Friday, September 14, 2001

A Painful Reality

As in so much else in this period of devastation and trauma, Mayor Guiliani touched the right note when he cautioned against the terrible events resulting in hatred toward other people. He was thinking, of course, about Arab-Americans and his theme has been echoed, perhaps tiresomely, by Washington officials. Group hatred is not welcome in the United States, even – and maybe especially – when we are engulfed by grief and anger, by emotions that naturally trigger expressions of hate. Because our country’s enemies appear to be distant, it is in a perverse way satisfying to find proximate targets for our rage.

But it is one thing to yield to a base instinct and something quite different to be realistic and truthful about what has occurred. The terror that we have experienced was not the random acts of several dozen or even hundreds of fanatical Arabs. The terror was planned and systematic and whatever the number of conspirators, it required the complicity of governments and the availability of nesting places throughout Arab and Islamic life. The terrorists were nurtured and sustained by a malevolent mood that is far too reflective of Arab and Islamic thought.

To deny this reality is to secure points with the political correctness crowd, to appear to be humane and liberal. It is also to deny a truth that we must acknowledge if we are to do more than attempt to eliminate some terrorist cells. The terrorists are not loners or outsiders or peripheral to Arab and Islamic life. They are members of terror cells and networks, some that are located in mosques, including on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorists succeeded in large measure because of outside help from around the world and, of course, because of the incredible incompetence of the FBI and CIA, two over-funded and overrated agencies that put a new spin on the meaning of the word “intelligence.” Can we think the unthinkable of what Israel’s fate would be if, surrounded as it is by millions of enemies and an army of murderers no less fanatical than last week’s terrorists, the quality of its intelligence were at the level exhibited by American agencies?

Instead of searching questions being asked about Arab life, truth is being obscured in a pile of feelgood statements. As an aside, albeit one that has important implications for Jews and Israel, politicians go by the numbers and they are not about to say harsh things about Arabs or any other group that can supply votes. This explains a key statement made by Mr. Bush during one of the campaign debates and some interesting maneuverings in the current New Jersey governor’s race and the city’s mayoral campaign. The Arab population is growing rapidly and the Jewish is declining. We are just beginning to feel the political after effects of these demographic developments.

While it is easy to understand the attitude of Arab governments that provide cover for terrorists as Yemen has done in the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and Saudi Arabia previously, it is puzzling why this country has not taken a tougher approach, why we have not directly acknowledged the reality that key segments of the Arab world are implicated in contemporary barbarism.

Part of the answer is that the question misses much of recent diplomacy. The pre-Intifada efforts to reach new agreements between Israel and the PLO were predicated largely on the near desperate feeling that it was necessary to forestall the further spread of Islamic fanaticism.

But the Arab states, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been duplicitous. They want to have good relations with the U.S. and they also want to be in bed with the extremists when it suits their purposes. Similar realpolitik considerations explain why one U.S. administration after another has turned a blind eye to harsh truths about the Arab world. We want or need their oil, their investments, their political support and whatever we give in exchange, it includes a begrudging acceptance that they can provide a safe haven to terrorism.

When terrorists have been caught, law enforcement agencies have engorged themselves on self-congratulation. They have little interest in probing beyond who planted the bomb, pulled the trigger or committed whatever other terrorist acts. They tend to look at terrorist acts committed on U.S. soil as criminal justice matters and not as events that affect the security of Americans. Prosecutors are too often lazy and smug and when they think that they have gotten their man, they call a press conference and bask in all the publicity. They do not extend themselves to learn who paid the triggermen, who planned the mission, who were the accomplices. This tendency was abundantly on display in both the Meir Kahane and Ari Halberstam murders, as well as in more high profile cases. The fact is that our government has learned very little about the right-wing terror network that was involved, in one way or another, in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Unless there is the resolve to confront the culture of fanaticism and violence now embedded in Arab and Islamic life, there is scant prospect that we can successfully deal with the enemy that has caused so much devastation. We can launch military attacks on Afghanistan or Libya or any other country that harbors and nurtures terrorists, but even if all of these efforts succeed we will continue to be faced with networks of murderers who plan to do evil deeds.

And as we continue to rightfully preach against group hatred, we must at long last recognize that there are vast cells of terrorism on the shores of the United States.