Zev Farber

Time to not be nice

Watching the various reactions and editorials regarding the mob murder of the American ambassador to Libya, my thoughts turn to an incident twelve years ago. In September 2000, Ariel Sharon arranged a visit for himself on the Temple Mount. Whatever the point of the visit was, a great number of Muslims were agitated. The next day, the Palestinian media goaded the Palestinian people to “defend” the Al-Aksa mosque, and the Second Intifada began. When the dust settled and the bodies were buried, recriminations abounded. Many apologists for the Palestinians blamed Sharon for inciting them with his visit. “You must have known that this would offend them,” many of his critics said.

Although I cannot honestly say that I was offended by Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, I would have been open to hearing complaints from Palestinians and their supporters (many of whom are good friends of mine) and perhaps even expressing my understanding of and support for their views. I would have been open to this if they had communicated them through peaceful demonstration or some other venue, had they not turned to violence.  But they did. And once they did, their viewpoint regarding Sharon’s actions became secondary in my mind—of academic interest, but hardly relevant to the crisis.

For some time that September, the claim that Sharon started the Intifada was ubiquitous. Yet the problems with such a claim are myriad, particularly the assumption that Muslims cannot be expected to control their tempers. This is an extremely problematic way of thinking. Muslim adults are adults, not children, and they need to be held to adult standards of behavior.

Anyone who spends time with children knows that they lack impulse control. They are prone to temper tantrums when they are frustrated, often overreacting with violence by biting or hitting. Although we as adults understand that their reactions are out of all proportion to the provocations, we also understand that they are children and have underdeveloped skills of communication and inadequate impulse control.

So we take a dual strategy. On the one hand we try to teach them other methods of communication and ways to control their violent impulses. “Use your words,” is a common refrain. On the other hand, we try not to provoke them. If they have a special seat or a special plate, we try to let them have it, even if it isn’t really theirs. “It isn’t worth fighting about,” we think to ourselves. If someone were to use their special plate just to teach them a lesson, we may lash out at such a person and say that he or she is provoking a tantrum for no reason. If the child does react with the (expected) violence, we may very well blame the provoker who was “asking for it.” The punishment of the child may be overlooked in this case, or, at least, seriously reduced. This, I believe, is a fair way to describe the attitude we take with children.

With adults, our attitude is generally different, as it should be. Adults are expected to have full control of their tempers and violent impulses, even when provoked. This is why, at the time of the Second Intifada, I lost all interest in whether what Sharon did was appropriate or not, offensive or not. The question was only of interest until the violence broke out. Even if his action was supremely offensive to Muslims (I do not think it should have been), this does not excuse violence. The Muslims who started the Second Intifada were adults, and whether Sharon’s behavior was offensive or not, they needed to find non-violent ways to express this. Having expressed themselves with violence, they needed to face the consequences.

As I said earlier, this sad piece of modern history came to mind as I contemplated the gruesome murder of the American ambassador to Libya, John Christopher Stevens and three other victims. The perpetrators claimed that they were incited to this violence by an offensive movie about Mohamed produced in the United States. Although this defense has been rejected by many, there remain a troubling number of editorials talking about the need not to offend Muslims.

British international lawyer, Andrew M. Rosemarine, tried to separate his condemnation of the violence from his condemnation of the film in his op-ed, ultimately failing and in fact sending the opposite message. “Shame on the filmmaker and shame on his assistants,” Rosemarine says. “It was bound to end in bloodshed.” Apparently, Rosemarine believes that adult Muslims, upon seeing an ad for a film insulting Mohamed, could not help themselves and had no choice but to murder the American ambassador to Libya (who had no part in the making of the film.) Now Rosemarine doesn’t actually say this. In fact, he says the opposite, calling the violence “wholly unacceptable.” And yet, his claim that the violent reaction of the Muslim community was inevitable (“bound to end in bloodshed”) implies that they had no choice.

One can speculate that Rosemarine, and others who may share his view, are pragmatists. The Muslim community should not respond with violence, but it will. Maybe. Even so, I prefer to put the matter differently. For whatever reason, in our world certain Muslims will choose not to control themselves; they can, but they won’t. Perhaps they feel they can get away with it, perhaps they feel it is justified, perhaps there is some other reason I cannot yet think of. The point is, though, from our Western perspective, it does not matter.

We believe in freedom of speech, which means that a filmmaker has every right to lampoon any religious figure, Mohamed, Jesus, Joseph Smith, the Buddha or Moses. Adherents of the religious traditions that venerate these individuals can stage non-violent protests and write angry op-eds. I will grant that the video was crass, foolish, distasteful, sacrilegious, and any other pejorative one cares to throw in. Nevertheless, it is despicable to condone any sort of violence in reaction to it, let alone the kinds of reactions we have witnessed and continue to witness throughout the Middle East.

We should tolerate no violence against our citizens. This must be enforced; these are the rules of engagement with the Western World. We protect freedom of speech (however stupid or offensive) and we protect our citizens from the adult temper-tantrums of any offended party that resorts to violence. Jews protesting Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion” did not turn to violence, and I know of no Mormon assassination attempts against the creators of “South Park”. These are the standards of behavior in the Western World, and these are the standards of behavior to which any who interact with us must be held.

In the movie “Roadhouse,” Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, a man in charge of security for a dangerous bar. As he lists for his underlings his rules for how to be a good bouncer, the third rule is “be nice.” The bouncers are surprised at this instruction. They ask about various insults that may be thrown at them, one more offensive than the other, and they ask about whether they should still be nice. “Yes,” says Dalton, “they’re just words.”

But Dalton is aware that sometimes, as nice as one is, things come to violence, and the bouncer must defend himself with force. Hence his final instruction: “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” The American ambassador to Libya was just murdered along with three other American citizens for nothing more than the equivalent of an adult temper tantrum. As an American citizen, I do not know what the proper response to this should be, but I know one thing: Mr. President, it’s time to not be nice.

Zev Farber, Atlanta

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He is also the senior editor of and a novelist (writing as Z. I. Farber).