Every week we read of large numbers of people killed in Iraq by suicide bombers. One week the death count is 38; another week it’s 47. It happens so frequently that it almost gets hard to take notice. Oh, another few dozen killed in Iraq, what else is new?
But the news out of Baghdad on Wednesday (August 31, 2005) was enough to get me to sit up and take notice. The fatality count from an episode caused by terrorism reached a new high: 965 people were killed.
But what’s truly astounding is that these 965 people died without the detonation of a single gram of high explosives.
They were killed by a rumor. A mere RUMOR that there was a suicide bomber in the midst of a Shiite religious procession set off a stampede that killed almost a thousand people.
Even though no explosives were involved, those 965 people were just as surely the victims of terrorism as if they were killed by a huge explosion. Without the fear that has been spread by months of terrorism, a rumor would not have set off such a panic. The stampede was a huge over-reaction.
In an article in the New Yorker about Civil War-era terrorist John Brown, Adam Gopnik writes “Terrorism is an autoimmune disease; its purpose is to cause harm by provoking an overreaction.”
The terrorists certainly succeeded in provoking an overreaction in Iraq. The goal of terrorism—and it doesn’t matter who the terrorist is, Islamic extremist, Palestinian nationalist, Tamil separatist, the Irish Republican Army, John Brown in the Civil War or the Stern Gang in Israel’s War for Independence—the goal is to create fear and confusion in the target population.
The Torah considers fear one of the greatest of curses. Among the long list of curses we will read in a few weeks in parshat Ki Tavo is the fear that will befall the Jewish people if they stray from God’s commandments: “And your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear day and night, and shall have no assurance of your life; In the morning you shall say, Would it were evening! and in the evening you shall say, Would it were morning! for the fear of your heart with which you shall fear, and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see.”
Terrorists believe they can win if they can make people live in fear. The terrorists in Baghdad hope that people will become to afraid to go to religious processions—or to vote for a Constitution. The terrorists in Gaza hope that Israelis will become too afraid to go to the café, they hope the people will give up, withdraw from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
I’m not saying the Global War on Terrorism, or as it’s now called “The Struggle Against Islamic Extremism,” is an overreaction. But to put it in perspective, each and every year about 20 times as many Americans lose their lives in car accidents as lost their lives in the World Trade Center; yet we don’t make the same kind of “War on Car Accidents.” Terrorism provokes a response because it’s scary.
Terrorism is the weapon of the weak. Someone who feels they have no chance to win in a conventional military way will often resort to terrorism as way to achieve their political goals.
The Talmud (Shabbat 77b) teaches about five instances of fear cast by the weak over the strong: a gnat that can frighten a lion; a mosquito that frightens an elephant, who is afraid it will fly up its trunk; the fear a spider causes a scorpion, who is afraid it will get in its ear; the fear of the swallow upon the eagle, who is worried it will be hindered from spreading its wings; and the fear a small fish causes the Leviathan, who is afraid the fish will get in its ear.
Today’s leading instance of fear cast by the weak over the strong is clearly terrorism.
The Sunnis in Iraq have gone from being yesterday’s powerhouse to today’s minority. In a democracy, they are weak—they don’t have as many votes. So they are trying to assert their will through instilling fear in people.
The struggle between the Sunnis and the Shiites reminds me of a teaching connected to this week’s Torah portion that in my ethnocentric way I at first only applied to Jews.
In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, we read banim atem l’Adonai Eloheichem, lo titgodedu v’lo tasimu karcha bein eineichem lameit, “You are children of the Lord your God, do not cut yourselves or make a baldness between your eyes for your dead.”
The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot brings a beautiful teaching about how when the Torah says lo titgodedu, do not cut yourselves, it means do not cut yourselves into different factions. I was thinking about the Jewish world today and the big divides between secular and religious, the way much of the Orthodox world refuses to recognize Conservative or Reform Judaism as legitimate, the schisms within movements—among the Orthodox schisms between various Chasidic sects and modern Orthodox for example, in our own movement schisms between those who favor ordaining gays and lesbians and those who don’t, and about how terrible all these schisms are. About how we clearly seem to be violating the commandment of lo titgodedu, don’t cut yourselves into factions. Yet when I heard about the tragedy in Baghdad, I realized that the schism between secular and religious, or the divide between Orthodox and Reform, is bush league compared with the schism between Sunni and Shiite.
Yet we should not be complacent—the murderous violence between Sunni and Shiite is what can happen in the Jewish world if we are not vigilant. The Jewish extremists who pronounced a Kabbalistic curse on Ariel Sharon that he should die should be taken seriously as a warning.
Sadly, factions, Jewish and otherwise, are a fact of life. The Sunnis and Shiites are not going to all of a sudden decide they should follow a teaching from the Talmud about not creating factions. Those factions weaker and more desperate than us are going to continue to try and make us afraid.
When you are afraid, you can’t think straight. One of the more troubling passages in the Torah is when God is hitting Egypt with plagues it says over and over, “God hardened Pharoah’s heart.” It seems very troubling that God would harden someone’s heart, and then punish them. One interpretation I found that I liked says that at first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; then, after a few plagues, he got to be totally terrified. And someone who is terrified can’t make a straight decision. So God hardened Pharaoh’s heart just enough to overcome his fear—just like in a tough situation, you might tell someone they need to “toughen up”—so that Pharaoh would have free will.
In difficult times, we need to think straight. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”
Fear is so bad the rabbis equate it with sin. The prophet Isaiah said “The sinners in Zion fear; a trembling has taken hold of the profane” (Isaiah 33:14). One of the great rabbis, seeing his student in a state of unnecessary fear, said to him, “You are a sinner!” In this spirit the Torah teaches, “Trust in God and do good; dwell in the land and cultivate faith” (Psalms 37:3).
Our antidote to the scary times we live in is to remember, as it says in Psalm 118, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
May God bless us with the blessing Moses gave our ancestors: chazak v’amatz, “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them; for the Lord your God, He goes with you; He will not fail you, nor forsake you.”