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The Terrorism Narrative

When philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was struck by his ‘unthinking’ nature in the way that he went about the ordinary business of carrying out the holocaust. He was not only following orders, he was following procedures, normal ways of acting in a complex, but deadly, organization. That ordinary people can carry out evil deeds led Professor Arendt to suggest that the “banality of evil” was a critical problem that had to be recognized as a modern condition. The Israeli war with Gaza provided riveting visuals of the bombardment of homes, shops, hospitals, schools, several of which served as United Nations’ “safe havens,” that killed and wounded thousands. Israel responded to Hamas’ rain of rockets by bombing and invading Gaza, attacking urban living areas where Hamas fighters were alleged to be operating with a network of tunnels.    The Palestinian death toll in Gaza stands at more than 2,000 with nearly 10,000 wounded.

More than 300 children have died. Included in the carnage were 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed in a single strike. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died. When U.N. observers denied that there were any weapons in their smashed shelters, the Israeli reply was that they would investigate the shelling. After all, Israel had good intensions; targeted homes were called minutes before they exploded. If civilians were killed, it was because Hamas was said to be operating in bad faith, using these urban settings for their operations, basically using the civilians as shields. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu stated during a Fox News interview on July 21, 2014: “This is the most grotesque war that I’ve ever seen…Hamas actually wants to pile up as many civilian deaths as possible.” The fault was Hamas’ because there was no intent to kill civilians. Dead adults and dead children were a result of a normal war operation, part of a normal way of thinking about strategy.

And it happened before. The 22-day war, which began Dec. 27, 2008, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The official response was that Hamas was responsible for any civilian casualties because they live, train, store and fire rockets near where people live. A spokeswoman explained: “We have no intention of harming civilians. . .Hamas “cynically uses” civilians by operating in their midst, she said, adding, “Sometimes there can be situations where civilians get hurt.” Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livini, promised officials from the Czech Republic, Sweden and France, who were seeking a ceasefire, that Israel would “change the equation” in the region, adding that in other conflicts:

 “. . . we are not asking the world to take part in the battle and send their forces in — we are only asking them to allow us to carry it out until we reach a point in which we decide our goals have been reached for this point.”

A few days prior, President George W. Bush stated that Hamas was to blame because it “unleashed a barrage of rockets and mortars that deliberately targeted innocent Israelis — an act of terror that is opposed by the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, President (Mahmoud) Abbas.” Israel insisted that it tried to make telephone calls (as it did in the 2014 attacks) and drop pamphlets warning residents that their homes would be blown up soon, so they should leave. Children die from routine military planning against terrorism.  This is justified by the terrorism narrative, which holds that since terrorism (and terrorists) do not follow civilized rules of warfare and target civilians, then fighting against them can also be outside acceptable limits, e.g., torture, kidnapping, and widespread killing of civilians in the pursuit of terrorists.  There was no intent to harm others, just the terrorists themselves, but if the others get in the way, well, that is just too bad. Indeed, the United States has helped normalize killing civilians since the 9/11 attacks. President Obama promised to revisit the drone program, but instead doubled the drone strikes of his predecessor George W. Bush. The President stated in his drone policy on (May 22, 2013): that killing civilians and children was not the intent, but just “heartbreaking tragedies.”

The basic idea is that you do what is necessary against this horrific threat, and if civilian deaths occur, so be it. Going after targets that may include civilians and children is standard procedure and okay.  It is not personal or political. It is banal.  Perhaps courageous citizens and leaders will demand an end to this narrative.

David Altheide, PhD, is Emeritus Regents’ Professor on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, where he  taught for 37 years. His forthcoming book is: Media Edge: Medial Logic and Social Reality (Lang).

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David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Terrorism and the Politics of Fear.

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