Recognizing Your Opponent's Humanity
New books dissected over email.
April 24 2002 11:09 AM

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Dear Jodi:
I don't share your impatience with Blumenfeld's musings on revenge strategies of other cultures, because they speak directly to one of her the underlying themes: What is a criminal justice system for? Deterrence? Personal retribution? The satisfaction of the aggrieved and the humiliation of the perpetrator? The revenge of the state, as in the death penalty, or the revenge of the individual, as when victims' families in Iran get to help decide the punishment, or when victims are allowed to make statements in American criminal courts?

I think these questions are by and large unanswerable. When I consider them I quickly leave behind the abstract issues of law and order and my intellectual support of the U.S. system (except for the death penalty) and head into a personal minefield of high-voltage emotions and conflicting instincts and, at times, blinding rage. And that, too, is what happened to Blumenfeld, who found that whatever notions she had about crime and punishment were sorely challenged by what happened to her father. If the orderly state-sanctioned system had been enough for her—after all, her father's shooter was duly tracked down and incarcerated—then she wouldn't have felt the pressing need to track him down herself.

Why did she do it? She asks herself the question many times during the book, and her answer seems to change along the way. In the end, what she wants most of all is an apology, an acknowledgment by the shooter that he was wrong, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is about more than ideology and abstractions, that he hurt an individual person with feelings and relatives and a whole complicated, important life. I would like to believe that Khatib changed his mind, because I share Blumenfeld's idealism about people, I suppose, and I like to believe that people are fundamentally honest—that he wouldn't have said the things he did unless he believed him, at least partly. (It was interesting that in a letter to her, he said that it was a crisis of conscience that prevented him from firing a second shot at her father; he had earlier said he slipped and couldn't fire again. So maybe he was lying about the real cause, but at least he recognized the moral superiority of the one explanation over the other.) I'm encouraged by the way his letters changed in tone, from the abstract to the personal, and encouraged by his family's reaction to Blumenfeld, the American woman who befriended them.

But I didn't feel better about the Arab-Israeli conflict after reading the book, or about any conflict, for that matter, because the way to end conflict is to recognize your opponents' humanity, and your own as well. That's what Blumenfeld was able to do,  and what the shooter did with her, but it's a rare thing indeed, rarer still in places laced with conflict and inured to the everydayness of death. I was very taken by Blumenfeld's account of Benjamin Netanyahu's annual visit to the grave of his older brother, Yoni, killed in the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. "It's like losing a limb," Netanyahu says. "You can't replace an arm or a leg that you lost. It's like permanent scar tissue on the soul."

Losing someone you love is the most terrible thing imaginable. Netanyahu knows this, as he says himself. And what I would like to say to him—and to anyone from either side of this terrible conflict—is this: Once you feel for yourself the agony of such loss, how can you then live with yourself when you deprive your enemies' families of the people they love just as much as you loved your brother, your father, your sister, your daughter? How can people bear to be implicated in so much pain?

I've gone on a bit but I'd like to take up this theme again tomorrow. And maybe you could discuss whether you thought the underlying story, about Blumenfeld's parents' divorce and her own personal demons, worked as well as the rest of the book.

All best,
Sarah

Sarah Lyall is a London correspondent for the New York Times. You can follow her on Twitter.