One bleak morning a deeply distraught 63-year-old farmer loaded his shotgun. The farm home he had inherited from his father and had cultivated all his life was being taken from him, even the crops. He felt stripped of all his cherished possessions. Nothing remained from a lifetime of hard work. Government had failed him. Civilization had failed him.
In his agony, he decided to take vengeance against the official he held chiefly responsible for the shattering of his world. He would assassinate him with his shotgun, and, to spare his wife and himself the consequences of this awful deed, he would also kill her and himself.
He was methodical and deliberate in carrying out his decision. First he killed his wife. Then he drove eight miles to a village where he shot and killed the official. Finally he drove back to the country, killed a neighbor and took his own life.
The man who fired the shots was Dale Burr, a hard-working devout Lutheran of German ancestry, engaged in farming in Johnson County, Iowa. The official he killed was a bright young banker named John R. Hughes.
Burr was a victim of the farm depression. A few years before, with land values and income high, he had borrowed heavily to expand his farm. Then farm-commodity prices skidded while operating costs kept climbing. Still worse, the value of farmland plummeted to half its earlier value, dropping so sharply that bank officials saw no choice but to foreclose.
Burr’s neighbors, while sickened by his awful deeds, nevertheless seemed to understand. In the dreadful abyss of desperation, they reasoned, even a man of deep religious conviction might go to pieces and strike back violently in mad acts that would destroy innocent people.
During the funeral service for Hughes, a Catholic priest prayed, “Lord, we ask that the sounds of these shots, so desperate and insane, will arouse the conscience of this nation … We who live in rural America are in trouble, Lord.”
One of Burr’s fellow farmers said, “I think it all bunched up in one pile for him.” It was as if Burr had acted out the “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” performed a few months earlier by Bob Dylan in the Farm Aid concert at Champaign, Illinois: Your brain is a-bleedin’/And your legs can’t seem to stand/Your eyes fix on the shotgun/That you’re holdin’ in your hand
His neighbors could understand Burr’s brain “ableedin’.” It could happen to anyone. But, nevertheless, Burr was a terrorist, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant terrorist who committed insane acts in mid-America.
Now change the name and the location. The aggrieved farmer is, let’s say, named Abdullah, a Palestinian working his ancestral farm just west of the Jordan River, territory now occupied by Israel. Israeli military units begin to sweep the countryside. Suddenly, word arrives that these forces have massacred an entire Arab village.
All Palestinians must flee, he hears, or risk death. Flee? The land is Abdullah’s most cherished possession, farmed by his father, and his father’s father before him. But now, on a moment’s notice, he and his family must abandon everything-crops and all. His world is shattered. Government fails him. Society fails him. Like Dale Burr of Iowa, he knows the agony of being forced off his ancestral home through no fault of his own. In desperation, he flees.
And Abdullah and some of his dispossessed neighbors, maddened by their fate, take vengeance against Israel, and later against its friend, the United States. They become Muslim Arab terrorists in the Middle East, fighting back with insane acts in airports, on buses, in marketplaces-causing the death of innocent people. The world, of course, does not condone their awful misdeeds, but does it understand? Is there a compassionate response?
In the case of Dale Burr, the WASP terrorist, our nation set out to correct, as best it could, the injustice that caused Burr to take shotgun in hand. Our response was not vengeance against the likes of Dale Burr, but a nationwide tide of compassion focused on measures to help other Dale Burrs keep their cherished land, their hope, their sanity.
But what is our response to the plight of Abdullah and the other Palestinian terrorists? The farm families of the United States, better than other citizens, should be able to comprehend their despair and frustration. They can empathize with those forced, through desperate circumstances, to lose their farm homes.
But the people of the United States, farm families and others, seem to see only the terror that arises from the Middle East, not the basis for it. They seem unaware of the injustices inflicted on Palestinians who formerly lived on land now settled by Israelis-thousands of Palestinians still crowded in refugee camps and within the area controlled by Israel, a million other Palestinians kept under humiliating military rule.
The United States, like Israel, responds to Palestinian terrorism only with more violence, retaliation by national military forces for the insane acts of a few.
In Arab eyes, we inflict state-sponsored terror. Terror, whether supported by states or individuals, begets terror, and more innocent people are killed. Dazed by violence, our citizens see Palestinians as nothing but subhuman terrorists? and Palestinians and their Arab brethren brand the American people as accomplices of Israel in denying them justice.
If Abdullah is a terrorist-and who can deny it?–then so was Dale Burr. And the terrorism now being perpetrated against the American people by the likes of Abdullah seems destined to continue until we take steps to redress Palestinian grievances in much the same compassionate, constructive way that we responded to the conditions that drove Dale Burr to mindless crime.
Mr. Paul Findley, who served as a Republican congressman from Illinois for 22 years, is the author of ‘They Dare to Speak Out’ and a member of the American Educational Trust’s Foreign Relations Committee.
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