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Tolerating Terrorism

In response to:

In Cold Blood from the March 8, 1979 issue

To the Editors:

I agree with Bernard Avishai’s condemnation of terrorism and would only add that all non-defensive organized violence is morally indefensible in today’s world, since the majority of victims are inevitably civilians. But Avishai was guilty of a serious inconsistency in his discussion of the PLO. Early in his essay he wrote: “It is when underground groups take the offensive against civilians in a society that would otherwise suppress neither their ideas nor their nonviolent political organizing that we need an unequivocal epithet like “terrorism.”’ He ends his essay with a ringing attack on “PLO terror.” But according to Avishai’s own definition, do PLO attacks deserve the “unequivocal epithet?” Palestinian Arabs live in a society that permits neither the free expression of ideas nor nonviolent political organizing. In the Israeli-occupied territories attendance at “political gatherings” is specifically banned, books and magazines are censored and prevented from circulating, membership in organizations is restricted, and even singing certain songs is a punishable offense. At least 2,000 Arabs are in Israeli prisons charged with what Amnesty International considers to be political crimes.

All this does not even take into account the fact that free society or not, thousands of Palestinians are barred even from entering an area they consider their home because they were expelled by Israeli authorities after the 1967 war.

Avishai is right that terrorism is unproductive and wrong, but in putting the full burden of guilt on the PLO for the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians he is seriously distorting reality.

Rachelle Marshall

Stanford, California

Bernard Avishai replies:

Mr. Schreiber has not grasped my claims against his book. I did not contend that it fails to state a preference for this or that value but that it fails to base such preferences on moral arguments. That is, he never puts forward views of human rationality and human nature from which he could derive an analysis of good and bad political standards. Schreiber’s “absolute” commitment to what he calls pacifism will not help him argue with those who hold an equally “absolute” commitment to, say, the virtues of “struggle.” It would be of still less use against terrorists who consider means irrelevant to “absolute” ends.

Insofar as Schreiber has a coherent moral and epistemological theory, he reproduces—unintentionally, it would appear—Hobbes’s mechanical materialism. Like Hobbes, Schreiber ends up arguing that the fact of scarcity unleashes frustrated appetites, expressed in “moral” claims that are self-serving and equally valid. And like Hobbes, Schreiber finds the state can offer its citizens little more than the tentative security imposed by a necessarily intimidating sovereign. Moral relativism in such states is for Schreiber not a matter of subjective sentiment but of principle. This is why he is so eager to “accommodate” the “political points of view” of terrorists, as if these views can be as good as any others and irrelevant to terrorists’ methods.

Hobbes was more consistent. He argued that the fear of violent death is so great among men that it overrides all their other self-serving claims. Therefore his sovereign is urged to make war particularly against those men whose rebellious actions bring on the wild state of nature. Schreiber also insists that we rely on sovereigns, but he wants at the same time to espouse “pacifism” and the virtues of “open societies” as against sovereign power. For the “heads of duly constituted governments” may well be incipient terrorists, asking us to die for nothing; “abstract laws” imposing “safety” seem to him violations of some more perfect freedom.

I do not doubt Schreiber’s devotion to such freedom, nor would I insist he be so consistent as to bury this devotion further under Hobbes’s approach to politics. But Schreiber’s curious blend of moral and methodological views obscures what should be obvious: namely, that any thoughtful commitment to pacifism or individual freedom would entail the defense of democratic institutions. The “deplorable” actions of terrorists betray their totalitarian ideas, which can and do undermine peaceful and creative political discourse.

Leaders could not expect police or hostages to risk their lives for the kind of moralism Schreiber advocates. But the more urgent question, which he begs, is whether the need to protect the democratic rule of law is always merely an “ostensible” motive of leaders—or whether it can be a valid motive. If it is the latter, how are non-violent and “open” ways of life to be preserved? How could Schreiber assess the dangers to Italian democracy that would have been posed by an exchange of Aldo Moro for Renato Curcio? How could he explain why Einstein, a vigorous pacifist during World War I, could endorse the fight against the Nazis and revert back to pacifism when the fight was won? These are not the kinds of questions that would engage Schreiber. He would rather cultivate his own “image” as one who finds “all sorts of killing repugnant” and insinuate that those who would fight totalitarian politics do not.

A final point. Schreiber wants negotiations with terrorists to be “artful,” a preference, no doubt, of the “pacifist as poet.” But he has characteristically not told us whether to carry on such negotiations in earnest or as a disingenuous instrument of manipulation. Would he, that is, have us promise terrorists a plane to Libya or have us fuel it? If the latter, I believe he is wrong.

In reply to Rachelle Marshall, I should make it clear—as I often have in the NYR and elsewhere—that I oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This occupation is repressive, at times brutal, and self-defeating not only in fueling Palestinian hatred but also in undermining Israeli democracy. But Ms. Marshall’s slippery allusions to “organizations” and “political crimes” implies that the occupation is also more gratuitously brutal than it is and that, in fact, violent resistance is correspondingly warranted.

These outlawed “organizations” are ones which employ and endorse terrorism—i.e., random killing—and the “political crimes” are, for the most part, terrorists attacks. The restriction of other freedoms is indefensible but some freedoms remain. The two dailies on the West Bank, Al-Fagr and Al-Quds are censored but their respective pro-PLO and pro-Jordanian views are still made clear. The Israeli military governor was cashiered by the Minister of Defense for covering up a violent attack by soldiers on a school at Beit Jalla. The mayors of almost every town in the West Bank were elected on openly pro-PLO platforms; and, after Camp David, political meetings were specifically allowed, though they were foolishly banned again after a mass rally in Nablus at which some speakers spoke stridently about carrying the “armed struggle to victory.”

These West Bank Palestinians obviously understand something Ms. Marshall does not: that Jews and Arabs (in various nationalist incarnations) have been fighting each other in this land since about 1920. Some Israelis are misguided enough to claim the occupied territory by some “historic right.” Most are simply afraid to let go of the tiger’s tail. They are afraid of terrorism.

If the leaders of the PLO, who have made their organization the voice of Palestinian nationalism, are interested in ending the occupation and laying the groundwork for a Palestinian Arab state in the West Bank and Gaza they would have much to gain by foreswearing terrorism and, what amounts to the same thing, recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Their violence is morally wrong because it is indiscriminate; but also because the Camp David agreements provide the Palestinians with an unprecedented opportunity to achieve a state through “non-violent political organizing.” Any autonomous Palestinian administration promises to become a fact more decisive than any combination of Israeli settlements.

As long as Palestinians resort to terror they reveal attitudes and designs which Israelis are, understandably, not eager to have realized; and they make it all the more difficult to achieve a political climate in which peace could be negotiated. When the political goal is coexistence political power does not speak from the barrels of guns.

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