A lesson from Billy Joel

On a July evening in 1989, Billy Joel recorded perhaps the most depressingly timeless lyrics of his long career:

“We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning since the world’s been turning.”

In recent weeks, that fire seems to have grown stronger and more violent — fed by devastating terror attacks in Beirut, Paris, and Bamako (Mali), a monumental refugee crisis in the Middle East, and daily violence in Israel that has taken the lives of dozens of innocent civilians. Governments are threatening war, radical agents are running rampant, and innocent people the planet over are struggling to make sense of just what the heck is going on.

That struggle is hard — it is complex, infuriating, seemingly endless — and has driven people, otherwise intelligent or not, to say some pretty unintelligent things. Chief among the strains of ignorant statements has been a gross oversimplification of reality and misuse of terms. Radicals from ISIS and among the Palestinians are “crazy,” refugees fleeing violence in their home countries are “terrorists,” and politicians like U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry are “idiots.” These terms are not only wrong and misapplied; they are dangerous and can have real-world consequences. The issue here arises not from the trite concern over political correctness that drives our current “safe-space” culture, but rather from a practical consideration of how to best diagnose and combat the various political and social maladies that plague society.

Take, for example, the recent uptick in Islamic terrorism around the globe. In response to ISIS’s ongoing reign of terror in the Middle East and high-profile attacks on the West, everyone from foreign monarchs to American bloggers has branded such terrorists “crazy” or “mindless.” ISIS, however, is neither of those things — nor are the fighters who comprise it. Terrorists, be they from ISIS or any other group, may commit acts that we in the West see as insane or illogical, but they themselves are not crazy. Their actions are driven by specific circumstances, geopolitical realities, and twisted ideology. When we classify terrorists as crazy or insane, we obscure this set of drivers and misconstrue the true nature of radical Islamic terror. Once we muddy the causes of such terrorism, we make it that much harder for ourselves to find suitable responses: after all, how can a doctor prescribe the correct treatment if he/she makes an incorrect diagnosis?

If ISIS — just to focus on one group — were crazy, then there would be a simple panacea: bomb them back to the Stone Age. If individuals were the problem, then getting rid of those individuals would be the obvious solution. Only when we realize that individual madness is not the issue and recognize the litany of underlying factors that are to blame for Islamic terrorism, can we begin to see the complexity and nuance of both the problem and the necessary solution. Only when we understand the facets of Islamic theology that inspire jihad, the clan-oriented nature of Arab society, the disastrous effect that Western intervention has had on the Middle East, and the myriad other factors that drive individuals to terror, can we hope to vanquish this radical specter that haunts the globe.

Perhaps we play the insanity card as a cop out — we subconsciously simplify the phenomenon in hopes that its resolution will be equally simple — or perhaps we are just naïve. Regardless of the reasoning behind our hesitance to recognize the true causes of Islamic terrorism, we must cast off our aversion to complexity and begin the hard work of implementing effective, multi-tiered, and multi-faceted approaches to the problems at hand.

Those problems include the historic refugee crisis created in part by Islamic terror and the multitude of economic, security, and social problems it has spawned. Due to its scale and severity, the wave of refugees that has washed over Europe and other parts of the globe — now numbered at around 750,000 — necessitates immediate action on behalf of states and individuals. Many people, however, have let fear dominate their approach to the matter, and shied away from truly delving into the issue. A good number of those individuals, such as Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, have taken to calling refugees “terrorists” — despite overwhelming evidence that an absurdly small number of Middle-Eastern immigrants have actually been involved in any terrorist activity.

To be sure, a reasonable amount of caution is necessary and healthy when confronting a situation as imposing as the current refugee crisis, but labeling a nearly million-strong group as “terrorists” only exacerbates the situation and obfuscates appropriate responses to it. How can we implement the most effective and efficient measures required to deal with the multitude of refugees if we treat them as something they are not? For those who cling to American values such as “Innocent until proven guilty,” not to mention the Jewish prohibition against lashon hara (gossip and slander) — baselessly labeling refugees “terrorists” would directly counter their ideals. Additionally, shunning such a large and desperate group of people and incorrectly associating them with the most universally despised force in the world today (radical Islamic terror) could understandably foment a feeling of alienation and hatred amongst individuals in that group. One would think that those national-security fetishists who fear Islamic terror above all else would want to avoid creating a large group of young Middle-Easterners who harbor negative feelings towards the United States — we seem to have plenty of those already.

The same problem of faulty labeling we level at ISIS applies equally to Palestinian terrorism, a brand of radicalism that presumably strikes much closer to home for most people reading this article. Our discourse about Palestinian terrorism usually revolves around accepted befuddlement; the words “I just don’t get it” hang heavy in the air after news of a Palestinian terror attack — in which more often than not, the assailant winds up dead. The suicidal nature of the attacks, along with their insidious intent and apparent ineffectiveness at bringing about any positive gains for the Palestinians, leads us to view the stabbings, shootings, and car rammings as mindless and senseless — and their perpetrators equally so.

Like ISIS, however, Palestinians terrorists are not crazy, and like with ISIS, our labeling of them as such obscures possible resolutions to the conflict. We fail to understand the multitude of factors that lie behind the current wave of Palestinian violence — be they incitement from Palestinian leaders and radical clerics, a sense of desperation brought on by Israeli actions, or deliberate political decisions — and yet we must. We must understand what drives Palestinian discontent and terror, not to excuse it or dampen its malignancy, but to discern the best courses of action to combat the violence and achieve at least a semblance of peace.

Now, to determine said course of action is no easy task — just ask John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State who has spent the last 5 years attempting, and failing, to do so. Kerry’s methods and comments have earned him heaps of scorn and criticism from the American right and pro-Israel community. Critics have often taken to calling Kerry an “idiot” or “stupid” — a horrid misuse of terms and butchering of reality. Despite what many on the right would want you to believe, John Kerry is not stupid.

You may not like Kerry, you may disagree with his tactics and think he is naïve — and you may be right — but his achievements exclude any possibility of stupidity. You cannot excel at the top boarding schools in the United States and be stupid; you cannot attend Yale and become the head of the political union, and be stupid; you cannot command a swift-boat in the Vietnam War and receive multiple war medals in the process, and be stupid; you cannot become a lieutenant governor, five-term senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State, and be stupid.

Those who label Kerry “stupid” fail to recognize his actions as part of a deliberate, thought-out foreign policy platform set in place by the current administration and revert back to a quintessentially child-like behavior in which everybody who does not agree with them is dumb and wrong. Consequently, they do not approach foreign policy with the level-headedness required to cultivate well-informed opinions and levy legitimate criticism. They squash the possibility of healthy debate with those who support Kerry — as well as any concrete changes that could come about from such debate — and only succeed in polarizing the two sides to the point of immobility.

Even for those whose sole raison d’etre is to criticize Kerry, insulting his intelligence only harms their own cause. To classify an intelligent person as naïve, perhaps even willingly so, bites much harder than classifying an un-intelligent person as someone who performs up to his or her natural capabilities. Claims of stupidity also negate any possibility of malevolence on Kerry’s behalf, which would appear much more damning than simple stupidity. All in all, to call John Kerry stupid is, well, stupid.

So while we may not have started the fire, our words and attitudes towards others certainly haven’t helped to put it out — and unless we make a conscious decision to refrain from incorrect classifications and actually analyze global issues before commenting, the fire will continue burning for a long, long time.

About the Author
Jonah Kasdan is currently a gap-year student at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem. He is a graduate of Los Angeles's YULA Boys High School, where he helped lead the nationally-recognized Israel Advocacy Club. Jonah will be attending Johns Hopkins University next fall.