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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Understanding terrorists, understanding victims

'Israel is to allow a key Palestinian leader to travel to the West Bank, in a measure seen as another attempt to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas.


'Mr Hawatmeh is the head of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.


'The DFLP was held to blame for an attack on a school in the northern Israeli town of Maalot in 1974 that left 24 Israelis, mostly children, dead.'

(from this BBC report; the emphasis is mine)

I'll leave others to debate the wisdom of Israel's initiative. I hope good will indeed come of it. Here I want to look at a different issue which this raises: the question of understanding.

There are those who think it's very important to understand the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. Not to excuse, they say with earnest emphasis, but simply to try to understand.

It's an admirable attitude - provided that it's held sincerely. And the litmus test of sincerity is...? Simply that the principle is applied with no exceptions. For if we say (or if the selectivity of our understanding implies) that we see some people as so evil that the attempt to understand should not be made, we are admitting that our 'understanding' does indeed, relatively speaking, excuse.

And there is no doubt that terrorism consistently seems to be a special case in terms of its alleged claims on our 'understanding'. Specifically, those combatting terrorism are not seen as being entitled to an equivalent measure of understanding. People who say they understand terrorists tend not to say, for example, that they understood the warders at Abu Ghraib, that they understand George Bush, that they understand why the inmates of Guantanamo are incarcerated without trial, or even that they understand why a London policeman shot dead an innocent man whom he believed to be a suicide bomber.

Least of all do they understand anything Israel does to counter terrorism. It is inconceivable that, for instance, the security barrier should have been constructed out of any but the worst possible motives. I was told the other day that it is totally irrelevant to the prevention of terrorism and that the reduction in attacks on Israel has been entirely due to Hamas's restraint - not, as I've recently noted, the view that Hamas themselves take.

But if those are hard cases, the one I started with ought to be very easy indeed. Can the understanders of terrorists understand how Israelis felt about that attack back in 1974? Can they understand how they must feel now about having to treat this man not as a cold-blooded child-killer but as a moderate whom they need to enlist in the fight against the really bad guys? Is it too much to hope that they can begin to understand, just a little, that the reasons why there is no peace do not add up to a simple morality tale?

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