Few would deny that September 11 unleashed a fearsome sequence of reactions, and none so far worse than the anguishing fury of this latest cycle of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Surely the United States is not primarily responsible for this horrifying spectacle of bloodshed and suffering, but there is a gathering sense here and overseas that the US government has badly mishandled its crucial role for a long, long time, and especially since the World Trade Center attack. As the situation continues to deteriorate for both peoples, there is a rising chorus of criticism that paradoxically blames the United States both for doing too much on behalf of Israel and not enough to bring about a durable peace. Both lines of criticism seem justified.
There is little doubt that part of the recent escalation can be traced back to President Bush’s overplaying of the antiterrorist card since Day One of the response to Al Qaeda. By overgeneralizing the terrorist threat posed by the September 11 attacks, Bush both greatly widened the scope of needed response and at the same time gave governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries. Several important governments were glad to merge their struggle to stem movements of self-determination with the US war on global terror, and none more than Ariel Sharon’s Israeli government. The Bush Administration has made several costly mistakes. By not limiting the response to the Al Qaeda threat, it has taken on a mission impossible that has no end in sight; even worse, the Administration embraces war in settings where it has no convincing relationship either to US or human security. Related to this broadening of the goal is the regressive narrowing of the concept of terrorism to apply only to violence by nonstate movements and organizations, thereby exempting state violence against civilians from the prohibition on terrorism. Indeed, this statist approach has been extended so far that it calls nonstate attacks on military targets such as soldiers or warships terrorism, while not regarding state violence as terrorism even when indiscriminately directed at civilian society, as seemed the case at times during the Russian response to Chechnya’s drive for independence and with respect to Israel’s approach to occupation. Such a usage is ethically unacceptable, politically manipulative and decidedly unhistorical. It is important to recall that the usage of the word “terrorism” to describe political violence derives from the government excesses that spun out of control during the French Revolution.
The issue here is not one of political semantics but of analysis and prescription. By designating only Palestinian violence as terrorism, Israel’s greater violence not only avoids stigma in the American context but has been officially validated by being treated as part of the struggle against terrorism. The point here is not in any way to excuse Palestinian suicide bombers and other violence against civilians, but to suggest that when a struggle over territory and statehood is being waged it can and should be resolved at the earliest possible point by negotiation and diplomacy, and that the violence on both sides tends toward the morally and legally impermissible. This contrasts with the challenge of Al Qaeda, a prime instance of visionary terrorism that can neither be neutralized by negotiation nor deterred, and must and can be disabled or destroyed in a manner that is respectful of moral and legal limits. To conflate these two distinct realities, as Bush has consistently done, is at the root of the US diplomatic failure to diminish to the extent possible the threats posed by the September 11 attacks and to offer the Palestinians and Israelis constructive guidance.