February 24, 2003 | National Review Online

When is Terrorism Justified?

Our message … is clear,” Attorney General Ashcroft said last Thursday. “We make no distinction between those who carry out terror attacks and those who finance and manage [them].”

Eight days earlier, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet delivered a similar message: “The days when we made distinctions between terrorist groups are over,” he said.

Based on poll results, it appears that the lessons of 9/11 are continuing to sink in also with the general public: An increasing number of Americans have come to the conclusion that terrorism — intentional acts of violence directed at non-combatants for political purposes — is wrong, always wrong, no matter the grievance, no matter the complaint.

There are, however, those who reject this principle, who are fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve the idea that murdering other people's children may be no crime, or may be at most only a misdemeanor — if it's in the name of a cause they approve, or if it's against a national or ethnic group they disfavor.

Last week, Sami Al-Arian and seven other men were arrested on charges of conspiracy, extortion, perjury, fraud, obstruction of justice, and other acts in support of terrorism carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

On his Washington radio program less than 24 hours later, commentator Bill Press defended Al-Arian — not on the basis that he has been wrongly accused, but on the basis that the murders that Al-Arian has been charged with abetting were on behalf of the Palestinian cause (which he approves) and that those murdered were Israelis (whom he generally disfavors).

Explaining his thinking, Press reverted to the old saw: “One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.” Somewhat defensively, he noted that this view is shared by such commentators as Bob Novak and Pat Buchanan, men not of the Left but rather of the Isolationist Right.

A caller with a Middle Eastern accent phoned in to voice his support of Press's position. “We shouldn't be doing Israel's dirty work,” he said. In other words, it is “dirty work” to arrest those who murder women and children — if those women and children are merely Israelis, and those who associate with Israelis, for example, American Jews, American Christians and Israeli Arabs.

Consider this: If Mr. Press is consistent in his beliefs, he also will have to say that he would endorse the same hands-off-it's-none-of-our-business position regarding, say, Corsican terrorists/freedom fighters who use the U.S. as a base only to murder French people, or Basque terrorists/freedom fighters who use the U.S. as a base only to murder Spanish people, or Pakistani terrorists/freedom fighters who use the U.S. as a base only to kill Indians.

And if France or Germany were to say: “We're not going to arrest terrorists — or freedom fighters, who are we to judge? — if they only target Americans,” Mr. Press would have to say that's fine with him, too.

I strongly doubt he would say any of that.

So the question arises: Why the exception when the target is Israelis — or, let's not euphemize, when the victims are mainly Jews? I know Bill Press, not well but well enough to say that I don't think the answer is that he harbors any ethnic-specific hatred or phobia.

The late Balint Vazsonyi, a Hungarian immigrant who established himself as a great champion of America's founding principles (and a long-time friend and mentor to me) might have suggested this answer: Somewhere along the line, people like Mr. Press — and Messrs Buchanan and Novak, as well — discarded the Anglo-American principle of the rule of law in favor of the Franco-German concept of “social justice.”

That is to say, Press & Co. believe there should be no hard-and-fast rules — rather it should be left to intellectual elites to decide which causes justify which actions against which groups.

Michael Kinsley, one of the leading lights of the Left intellectual elite, has stated this principle fairly explicitly: “An illegitimate tactic used in a legitimate cause, as part of a conflict with legitimate and illegitimate tactics and aspirations on both sides, is different from an illegitimate tactic used for purposes that are utterly crazed and malevolent.”

As noted, Left intellectuals like Mr. Kinsley believe they should be entrusted to instruct us — the benighted masses — regarding which purposes are “legitimate” and which are “utterly crazed and malevolent.”

For various reasons, both the Left and the Isolationist Right view “the Palestinian cause” as legitimate, more legitimate than the “Kashmiri cause,” or the “Corsican cause,” or the “Basque cause” — or the “Kurdish cause” for that matter.

So murdering men, women and children on behalf of the “Palestinian cause” (though a breach of the rule of law) does not offend their sense of justice. It is on that basis, I believe, that they arrive at the troubling conclusion that Jew-killers should not be too harshly judged, that they should perhaps be left alone when they fund and manage Jew-killing from their offices on American campuses.

(The fact that some non-Jewish Americans and Israeli Arabs are also killed in these terrorists incidents, they view as regrettable but unavoidable. The fact that PLO leader Yasser Arafat turned down the Israeli offer of statehood at Camp David, they ignore. The fact that groups like the ones Mr. Al-Arian supports seek the extermination of Israel, they dismiss as merely a negotiating posture.)

By contrast, the Left/Right Isolationist coalition would decree that it is “utterly crazed and malevolent” to murder American civilians in reprisal for U.S. sanctions on Iraq — sanctions which, Osama bin Laden charges, have resulted in the deaths of Iraqi children. (Never mind that Press, Buchanan et al. agree with bin Laden about the lethal impact of U.S. sanctions.)

If I'm misrepresenting Mr. Press's views, if Mr. Press actually does subscribe to the principle of the rule of law, he could prove that by publishing a list of the grievances that, in his view, do justify the intentional slaughter of civilians. For example, like many on the Left, he might want to say that people who believe their land is “occupied” have a right to murder those they view as “occupiers.”

Of course, that view might be of interest to American Indians, some of whom may harbor “legitimate grievances” over what they regard as “occupation” of their lands by European Americans — Mr. Press among them.

— Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign and Washington correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank on terrorism created just after Sept. 11, 2001.


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