Jewish terrorists frighten me.
I’ve taught about terrorism and insurgency for years, and I’ve practised counterterrorism. One of the difficulties I’ve encountered in understanding the phenomenon is that there are so many different ideas about what terrorism actually is. At one point the Jane’s Terrorism Information Centre attempted to cover itself by advertising that it ‘used the United Nations definition of terrorism’. At the time the UN had 13 different definitions.
I find the most useful definition was one proposed by a bright young think tanker called Binyamin Netanyahu many years ago: ‘Terrorism is the systematic and deliberate murder, maiming and menacing of the innocent in order to inspire terror and thus achieve a political aim’.
Netanyahu’s definition is very useful because it is in almost all respects very precise. ‘Systematic and deliberate’ means you have to get up in the morning and plan to murder, maim and menace. People who accidentally or recklessly murder, maim and menace are not included.
‘In order to inspire terror’ and ‘achieve a political aim’ push narcoterrorists and most other organised criminals to the margins of this definition. The end is a political effect, not an economic one.
If I were so important that people called upon me to condemn things, I would condemn Mohamed’s and every other terrorist murder, maiming or menacing.
The only difficult component of that definition is ‘innocent’. There are easy cases of innocence, but as some terrorist groups have pointed out killing children before they are old enough to become soldiers is an efficient pre-emption.
So when I say I am afraid of Jewish terrorists, I am writing precisely. I mean that I am frightened by Jews who systematically and deliberately murder, maim or menace the innocent in order to inspire terror and thereby achieve a political aim.
Today I am afraid of the terrorists who systematically and deliberately abducted 17-year-old Mohamed abu Khdeir, apparently burned him alive; in order to inspire terror and thereby avenge the killings of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach.
it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that respect for noncombatant status — for innocence — gets in the way of ruthless ambition.
Today’s arrests make it clear that Israel’s formidable security apparatus is convinced that the murderers of Mohamed abu Khdeir were Israeli Jews. The brisk move from crime to arrest, and the brisk focus on three of the arrested, demonstrates that the Israeli security services have impressively penetrated at least some extreme nationalist groups. It also demonstrates that there are some bloody-handed bloody-minded Jewish extreme nationalists operating again.
Why does this frighten me? I do not, after all, expect that I am high on the target list of even the most murderous Jewish terrorist.
It frightens me because I am afraid that Jews of extreme nationalist views who despair at Israel’s relentless democracy and pluralism will increasingly turn to terrorism. I do not fear they will do this because Jews are more or less inclined toward terrorism than Arabs or Irish people or Belgians. I fear that they will do this because terrorism is so effective.
The tactic which we call terrorism has had the power to bring the Palestinians to the world’s notice and also the power to deprive them of good government. Terrorism emptied Baghdad of its Sunni Arabs just as Terrorism had emptied Baghdad of its Jews half a century earlier. Terrorism has imposed pantomime security theatre on American air travellers.
So much for its effectiveness, but what about the downside risk? The risks of becoming a terrorist aren’t especially frightening. Insurgents, especially those who oppose harsh dictatorships, don’t seem to get any credit when they keep their hands clean of innocent blood. When Assad drops a barrel bomb, the terror-free insurgent is just as dead as the terrorist insurgent.
The bizarre call by Rabbi Eliakim Levanon to hang the terrorists who committed this particular murder seeks to redress this: to impose a special penalty for those murderers whose homicidal tendencies are gilded with political intent. He’s wrong to suggest it, and it won’t happen. It won’t happen because only a very few democracies still employ executioners and Israel is not one of them. It also won’t happen because special punishments for political criminals dignify their causes. Part of succeeding against terrorism is fighting the temptation to single out terrorists and their causes for special treatment.
With that unholy effectiveness as an example, terrorism looks a good bet. If a young insurgent came to me for advice and asked how best to overthrow The Power, I might very well start her on the classic literature of terrorism: reading Bakunin and Emma Goldman on the Propaganda of the Deed.
I don’t especially approve of terrorism, and the world hardly needs more terrorists. If I were so important that people called upon me to condemn things, and I know that I am not; I would condemn Mohamed’s murder and every other terrorist murder, maiming or menacing. Yet it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that respect for noncombatant status — for innocence — gets in the way of ruthless ambition.
So, as I look at this particular murder, even alongside the terrorist murders that precipitated it, I wonder whether it will be the first of more to come. I do hope it won’t.
Jewish terrorists frighten me.