How Long a Thirst for Revenge?
Five men arrested in Denmark and Sweden this week had been plotting to attack the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper at the center of the 2005 Muhammad cartoons. The would-be terrorists were, according to experts, very professional and very precise. They had no grandiose plan to hit national symbols, no plan for the mass murder of innocents, no nukes or chemical weapons – just a well-constructed plan to exact revenge on a chosen target.
Five men arrested in Denmark and Sweden this week had been plotting to attack the offices of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper at the center of the 2005 Muhammad cartoons. The would-be terrorists were, according to experts, very professional and very precise. They had no grandiose plan to hit national symbols, no plan for the mass murder of innocents, no nukes or chemical weapons – just a well-constructed plan to exact revenge on a chosen target. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula says the offense given to Muhammad, to Islam and to Muslims is so great that more revenge attacks can be expected.
This raises larger cultural and security questions about giving offense and taking revenge.
A Muslim student in Spain told his teacher he was offended by a geography lecture that included a reference to an area conducive to curing Spanish ham. Other Muslim students and their parents have been offended by the teaching of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Some school districts in the United States have been asked not to serve ham in cafeterias so as not to offend Muslim children who do not eat it. Muslim taxi drivers from Somalia, who dominate taxi service from the Minneapolis airport, were offended by being told to drive service dogs – a specific requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act – and wanted permission to leave blind people standing at the airport.
Does every claim of offense require redress? How much? Who decides whether the offense is “real”? Is it real because a person feels offended? Everyone is entitled to what he feels, and who is entitled to say, “Get over it?” What if they don’t “get over it” or don’t want to? And what if the offense cannot be ameliorated simply by dropping references to ham – or the Holocaust? What if they don’t get redress and want revenge?
It is not a small question. More than 150 people have died in the five years since the Muhammad cartoons were first published and others are under 24-hour protection. Five years? Actually, it’s a relative blink of an eye. People dispossessed in 1948 have chosen multi-generational refugee status rather than accept the legitimacy of Israel. Nurtured on hatred, it is to be expected that their descendants’ desire for revenge gets stronger the farther removed they are from the actual event. Armenians and Turks. Indians and Pakistanis. There are people still fighting the battles of Kosovo (1389, 1448 and 1999) and the Crusades. The Sunni-Shiite split was opened in 632 and remains a gaping wound in the larger Middle East.
On the other hand, some countries and people get over enormous trauma. The United States dropped not one, but two atomic bombs on Japanese cities and occupied the country for several years. Japan is counted among the very best friends of the United States. Italy was decimated by Allied armies in WWII after its army capitulated. Jewish victims, and the State of Israel, accepted German apologies and reparations. Individual Jews may choose not to visit Germany, but Jewish terrorism against Germans is unknown – now or right after the war. The Vietnamese are willing economic partners of the United States, Agent Orange notwithstanding.
American government policy has not grappled sufficiently with people who feel entitled to hatred and entitled to act on it. But an increase in plans for domestic terrorism (largely discovered and stopped before they were executed) and radicalization in parts of the American Muslim community, as well as American foreign policy in the Middle East, require that we do so. Quickly.