In the aftermath of the Munich Massacre, Peter Jennings, who covered the tragedy for ABC, was criticized for having referred to the eight members of Black September who took part in the bloodshed as “guerrillas” and “commandos” instead of “terrorists”. Jennings could not possibly have sated these critics with an apology or a correction: to participate in this semantic dispute would have been to take sides, to implicitly profess an ideology. This, one imagines, is precisely what Jennings was trying to avoid in the first place.
A day after the bombings at the Boston Marathon, the President told the nation in a press conference that April 15th’s explosions at the Boston Marathon constituted an “act of terrorism”. On the day of the attacks, the President had seemed to have been avoiding this terminology; an administration figure told the New York Times that the President’s wording had evolved with the “information flow”.
We don’t gain much from trotting out this label as if it’s a uniquely instructive descriptor. The definitions for international and domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code might liberally be construed to apply not only to Al Qaeda and the Ku Klux Klan, but also to most organized crime and gang activity, not to mention most conventional warfare. To top it off, there exists no comprehensive, internationally agreed-upon definition of “terrorism”, and most definitions currently in circulation feature language about as vague as that in the American version.
Naturally, this imprecision doesn’t stop ideologues and talking heads from bandying the term about as if it means something. In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Republican politicians began a prolonged attack on President Obama for supposedly failing to initially label the attack as an act of terror. None took the time to explain what consequence the tag could possibly have.
Terror, as it turns out, is not substantively different from many other forms of murder and war. The distinguishing feature of terror is that it attempts to coerce by inducing fear; whether it succeeds or not is up to the target population. To single out terror as a crime that somehow exceeds the facts of the act itself is to willfully submit to its perpetrators. What happened in Munich, Benghazi and Boston was murder—nothing more, nothing less.
The argument was put to me recently that Hamas’s tactic of concealing itself and its rocket launchers amidst civilian populations makes itself, and not the IDF, the real murderer of Gazan children. By this narrative, Israeli airstrikes are the necessary instruments of a fatal circumstance orchestrated wholly by Hamas; when Palestinians are killed in a strike aimed at a Hamas position, it is thus as if they were killed at Hamas’s own hand.
Here is the inimitable Alan Dershowitz, putting the issue his way:
“Although Israel goes to great efforts to reduce civilian casualties, the Hamas tactic is designed to maximize them. The international community and the media must understand this and begin to blame Hamas, rather than Israel, for the Palestinian civilians who are killed by Israeli rockets but whose deaths are clearly part of the Hamas tactic.”
It must be noted that this is an accurate account of Hamas’s strategy. But the assessment—that Hamas, by placing these people in harm’s way, bears full responsibility for their deaths—is off the mark.
This is a view that fully disregards the agency of the Israeli generals. Israel’s military leaders do have a choice: even if it were true that the options on the table were to indiscriminately bomb Gaza or to suffer complete annihilation, they would in no way be compelled to do the former. IDF bombs are not the instruments of fate. If Hamas were to believably threaten Israel with utter destruction, Israel would bear at least some small grain of responsibility for the casualties suffered in its justifiable response.
Factually speaking, however, Israel is not facing complete annihilation at the hands of Hamas. The choices the IDF makes are the result of some combination of dogma and cost-benefit analysis; there is agency here, and Israel’s response is neither preordained nor automatic. The same is true of the manner in which it does ultimately respond. Is every airstrike necessary? This is doubtful. Likewise, unintended civilian casualties are still casualties; the IDF does not get credit for good intentions.
Thus Israel must bear at least some of the responsibility for these deaths. What does it matter if 51% of the blame falls on Hamas’s shoulders? Does the 49% role Israel plays in the death of a Gazan innocent pale in comparison to the utility of the airstrike that kills her? It is unlikely that it does in every case, nor even in most. While Hamas clearly holds the blame for the inflation of casualties, the choice to fall into this trap is not in any respect predestined—-the choice in every instance lies with Israel.