For many months now, since the beginning of the second intifada (and, truth be told, for years before that), I had suspected that Americans simply couldn't grasp Israel's human losses. The numbers weren't big enough to truly register: three one day, thirteen another, maybe one the next. Up and down, ad infinitum, interrupted occasionally by a stretch of quiet (which meant, of course, not that bombs weren't sent—simply that Israel's sappers had defused them).
So I began to make the gruesome calculations in my head. Given that there are roughly six million Israelis and roughly 300 million Americans, the numerical equivalent to the 21 youngsters massacred at the Tel Aviv disco would be 1,050. The 15 innocents blown apart in the Jerusalem pizzeria equaled 750 American dead. Last Sunday, when terrorists with orders from Allah murdered five Israelis in Nahariya and on the Jordan Valley road, it was another 250 imaginary victims in the United States.
Now I no longer have to imagine. If this turns out (as seems likely) to be Islamic terror, it will not have been the first time Americans were targeted: There were the 241 Marines in Beirut who had come to protect Lebanon's Palestinians from the rage of the Maronite Christians. And the 19 soldiers in Saudi Arabia who died securing that country's oil for its indulgent and utterly blithe royal family. And the 17 sailors on board the USS Cole, whose deaths seem of little interest to the government of Yemen, which they were defending. Yet those were troops on foreign soil, just as innocent, of course, but at least somewhat cognizant of the risks. But the thousands and thousands of ordinary Americans ripped yesterday from their families and friends, from their hard work and their good works, from their joys and their melancholy—these Americans, whose final agonies were celebrated in the streets of Palestine and elsewhere in the Arab world, a world of captive minds, unworkable economies, and failed societies—weren't on the front lines. They need no equivalents and have none. They enter our history books as the involuntary but decisive instruments of a great and chastening lesson: that there is true evil in the world and that this evil cannot be placated. It must be fought and, sadly, it must be fought continuously and fiercely.
I DO NOT understand why so many people are so surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Muslim world. U.S. security has long known about its terror networks. The media has not altogether ignored them (although it is sometimes squeamish about stories without a simple moral equivalence theme). One person who may bear some responsibility for lulling us into complacency is our former president. He seemed to think he could charm those who lusted for lives (or apologize for those who so lusted). The Clinton White House was from time to time filled with Muslim- and Arab-American leaders very skilled in making light of moral enormity. They rationalized groups like Hamas and Hezbollah; some even refused to condemn Osama bin Laden by name. The Clintonites also denied the FBI the money it needed to shut down U.S.-based groups that raised money for jihad. And when terrorists took out our embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, he retaliated with a one-shot, two-venue mini-bombing that accomplished exactly nothing.
This was a massive intelligence and security failure. Once again our border officials seem to have been lax in scrutinizing people coming into the United States from countries that are far from friendly. Would greater diligence amount to ethnic profiling? Probably so. But there is no natural right to come into the United States.It is a privilege. I have foreign friends who have been denied even tourist visas. And it's crazy that hard-working Haitians are harassed when they come to our shores and are then shipped back, while some quack Muslim cleric like Abdul Rahman, the prophet of the first World Trade Center bombing, is courteously ushered in. I know that many Arabs come here for the same good reasons others come: a free and good life for themselves and their children. Like other visitors and immigrants, we should scrutinize them carefully and then let them in and wish them well. But there are other Arabs and Muslims who want to bring their fanaticism with them, and some of that fanaticism is criminal. And we should make sure it stays in the Middle East, unless of course the great Scandinavian moralizers want to take them in. I find it nutty that among the proposals for how to solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees is for the United States to take some of them in. This would be importing certified resenters.
MAYBE OSAMA BIN LADEN will turn out to be the prime organizer of this sneak attack on America. After all, in June he promised he would pull off something like this, soon. And when he denied culpability the day after the disaster, he added that he was happy it happened. Still, I doubt the guilt stops with him. Muslim terrorism is an amorphous and intricate vortex, but an integrated one. It receives help from many places and people—help in arms, training, disguises, passports, money, morale, and the fanatic fervor of the faithful. Many Saudis—maybe even the monarchy itself—finance it, if only to keep it engaged abroad and out of Riyadh. The very secular Syrian and Iraqi tyrannies facilitate the operations of all kinds of religious extremists as long as they make war against the regimes' enemies. It is time to intensify the military pressure on Baghdad before it gains nuclear capacity, and for Damascus to be held responsible for its indispensable patronage of Hezbollah, a certified ally of bin Laden's war on the West. It is no mystery which governments harbor these madmen, and they should now be quaking with fear.
But much of this does appear to be a mystery to Peter Jennings, who warned against stigmatizing Islamic groups and raised the rush to judgment over Oklahoma City. But this is a figment of Jennings's imagination; commentators have, in fact, been quite scrupulous. And what, after all, if Islamic terrorists didn't do it? Haven't they done enough without this spectacular satanic achievement? Jennings's solicitude does not surprise me. I first saw Jennings on ABC when, as a young TV journalist, he reported from the Munich Olympics. And I was filled with disgust that his subsequent career has only deepened. At Munich—I still remember it, 30 years later—Jennings tried to explain away the abductions and massacre of the young Israeli athletes. His theme: The Palestinians were helpless and desperate. Ipso facto, they were driven to murder. That's life.
Wednesday was a day of national mourning in Israel, of mourning for the innocent Americans murdered in ways to which Israelis are long accustomed. This is a fraternity bonded in blood. All over Palestine, however, multitudes assembled and screamed with joy, "God is great!" This ugliness is probably spontaneous, but in its own official newspaper, Al hayat al Jadida, the Palestinian Authority declared: "The suicide bombers of today are the noble successors of their noble predecessors … the Lebanese suicide bombers who taught the US Marines a tough lesson (in Lebanon) … and then with no preconditions, threw the last of the remaining enemy (Israeli) soldiers out of the (security) zone. These suicide bombers are the salt of the earth, the engines of history … they are the most honorable among us." Sad to say, we Americans no longer need any instructions in how it feels to be an Israeli. The murderers in the skies have taught us all too well. We are all Israelis now.
This article originally ran in the September 24, 2001 issue of the magazine.