We are all in the same boat

To the people of Great Britain,

First, let me offer my profound condolences on the losses you have suffered today at the hands of terrorists. As an American, a Jew, and a human being I share your feelings of disbelief and devastation. If anything positive may emerge from such a tragedy it is the growing realization that the many diverse peoples of the world often share each other’s fates and so are responsible for one another. For this reason we must resolve to never reward terrorism, no matter who the victims and who the perpetrators. Encouragement or even acquiescence to terrorism in any part of the world sends the message to would-be terrorists throughout the planet that terrorism works and so make further atrocities more likely.

Prime Minister Blair’s declaration that acts of terrorism will never influence British government policy is the correct response. For instance, for Britain to withdraw its troops from Iraq as Spain did following the bombing in Madrid would reinforce the message that terrorism works. Such a message would dishonor the memories of those who died today.

Not only government leaders, but many other citizens of the world, as civic leaders, religious leaders, teachers, netizens, and letter writers may help send the terrorists the right message by categorically condemning terrorism Unfortunately, in newscasts throughout the day, I have heard several Britons describing how they had felt distanced from terrorism occurring elsewhere in the world until today’s events. This is unfortunately a typical human response to distant tragedies. One commentator noted that many Britons have viewed terrorism as America’s problem. I have also been reminded of the growing anti-Israeli sentiment lately observed in Britain, together with expressions of approval by some members of your elite for the terrorism perpetrated on Israeli citizens. Whatever else might be said about such expressions, they send the message that terrorism works, that it can enable its perpetrators to shape world opinion. Such a message encourages others to commit acts of terrorist violence in distant parts of the world, as witnessed in Britain today.

Therefore we must take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to the principle that terrorism is an unacceptable practice in the post-world war, post-communist world.

While many terrorists are fighting for causes that have merit, the intentional killing of innocent people is never justifiable as a means to promote their causes. We should have learned from the failure of Communism that the end does not justify the means. We will never be able to destroy the so-called ‘root causes’ of terrorism, since peoples will always have legitimate grievances against one another. But we can neutralize terrorist practices by preventing them from attaining their ends. Public opinion is a powerful force. Recently in Lebanon, expressions of domestic and world opnion drove Syrian forces out of that country. Likewise, the categorical condemnation of terrorism would go a long way towards its elimination.

To send this message clearly and strongly, we must never give even the appearance of approving of, or yielding, to terrorism in word or deed. For example, following the murder of scores of Russian school children in Beslan by Chechan separatists, an op-ed piece appeared in the New York Times arguing that the Chechans deserve independence. That was definitely not the time to be discussing the merits of the Chechan cause. Chechans may well deserve independence, but the atrocities that occurred should have the effect of making the world deaf to legitimate Chechan grievances for a substantial period of time. Acts of terrorism should have the sole effect of impeding the causes they are intended to promote. Following tragedies such as occurred in Beslan and today in London, we must focus our attentions and sympathies on the horror of what has occurred and on the need to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

I readily acknowledge that this approach to terrorism exacts a moral cost. For example, were the world to turn its back on the Chechan cause in response to the actions of a handful of terrorists, many innocent Chechans would be penalized for the actions of the few. But I believe the cost is necessary since the destruction of innocent human life is worse than most forms of oppression. Further, this approach would encourage the majority of those whom the terrorists claim to represent to move against the terrorist element, thus further isolating the terrorists. This moral cost must be weighed not only against the cost of more innocent lives lost in Russia, but the cost of innocent lives that may be destroyed elsewhere in the world if terrorism in Russia is seen to be rewarded in the forum of world opinion.

In the post-911 world, we have been forced to confront a new kind of threat, in the form of nongovernmental entities such as al Qaeda. New principles have emerged in response to this threat, for instance the principle that terrorism constitutes an act of war and that countries harboring terrorists share the responsibility for the terrorist acts. As a result, both the terrorist organization and its host may be engaged by means of conventional warfare. Warfare is inevitably accompanied by collateral damage, including the loss of innocent life. If we are willing to accept such deadly consequences, we must certainly be prepared to accept the typically nonlethal form of collateral damage proceeding from the approach to terrorism I am advocating: namely the categorical denunciation of all acts of terrorism and the suspension of support for any legitimate cause the terrorism was intended to promote.

As a Jew, I have been alarmed by the increasingly anti-Israeli sentiment in Britain today, particularly among your elite. I refrain here from entering into a detailed discussion of Britain’s role in contributing to the current situation in Palestine during her colonial mandate rule. I only wish to emphasize that, rather than being the cause of terrorism, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza strip was a response to the terrorism inflicted on the Jews of Palestine during the period of British rule and the first 19 years of Israeli independence. The cessation of terrorism is a prerequisite for the creation and continued existence of a Palestinian state. Most importantly, the occupation simply does not justify the murder of innocents. World approval of terrorist tactics in Palestine has only served to push the day of Palestinian independence further into the future and moreover signals to would-be terrorists worldwide that terrorism works. I do not recall Americans expressing similar sympathies for IRA terrorists who murdered Britons in large number during the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Did the Irish Catholics there have no legitimate grievances against Britain? Of course they did, but we understood that their grievances did not justify such atrocities.

I hope the tragedy that occurred today will drive home the lesson in Britain and the rest of the world that we are all in the same boat. Terrorism against anyone must be condemned by everyone. Otherwise, no amount of warfare will prevent it from striking any of us.