In 2013, a few weeks after the Boston Marathon bombing, I attended an event at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University on the media’s coverage of that deadly attack. One of the speakers was Cheryl Fiandaca, at the time a spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department.
Fiandaca said that the marathon attack carried out by the Tsarnaev brothers was the biggest story for the American people since 9/11. I was struck by the comment, particularly since just a few months earlier, a gunman infiltrated Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and proceeded to murder 20 children and six adults in the deadliest mass shooting at a grade or high school in US history.
I raised my hand and asked Fiandaca if she really thought that what happened near the finish line at Copley Square was a more important story than Sandy Hook.
“Newtown was horrific on a lot of different levels,” Fiandaca said. “But this is terrorism.”
The Sandy Hook shooting, she explained, was carried out by an “emotionally disturbed” person who “had a purpose and killed himself as part of that, so there was no ongoing threat.”
On the other hand, she said, the marathon bombing was terrorism. “This is a planned event where these people made bombs and they brought them to somewhere where they planned to not only kill but also to seriously injure people in a very big way and a very public way, so I do think it’s a bigger story,” she concluded.
I thought about Fiandaca’s remarks on Monday as I watched the streaming news on the horrendous attack in Las Vegas that claimed the lives of 59 people – 59 people who thought they were attending a music festival and instead found themselves in a bloodbath.
What Fiandaca said that night stuck with me because I believe it captures the true problem facing the US when it comes to mass shootings. Her comment, repeated by many government officials in the years since and after subsequent gun attacks, demonstrates a failure to define what gun violence really is.
This distinction between gun violence and terrorism causes a distortion of reality. By dismissing an atrocious attack like what happened in Newtown, Orlando or Las Vegas as gun violence, authorities create for themselves an excuse why they don’t need to do anything.
If, for example, mass shootings were defined as terrorism - which I think they should be since they succeed in terrorizing and undermining peoples’ way of life while immobilizing them with fear - then law enforcement agencies, Congress and the White House would have to pass legislation and enact serious measures to prevent attacks.
This would include gun control, the requirement for stronger background checks, restrictions on sales and more.
The discovery of more than 20 guns in the hotel room of the Las Vegas shooter goes way beyond what the Second Amendment was meant to stand for.
But this is exactly why the change will be slow to come, if at all. Defining shooting attacks as terrorism is political dynamite for a Republican-led Congress and administration.
While Donald Trump as a candidate legitimately criticized former president Barack Obama for his refusal to publicly denounce “Islamic terror,” now he, too, is falling into the same trap. His refusal to denounce what happened in Las Vegas as “terrorism” is no different from what Obama did. Both are motivated by politics. Obama was afraid of the foreign policy ramifications, while Trump fears the backlash from the gun lobby. They are one and the same.
This is relevant because in order to be able to defeat your enemy, you first need to know who he is. As Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military theorist, said: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Knowing thine enemy became a problem this week also for Israel.
On Monday, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah took some of his ministers and traveled to Gaza City as part of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation efforts. The meeting hailed the establishment of a unity government which is supposed to lead to the PA assuming and asserting control over Gaza’s administrative affairs as well as the crossings in and out of the Strip.
Hamas is clearly still a brutal enemy of the Jewish state.
While it might appear to be reconciling with the PA, Hamas is not disarming itself, is not disbanding its 27,000 fighters, continues to reject agreements signed between the PA and Israel, and refuses to do the most basic: recognize Israel’s right to exist.
As long as this remains the case, the so-called reconciliation will prove to be no more real than previous failed agreements between the two sides or their own previous unity government, which blew up in 2007 when Hamas seized control of Gaza from the PA.
Israel is carefully watching these developments. On the one hand, from a security perspective, it is concerned that the new government will simply be used to launder and legitimize Hamas and its armed forces. This could prove complicated for Israel in the event of another conflict in Gaza. Who would its enemy be, Hamas or the PA? Politically, this is also a challenge for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet. Until now, one of Israel’s key arguments against the viability of a peace deal with the Palestinians has been that it would be agreed to with only half of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, and would not include the Gaza Strip. While doubtful that real change will come to Hamas, what happened Monday could be the beginning of a change in that assessment.
The international community is already welcoming the development. Nikolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, wrote on Twitter: “The road ahead will be long and hard, but momentum of reconciliation and peace should not be missed.”
Jason Greenblatt, US envoy to the Middle East who is spending the holiday season in Jerusalem with his family and children – three of whom are studying in yeshivot in Israel for the year – also issued a statement welcoming the Monday meeting and the creation of “conditions for the PA to fully assume its responsibilities in Gaza.”
While the US has not yet revealed its peace plan – some anticipate its unveiling in the next couple of months – the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation could be an important building block in what the US has in store for Israel. So far, Greenblatt’s focus has been on bottom-up moves such as water deals, electricity agreements and employment issues, but what happened in Gaza could open the door for the US to suddenly demand greater concessions from Israel, which in return would lead to political tension in Jerusalem.
Differences between Israel and the US are already out in the open. One recent example was when Netanyahu met Trump on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Netanyahu came to talk about Iran, Syria and ways to overturn the nuclear deal, but Trump – even before the meeting – tweeted that there was a good chance for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He repeated the message as he sat down with Netanyahu.
The next sign came this week when Ze’ev Elkin, one of the ministers closest to Netanyahu and a member of the security cabinet, openly attacked the Trump administration for continuing Obama’s anti-settlement policies. Netanyahu had asked his ministers to refrain from speaking out against the administration, but with restrictions still in place on settlement construction, it was only a matter of time before they did.
If more concessions are demanded of Israel, Elkin’s criticism will be just the beginning. Netanyahu is already in a political bind of sorts due to the ongoing police investigations against him, and he will have to maneuver carefully to avoid losing his coalition which depends on the support of the Likud’s far Right and Bayit Yehudi.
What happened between Israel and Obama throughout his time in the Oval Office should serve as a warning sign of what could happen if this situation escalates with Trump. Openly fighting with one recent US president was enough for Netanyahu.
He won’t want to turn Trump into an enemy as well.