Is Israel's present America's future?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
April 5 2002 10:39 AM

Is Israel's Present America's Future?

For the last few months, American critics of President Bush's war on terrorism have been using Ariel Sharon as exhibit A. Sharon's basic approach to fighting terrorism has been to find terrorists and kill them, a tactic that also lies near the heart of Bush's strategy. But so far, at least, the more terrorists Sharon kills, the more Israelis get killed by terrorists. You get the picture: The current state of Israel—a state of horrible, bloody insecurity—could be the future state of America if Bush doesn't add some nuance to his world view.

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This analogy gets dismissed by American hawks as facile. Even I, who have been known to brandish it in casual conversation, admit that it demands closer inspection than it's gotten, given the undeniable differences between America's and Israel's situations. So let's inspect it more closely.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright, a senior editor at <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/">The <http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/%22%3eThe>  <http://www.theatlantic.com/robert-wright/%22%3eThe>  Atlantic</a>, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and editor-in-chief of <a linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="Bloggingheads.tv">Bloggingheads.tv</a>, is the author of <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679758941/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0679758941">Nonzero, <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0679763996/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0679763996">The Moral Animal</a>, and <a  linktype="External" resizable="yes" href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0045JK6HE/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=slatmaga-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B0045JK6HE">The Evolution of God</a>.

Both Bush and Sharon, in centering their strategies on the pursuit of terrorists, are using a formula that works well with bank robbers and other common criminals: Get some of the culprits out of the picture—kill them, jail them, whatever—and in the process deter other would-be culprits. So for both Bush and Sharon, a big question is whether terrorists respond to standard deterrents the way bank robbers do. It didn't take long for Sharon's policy of targeted assassination to provide the answer: No. 

The problem goes beyond suicide bombers (who obviously don't meet standard game-theory assumptions about rational self-interest), extending well up the chain of command. In January, Israel assassinated Raed al-Karmi, a leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Would this deter the group by sending a chilling message to its surviving leaders? Apparently not. Prior to the assassination, the Al-Aqsa Brigades had confined its terrorism to the occupied territories. Since the assassination, it has moved into Israel proper and has launched more suicide bombings than Hamas or any other group.

Meanwhile, the shockingly abundant supply of suicide bombers, and its expansion to include females, drives home another point. Killing terrorists doesn't just fail to discourage aspiring martyrs—it can actually create more of them. Whereas bank robbing is contagious only to the extent that it isn'tpunished, terrorism can grow more contagious when it is punished. And one accelerator of contagion, apparently, is something Sharon and Bush share: a (not surprising) aversion to casualties on their own side. Because they've often killed terrorists by remote control, they've sometimes killed innocent civilians, a fact that inflames hatred all the more.

Notwithstanding these general parallels between the Bush and Sharon policies, American hawks are good at listing allegedly key differences between the two strategies, or between America's situation and Israel's.

Allegedly key difference No. 1: Israel is more tightly intertwined with its tormentors than America is—the Palestinians live right in its backyard. America's terrorist enemies are mostly an ocean away.

This is true and is reason to doubt that America will soon face the frequency of terrorist acts that Israel faces. But this doesn't weaken the basic point of the analogy: Whatever the size of the threat confronting America, a strategy focused overwhelmingly on punishing terrorists, with little attention to "root causes," may make the problem bigger, not smaller. This is especially likely if the terrorists are hunted down sloppily, with lots of collateral damage (as when an American drone fired a Predator missile at a hapless Afghan because he was tall, wearing flowing robes, and getting what looked like deferential treatment from other men).

And note that, while America doesn't have many radical Muslims in its backyard, it does have many Muslims in its backyard—in fact, within its borders. One recent lesson from Israel is that an iron-fisted war on terrorism can radicalize previously innocuous people. And Bush's war on terrorism—as waged abroad by Donald Rumsfeld and, especially, at home by John Ashcroft—is definitely alienating some American Muslims.

Besides, that America may never reach the one-suicide-bomber-a-day level of terror is meager consolation. In America, it doesn't take a lot of suicide bombs to kill a lot of people. For now, at least, there is enough freedom to do these things Timothy McVeigh style. And don't forget about the famously growing threat from weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, in a globalized world, American targets lie well beyond American borders.