Just as most older Americans can recall what they were doing when they heard about the assassination of US president John Kennedy on November 22, 1963 – the same month and day on which American journalist James Foley was abducted in north-western Syria 49 years later – so can I remember quite vividly what I was doing when planes flown by Islamic terrorists struck the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 2001.
Together with a friend, I had been taking Russian lessons from a lovely lady named Victoria at the Diplomat Hotel/hostel for new immigrants in Jerusalem. That afternoon, we showed up at her apartment as usual to find the television on and our teacher staring at what was happening on the screen.
The lesson forgotten, we watched transfixed as that episode of pure evil in action unfolded.
It’s clear to me that the words we choose to describe things are not merely random pickings from our mental stash of accumulated vocabulary. Our brains select them via a process of association – which is why the word “episode” surfaced as I was writing these words.
For what we were observing with horrified fascination – passenger aircraft turned into guided missiles – was like nothing so much as a scene from a TV action series, an imaginative work of fiction devised as entertainment, defying us to believe it was real even as we watched it occurring in real time.
Yet terrifyingly real it was; and I thought it would change the world. When we left the Diplomat some time later, I automatically headed to the supermarket to stock up on food and essential items, so sure was I that nothing after this stupefying event would or could ever be the same again.
FOR THOSE directly involved, of course, it never would be; but the rest of the Western world chugged on largely as before. Security measures were increased at airports and intelligence agencies upped their terrorism information gathering mechanisms. But 9/11 – perhaps precisely because it was so unacceptably shocking – was viewed as an aberration, an event out of the familiar and inevitable pattern of life.
So were the Madrid bombings in 2004, the London Transport suicide bombings a year later, the 2007 car-bomb attempt at Glasgow airport, and the foiled August 2006 conspiracy to blow up 10 British airliners en route to the US.
Jolting at the time of discovery, these “episodes” were soon assimilated and erased from public consciousness by a complacent West which showed reluctance to join the dots. For most Westerners, there were no dots.
Evil, as I wrote in a 2009 column called “When life declines to imitate art,” was – where its existence was acknowledged at all – a concept confined to the realm of fantasy and entertainment: fairy tales, horror movies, science fiction and, of course, the Bible, lightly regarded by a post-religious West. Still, acted out in a TV drama or portrayed in the darkness of a movie theater, evil’s existence was readily acknowledged and its perpetrators’ elimination applauded. Think of James Bond defeating his various nemeses.
But outside in the light of day, in the real world, acknowledging evil proved far more elusive. The reality that evil moved in and among the democratic societies of the enlightened world as an independent and potent force present in individuals and groups, motivating them to inflict murder and mayhem on others, was too much to bear for those liberal denizens of the West, worshiping at the altar of multiculturalism.
Evil’s western apologists cited poverty and justified anger at the West as the cause of attacks on it, proclaiming themselves guilty of causing that anger.
Any attempts to define evil and name its perpetrators were suffocated by political correctness and by notions such as the obligation to understand grievances, engage in dialogue and reach out to “the other” regardless, even if it involved self-abasement.
TIME HAS moved on, and the perpetrators of evil in our region are making their apologists’ lives difficult, if not impossible, proudly parading their cruelty and stark inhumanity for all to see in what one commentator called “a festival of barbarism.”
Courtesy of the media, we are witnessing acts of evil on a mass and individual scale that cannot be explained away by “grievances” and clearly have far less to do with the West – or, indeed, Israel – and far more with a primitive hatred of all modern civilization, a drive for power and a dream of world domination fueled by a perversion of religion that mandates the murder of all dissenters, including Muslim ones, as explicitly commanded by Allah.
If we chose to depict today’s dots as drops of blood, we might easily join them in one lurid, continuous smear: al-Qaida, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a multiplicity of murderous offshoots driven by the same pseudo-pious lust for conquest and evil exploitation of the weak.
Then we could join another line of dots – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan; leading back to Europe, to which continent jihadis born or raised there will likely return to wreak havoc after honing their murderous skills abroad. Already the Islamic State’s flag has been seen on the streets of London and recruiting leaflets handed out on Oxford Street in the capital’s West End shopping mecca.
The threats uttered by the black-clad, knife-wielding thug who stood behind bound journalist James Foley in Syria last week and most likely beheaded him may not have been very eloquent, but his London accent spoke volumes.
WILL THE West at last understand the extent of the danger it is facing from this Islamist onslaught and do its best to defend against it? One veteran political scientist interviewed here in Israel felt that Westerners are still a long way from internalizing the nature and gravity of the threat.
While that may be partly understandable since it requires some shift in perspective to acknowledge that an ideology straight out of the medieval period could emerge to imperil 21st-century civilization, a former senior Israeli defense official told political analyst Ben Caspit: “It is possible that one day the Europeans will understand what the real situation is and try to fix it, [but] there’s a pretty good chance that this will happen too late. By then, the situation will be beyond repair.”
I WOULD give a lot to know how those outside our conflict received Khaled Mashaal’s declaration that, unlike Islamic State, Hamas does not target civilians.
Apart from the repugnant reality of Hamas setting its own civilians up as targets, this statement constituted “base subterfuge,” as a Jerusalem Post editorial pointed out this week, coming from the leader of a movement that “sent 147 Hamas suicide bombers to blow themselves up on public buses, at discotheques, at wedding halls, at hotels, in markets, at restaurants and in shopping malls between 2000 and 2010, purposely targeting civilians.”
But Mashaal’s “clarification” of the killing of fouryear- old Daniel Tragerman from Kibbutz Nahal Oz by a Hamas-fired mortar shell last week was even more disturbing, showing evil’s chameleon-like ability to change color and parade itself as good, or at least as having laudable intent.
The only reason Hamas rockets and mortar shells hit civilian centers, Mashaal declared – presumably with a straight face – is because Hamas lacks “sophisticated weapons.” The Hamas leader went on to “promise that if we get more precise weapons, we will only target military targets.”
Only in a nightmare, surely, might one envisage some “evenhanded” European leader in search of “proportionality” in this war granting Mashaal’s evil wish.
I ENDED my 2009 column with this observation about liberal European opinion awash in moral relativism, confused about right and wrong, justice and injustice, good and evil: “Heartily, and with righteous vehemence, they cheer the bad and condemn the good, congratulating themselves all the while on their impeccable judgment. In liberal Europe today, it’s standing room only on the moral high ground.”