Terrorism is terrorism

Terrorism is terrorism

Following the attacks on Paris by terrorists allied with the so-called Islamic State the week before last, many in the Jewish world have noted the contrast between the full-throated reactions of politicians and many in the media to the relative silence on the ongoing series of terrorist attacks on Israel and on Jews.  The Paris attacks engendered unbridled, vigorous decrying of evil with vows for a “pitiless” response, but when Israel and Jews are in the crosshairs, attacks are followed by soft condemnations of all violence with calls for restraint and understanding of the attackers.

Secretary of State John Kerry has become the poster boy for this double standard, with his remarks at the U.S. Embassy in Paris shortly after the attack: “There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that,” he said, referring to the attack earlier this year on the French satirical magazine. “There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of — not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” In fact, the attempt to divide terrorist attacks into the irrational and the rational, the incomprehensible and the comprehensible, the unjustified and the justified or justifiable, goes back decades, over thousands of terrorist attacks against the West, against Israel and Jews, and against targets in many other parts of the world.

All of these attempts to parse and characterize terrorist attacks are misguided. Terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to advance a political or religious cause. It is a tactic, not a cause or a group. It can be employed by individual followers of a cause, an underground organization, a quasi-governmental organization or an established state. Every terrorist attack is motivated by one cause or another. Looking across thousands of terrorist attacks across decades across the globe, there are a wide variety of causes that have motivated people. Some of these causes we may find abhorrent, some we may feel are misguided but rooted in legitimate grievances, and some we may sympathize with or even agree with.

Our view of the legitimacy of the cause motivating the terrorism ought to have no relationship with our willingness to judge the acts of terrorism themselves. All acts of terrorism should be clearly and unambiguously condemned. Otherwise, we allow that the ends justify the means, and that there is “good” terrorism when we agree with the cause and “bad” terrorism when we disagree with the cause. This is the law of the jungle, divorced from Jewish and Western values.

Empirical evidence doesn’t lie. The fact that there have been thousands of terror attacks shows that, at some level, they work. When we try to distinguish between “good” and “bad” attacks, we contribute to the effectiveness of terrorism and encourage future generations of people with grievances to reach for the gun and the bomb instead of the political process.