Secretary of State John Kerry stirred up a hornet’s nest following the Paris terror attacks, trying to describe the difference between the recent carnage and last January’s Charlie Hebdo massacre. The incident turns out to be quite instructive, though not in the way you’d expect.
In case you missed it, Kerry gave a controversial talk to U.S. embassy staffers in Paris November 17, four days after the bloodbath. He told them the ISIS attacks were different from the Charlie Hebdo massacre, because the January attack had “a sort of particularized focus.” The Charlie Hebdo terrorists had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” By contrast, “this Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for.”
There’s an important idea being raised here, though Kerry’s convoluted phrasing muddies it. Essentially, Kerry said the Charlie Hebdo terrorists attacked a group of individuals who’d done something the terrorists objected to. The November ISIS terrorists, by contrast, fired randomly. They weren’t seeking revenge on particular individuals for anything they’d done, but spreading indiscriminate death and mayhem. It was, Kerry said, an attack on Western democratic values, on “everything that we do stand for.”
Critics on the right didn’t agree. Republican and conservative responses ranged from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s “disgraceful” to former Bush White House aide Elliott Abrams’ “immoral and disgusting” to GOP presidential candidate George Pataki’s tweet demanding Kerry resign.
Kerry erred badly in thinking out loud and groping for words, leaving himself open to misinterpretation. At one point he said the January attacks had “a legitimacy,” then backtracked and said “not a legitimacy but a rationale.” Moreover, Kerry ignored the attack on the kosher supermarket following the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It was Charlie Hebdo that captured the world’s attention and gave its name to the entire bloody drama. Millions responded with the words “Je Suis Charlie.” Nobody tweeted “Je Suis Kosher.” The supermarket siege was essentially an aftershock, subsumed in the larger event.
Besides, explaining the anti-Semitic motive behind the market attack is a bit more complicated than explaining the Charlie Hebdo murders. The kosher market terrorist wasn’t targeting specific individuals because they’d done something he objected to. But he was targeting a specific group — namely, Jews. In the twisted mind of modern jihadists, the Jews — all Jews, any Jews — are complicit in crimes against Muslims.
In trying to unravel the murderers’ motives, as Kerry did, we note that the Charlie Hebdo and kosher market attacks were revenge attacks, meant to punish supposed offenders against Islam. The November ISIS attack, conversely, wasn’t targeting any particular individual or even group. It aimed, ISIS announced the next day, to strike at the world’s “capital of prostitution and obscenity.” It was explicitly an attack on Western values of freedom.
(Actually, the November bloodbath also had a pragmatic and “particularized” side. It was the fourth in a series of deadly attacks targeting forces battling ISIS’s Syria caliphate: first the massive October 10 bombing in Turkey; then downing the Russian airliner over Egypt; then bombing a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. Unlike Paris, the Turkey and Beirut bombings went largely unnoticed in the West.)
Elliott Abrams detailed conservative objections to Kerry’s thesis in an online Weekly Standard essay dated November 30, titled “Unspeakable Kerry.” Kerry, Abrams wrote, was ranking the different attacks by degrees of wrongness. Kerry’s “message,” Abrams wrote, is “that the November killings in Paris are more terrible than those of January.”
Why? “It seems that to Kerry, when people kill journalists and Jews, that is not an attack on ‘everything that we do stand for,’ whereas attacking a restaurant and stadium and a concert hall is. A bit odd: Do we stand for good food and sports and music more than we stand for freedom of the press and freedom of religion? Kerry seems confused here, but we get the point. He is saying that it’s understandable when people murder innocents because they have a particular reason to be mad at them.”
You might call this a miscommunication, but it’s worse than that. It’s a deliberate twisting of Kerry’s words.
The word “understand” has two different meanings in English. One is to explain and comprehend. The other is to accept, forgive and even endorse. It’s become fashionable among conservatives in recent decades to discredit liberals by eliding the two meanings. When liberals try to comprehend the motives of terrorists — in order to solve crimes and prevent future ones — their “understanding” of terrorist actions is twisted from comprehending to forgiving or somehow endorsing. Kerry is only the latest victim of this sliming.
To call the January attacks an assault on our Western values, identical to the November attacks, fairly describes their impact on us, the West, as victims. But it ignores the differences in terrorists’ motives. Indeed, it derides the very effort to analyze differing motives and craft specific, targeted counter-terrorism strategies. It aims to prove that all terrorism is the same and to drive policy-makers toward a single answer: blunt force. It’s the sort of thinking that took us into Iraq to solve a problem located in Afghanistan and ended up sowing regional chaos.
It’s also the firm view of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies and defenders. Netanyahu has been trying for months to convince Western audiences that Israel’s Islamist terrorist enemies, principally Hamas and Hezbollah, are essentially identical to ISIS and Al Qaeda. He says jihadist atrocities from Paris to Mosul should convince Westerners of the justice of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians.
So far, nobody in authority is convinced. Worse from Netanyahu’s viewpoint, his own intelligence services aren’t buying it. In the last month alone, the three main agencies dealing with the Palestinians issued nearly identical reports on the current terror wave: the deputy coordinator of government affairs in the territories in a speech (see here and here) October 28; the chief of military intelligence in a top-secret briefing (see here and here) to the Cabinet November 3, and the Shin Bet security service in an official report (see here and here) November 10.
In remarkably similar language, the three agencies gave this assessment: The violence is individual, non-ideological and mostly youth-driven. The main motivators are frustration and despair over lack of personal options, economic prospects and diplomatic progress toward Palestinian national goals (the agencies’ language, not mine). Incitement, mainly through social networks, plays a role but not a decisive one. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is pushing his security services to continue full cooperation with Israel and stop the violence. (Military intelligence adds that he’s playing a double game, encouraging small-scale troublemaking on the side while cooperating in the big picture.)
The bottom line: Israel and the West are facing not one wave of terrorism but at least three. One is ISIS, driven by a sort of messianic ecstasy, plus zeal to defend and expand its caliphate. Second is Al Qaeda, driven by rage at the West for perceived insults to Islam, plus resentment at their losses to upstart ISIS. Third is a Palestinian youth rebellion, driven largely by despair and frustration — with Israel and with their own leadership.
If there’s another lesson in all this, it’s about the astonishing ability of politicians, especially but not only on the right, to ignore facts and experts, whether Israeli intelligence or worldwide scientific consensus, and invent their own reality to suit their whims, prejudices and vested interests.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).