Terrorism strikes everywhere. Terror must be condemned equally and fought equally.”
Such a sweeping analysis lacks the analytic finesse needed to distinguish between the objectives of ISIS militants in Brussels or Paris, Hamas extremists in Gaza or individual assailants in the West Bank — let alone diehards in Bangkok or anarchists in Columbia. It also adds fuel to the fires of religious animosity by conflating Islam in its entirety with the beliefs of some of its most extreme adherents. And it then proceeds to intimate that vigorous and aggressive joint action, presumably of a sophisticated military-technical sort, can magically eradicate its purveyors.
Not a word is uttered about how to safeguard the fundamental values of open societies. In the best instance, there is recognition of this normative assault, as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated: “This is a Third World War against our common values.” He then went on, however, to suggest in the vaguest possible terms that, “Terrorism must unite Western countries….against its origins, funders and operators.”
In the worst case, a repugnant admixture of arrogant gloating and patronizing ignorance highlights the void between official Israel and an increasingly concerned Europe. Israel’s Minister of Transportation and Intelligence provided the most egregious example: “If Belgians continue eating chocolate and enjoying life and looking like great democrats and liberals, and not noticing that some of the Muslims there are planning terrorism, they won’t be able to fight them.” For Israel Katz and his ilk, there is no contradiction between his perception that the purpose of the current round of attacks is “…a blind hatred to harm and destroy Western culture and replace it with extremist Islam,” and his tendentious ridiculing of exactly those values of pluralism and tolerance which now, more than ever before, require protection.
Mercifully, stunned and grieving Belgians, along with many others in Europe, grasped the importance of proudly asserting their democratic face even as their authorities came under growing criticism for their less than expert handling of the increasingly militant menace in their midst. Some of the outward manifestations were immediately apparent: laudable discipline and adherence to instructions of security personnel on the ground (thus preventing further panic and disarray); an outpouring of solidarity with the victims of the airport and underground attacks (symbolized by the candidly authentic tears of the head of external affairs of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini); and, most notably, an unwavering — if intuitive — embrace of democratic norms.
The initial evidence of this steadfastness was apparent within twenty-four hours after the attacks, when two key ministers (the Minister of Justice and the Minister of the Interior) gave renewed meaning to the notion of ministerial responsibility by tendering their resignation to the Belgian Prime Minister. Although their offer was rejected out of hand, this gesture swiftly conveyed that the rules of the democratic game were firmly in place and that the concept of accountability of elected officials to the public was unassailable.
In the few days since the events of last Tuesday, citizens of Belgium have gone on to articulate their abhorrence of efforts to undermine the principles that bind their extremely heterogeneous society together. These include, first, a belief in the importance of maintaining respect for the other (eloquently articulated by many Muslims, who constitute 6% of the population). This has been supplemented, secondly, by calls for even greater investments in programs to integrate minorities and promote social equity (a brief glance at the local press highlights the prominence of expressions of solidarity in the face of the outrage over the paucity of voices calling for separation and insularity). And finally, officials, preoccupied with running down terrorist cells, have nevertheless been scrupulous in preserving human rights and civic freedoms. The liberal-democratic chocolate-eaters are pushing back against their extremist tormentors in a humane way that, if sustained, may ultimately defy them and deny them any victory.
The same cannot be said of Israel today. In the necessary campaign against both random and organized violence, the preoccupation with security concerns has consistently overshadowed democratic considerations to the point of deeming the latter nothing short of a luxury to be deferred to better times. This mindset dominates the rhetoric in the public sphere. It has exacerbated social divisions and directly contributed to the contraction of common civic spaces. It has enabled unconscionable attacks on Israel’s Arab citizens and, increasingly, on other disempowered and marginalized groups. It has also facilitated policy and legislative initiatives aimed at subduing criticism, silencing dissenting voices and constraining protest. Succinctly put: Israel is in serious danger of sacrificing the values it is fighting to preserve on the altar of overly eager treatment of immediate terrorist acts.
Nothing exemplifies this paradox more acutely than the execution of a wounded Palestinian perpetrator in Tel Rumeida by a soldier this past Thursday under the not-so-watchful eyes of his commanders. As Israeli ministers were busy giving sermons to European leaders on how to protect “Western culture,” some of them first condoned and then went on to justify what is nothing short of murder. The ongoing debate unleashed by this act — much of it directed against the Chief of Staff’s insistence on upholding the moral probity of Israeli soldiers — only serves to underline how a skewed, short-sighted and undifferentiated approach to the terrorist scourge runs the risk of fueling its expansion, multiplying its deleterious ramifications and, ironically, facilitating its long-term success.
There are no simple solutions to the complex problems inherent in dealing with various outbursts of extremist terror aimed at quashing open societies by imposing holistic alternatives. In dealing with the dilemmas posed by these relentless efforts, the need to combat specific acts should not be allowed to overshadow the overall purpose of its initiators: the shaking of the democratic ethos which supports pluralism and a multiplicity of diverging viewpoints within a common framework. Israelis, far from contemptuously deriding the consumers of the world’s best chocolate, might learn some important lessons from their Belgian sisters and brothers. Sticking by democracy and its liberal imperatives (alongside the exercise of elementary caution) might yet prove to be the best way to defeat the purveyors of narrow-minded fanaticism.