Last Tuesday, on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), I debated an American supporter of Likud in front of 200 students at the Kushner Academy yeshiva high school in Livingston, New Jersey. Everyone — including my opponent — was polite and friendly, and the teachers repeatedly exhorted the students to be civil and open to hearing a view they may disagree with. Three boys came up to me after to shake my hand and tell me that they were perhaps the only “liberals” in the school.

Although personable, my opponent was loose in his interpretations and misinformed on relevant events in Palestinian-Israeli relations. He even referred to the Boston Marathon bombing of the previous day, before we knew anything about the perpetrators, as if this were relevant to our debate. I don’t recall his exact words, but he insinuated that it proved how violent and undependable “they” are — by which he must have meant Muslims, Arabs and/or Palestinians.

Such generalizations are wrong, of course, but the extremist Jihadi script is out there; sadly, this constitutes a distinct behavioral model for disaffected and maladjusted individuals to embrace for meaning in their lives. From what we know of the Tsarnaev brothers, this seems to be true of the older brother, with the younger pushed along by the overpowering force of the older’s personality. I’m impressed with J. J. Goldberg’s thoughtful piece on this in The Forward, “The Deadly Identity Crisis Along Islam’s Borders.”

And before the story of the Tsarnaev brothers broke, Goldberg noted the bitter ideological division in how Americans look at the issue of terrorism (“Seeing Our Own Bitter Division Through the Prism of Boston Marathon Bombings“). He statistically compared Islamist/Jihadist versus “white” Christian terrorist incidents in recent years:

. . . Available statistics are wildly conflicting, depending on who’s counting and what’s included, but it appears that since 2001, jihadist-inspired American Muslim terrorists have carried out between five and 10 attacks, killing either 17 or 33 people. (The higher numbers include killers who spouted vague Islamist ideology, notably the so-called Beltway Sniper who killed 11 people in 2002.)
In all, between 150 and 172 jihadist terror suspects have been arrested. Significantly, about 45 other attacks were foiled in that period. Some interdictions resulted from intelligence work, others from Muslim community cooperation. That spotlights a dilemma in domestic espionage: It saves some lives, but threatens others by undermining community trust.
In the same period, right-wing domestic terrorists were responsible for at least 16 lethal attacks resulting in 40 deaths. They include white supremacist, anti-government and anti-abortion extremists. Non-lethal incidents include at least nine bomb and arson attacks on abortion clinics.
A dozen others, all domestic right-wingers, were arrested for collecting chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry. In all some 300 far-right terrorists and plotters were arrested. Only a handful of left-wing terror acts occurred, mainly environmental or animal-rights, none lethal.

Goldberg sagely concluded as follows:

America has two distinct terrorism problems. Both are serious, but neither poses a strategic, existential threat. Our greatest danger is within ourselves: our inability to listen to each other.

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