Who Invented Terrorism? Does ‘Sherman’ Ring a Bell?

After terror comes fear, hysteria and loss of the power to think straight. Thus we have the influential New York Times writer, Thomas L. Friedman, informing his frightened and confused readers that the “… Palestinians are testing out a whole new form of warfare, using suicide bombers-strapped with dynamite and dressed as Israelis-to achieve their political aims. And it is working.”

It may seem that way to the evidently upset editorialist. You don’t have to be a pro-Israeli fellow traveler, as Mr. Friedman is, to sympathize with him. What’s happening to people in Israel is appalling; one’s heart has to go out to people blown to kingdom come while they sit having a cup of coffee, hors de combat , offending no one, unarmed and profoundly innocent. But sympathy is no substitute for straight thinking, which is what we need just now, because this is very serious stuff-not to mention that we here in America, citizens of the nation which has armed and financed Israel, are targets, too.

Nevertheless, Mr. Friedman is dead wrong. We are not confronting “a whole new form of warfare,” if terrorism is taken to mean the waging of war by attacking the other side’s civilian society. In fact, a case can be made that terrorism, thus defined, is in the modern era something of an American invention. I’m referring, of course, to General William T. Sherman and his March to the Sea, an attack on the Southern civilian base calculated to emasculate the Confederacy’s power to wage war against the Union.

The Germans turned the idea into the military doctrine of Schrecklichkeit , as they express it. Nothing loath to practice it, the Germans made history of sorts by their terror-bombing of places like Coventry, England, but it falls to the United States to have committed the single largest (judged by the number of victims) act of terror in recorded history. On March 9, 1945, 179 American bombers, armed with incendiary bombs intended to torch the wood-and-paper Japanese capital, appeared over Tokyo, a city with a population density of 135,000 per square mile. All went according to plan. Tokyo was devoured by fire so ferocious that the heat boiled the water in the lakes and ponds, cooking those who had sought safety there like human lobsters. Official American figures put the death toll for that night’s work at 87,000 people. Nobody knows what the true number is.

The point is, unhappily, that the Palestinians aren’t especially evil or bloodthirsty. They’re just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill barbarian warriors, doing on a small scale what most of the big nations which are pleased to call themselves civilized have done on a large scale. It is always an indefensible atrocity whenever anybody does it, but it doesn’t make the Palestinians special, and that is important to bear in mind.

Let it also be noted that the Palestinians are not the only group currently using terrorism to wage war. The Russians and Chechens are doing it; the Kashmiri liberationists are doing it; Peru and Colombia are suffering from it; Sri Lanka has over 50,000 dead thanks to it; and then there’s Africa, which over the last 10 years has made the barbarisms of the Israelis and the Palestinians pale in comparison.

The Palestinians have come up with a new wrinkle, marrying war against a civilian society with suicide tactics. In the spring of 1945, the U.S. Navy came up against suicide fighters in the person of the kamikazes, who inflicted enormous losses. The motivations ascribed to the kamikaze fighters were similar to those ascribed to the Palestinian kamikazes-i.e., promises of heaven, religious fanaticism, etc.-most of which turned out to be more descriptive of American fear and bafflement than a reliable understanding of actual motivations.

We don’t seem to know much more about the Palestinians than our grandparents did about the Japanese. So we have an evidently confused Mr. Friedman writing, ” … the Palestinians have long had a tactical alternative to suicide: nonviolent resistance, à la Gandhi. A nonviolent Palestinian movement appealing to the conscience of the Israeli silent majority would have delivered a Palestinian state 30 years ago, but they have rejected that strategy… they actually want to win their independence in blood and fire.”

Had Mr. Friedman and others like him a calmer disposition and a more Machiavellian turn of mind, he would know that he who wastes time thinking up the right tactics for his enemies to use is kidding himself. Our friend on The Times evidently doesn’t know who Gandhi was, and without guessing if non-violent tactics would ever have prevailed with the Israelis, a less emotional person would understand that 50 years ago or 30 years ago, the possibility of “a nonviolent Palestinian movement” was laughable.

Equally dubious is Mr. Friedman’s conviction that “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Unless he is obliquely suggesting terminating the existence of the Palestinian people with extreme prejudice, no such military blow is possible. You can destroy the “infrastructure of terrorism,” to use the phrase of Israeli government spokesmen, but new ones will take its place. These struggles are like underground fires in coal mines or peat bogs. You can damp ’em down, but they’ll flare up again and again. It took the Irish 300 years to drive the Brits out, but they finally did it-and, it is worth noting, that terror did pay. The hostility of the pre-European inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere has never subsided and continues to break out in armed insurrections, frequently of a terrorist nature.

All of which argues for Israel and the United States composing their differences with the Palestinians or resigning ourselves to periodic unshirted hell. Telling the Palestinians we will negotiate only “when the violence stops” is not going to get us very far. If they stop the terrorism, we get the quid, but they don’t get the quo. What’s in it for them? Somebody’s got to make an offer that the other side might regard as plausible.

What that offer might be is for another time. What’s for now is recognizing that we have a stake in all of this. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks, American officials insisted that the terrorists were not motivated by anything connected with Israel, but by a generalized hatred for America and all that America stands for. They never made a persuasive case, but since then the President has extended his war to include many Palestinian organizations. If we weren’t before, he has made us the enemy.

In Israel, walking outside to buy a newspaper or a carton of milk is now a life-or-death decision, and that’s not going to change absent a peace agreement. Terrorism is next to impossible to stop, as the Israeli experience shows. Here’s a country with the most advanced security setup in the world, a country said to have the best intelligence organization, and the bombers keep getting through.

If they can get through there, they will get through here. Either we get this thing settled or we can expect to exchange our open society for a bunker.

Who Invented Terrorism? Does ‘Sherman’ Ring a Bell?