September 22, 2019

Nice, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, Cleveland: Is the world going mad?

One of the most famous, and no doubt most overused stories of Israel’s short history of journalism, is about a news editor in the long-defunct newspaper Davar. It is a story that refuses to die, even though according to all attempts to verify it, the story never happened. At least not in the way it is told. It goes like this: The night editor of the Labor-associated newspaper was sitting at his desk and could not make up his mind about which story of the day deserved to be the lead story.

He had a story about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial that day. That seemed important. He had another one about the murder of the prime minister of Iran. Also important. Then another one, about the Korean war (Operation Ripper). The year – if you’re familiar with these events you’d know it – was 1951. The world that day was full of surprises, or so it seemed to the night editor. According to one source, the editor was David Zakai. According to another source, it was a more famous figure – Zalman Shazar, who would later become President of Israel (however, in 1951 he was no longer working at Davar). Whomever he was, the story goes, the editor ended up writing the Hebrew equivalent of the headline: The World Has Gone Mad (in Hebrew: Ha’Olam Ke’Merkacha).

It is likely that the editor existed and that such a headline was written, and then removed. If it’s not in the archive – and as far as we know it is not – it was never published. But the story is too good not to repeat. Ha’Olam Ke’Merkacha is now a well-known Hebrew idiom. It is used on weeks like this past one – on Thursday, July 14, there was a deadly terrorist attack in France, but it was almost forgotten the next day because of a Turkish coup, and that was nearly forgotten by Monday, at least in America, because of a deadly ambush that fatally shot three law enforcement officers and wounded three more in Baton Rouge, just a little more than a week after an even deadlier shooting of policemen in Dallas. And because of the political extravaganza taking place in Cleveland. 

All four occurrences — Nice, Turkey, Baton Rouge, Cleveland — are important. All four are interconnected. Terrorism like what occurred in France is something the United States got a taste of just a few weeks ago in Florida. If this happens again, or if more police are killed by angry and disturbed lone wolves, that could change the political dynamic of the election season. A coup like the one in Turkey is not expected in the U.S., but the unrest in Turkey can still impact U.S. policy vis-à-vis not only Turkey, but also the whole Middle East. And it contributes to the nagging feeling of recent months that the world, the U.S. included, indeed has gone mad. 

Many pundits have compared the public mood of these times to the late 1960s and the social unrest of that era. Some have predicted that the Republican Cleveland of 2016 will be restive and violent like Democratic Chicago of 1968. But other, less forgiving comparisons also have been made. At the end of the 1800s, a string of attacks by anarchists began to rock the world, marking the end of one era and the dawn of another – one of bloody revolutions and world wars. The Paris Chamber of Deputies was bombed in 1893. Café Terminus in a Paris train station was bombed in 1894. A French anarchist attempted to destroy the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London the same year. Then, the president of France was assassinated by an Italian anarchist, and, three years later, the prime minister of Spain was murdered by another Italian. Empress Elizabeth of Austria was killed in 1898, and the King of Italy in 1900. President William McKinley was killed by an anarchist in 1901.

The anarchists had kooky ideas, much like some of the Jihadists today. But their appearance was a sign of their time. The world, which is never harmonious, has become even less so with the advancement of technology and the rapid spread of mass journalism – did anyone say Facebook? Twitter? Facetime real-time appetence by a Turkish president whose military is trying to dethrone him? “Globalization suited the anarchists very well. They saw themselves as part of a universal movement that rejected the constraints of the nation-state”, Richard Bach Jensen wrote in “The Battle Against Anarchist Terrorism,” (2014). The world has gone mad many times in many ways, but some times were madder than others. Sometimes the string of supposedly unrelated incidents and events have suddenly proved to be a zeitgeist, a beginning of a new era. 

Terrorism is hardly a new phenomenon, but what happened in Nice last week, and in Orlando only a month ago, and in other places before and after and in between these two, is frighteningly new. Because while getting intelligence on looming terror attacks was always tricky, getting intelligence on the specific radicalization of a truck driver, or the anti-gay feelings of a young Floridian, or the anti-police boiling point of a former Marine, is close to impossible. In killing President McKinley in September of 1901, assassin Leon Czolgosz was imitating anarchist Gaetano Bresci’s killing of King Umberto I of Italy the previous year. Violence breeds violence, example breeds example, success breeds success. 

In the coming weeks and months, truck drivers in France are going to feel a measure of tension as people follow their vehicles, wondering about their intentions. American Blacks might feel a measure of suspicion, greater than before, as officers follow them as they are merely walking in a city. It is a natural response. As natural as the tendency of people wondering about every airplane crossing the New York skies in the years following Sept. 11, 2001. As natural as that of people wondering about every Arab-looking Israeli entering a cafe in Tel Aviv in the days following the Sarona Market attack in June. 

The Sarona attack was deadlier than many previous attacks on Israelis in the recent months, but was not necessarily scarier. It was the classic terror attack. An attack with a detailed plan, with preparation, with conventional weapons that can be detected. Israel – much like all other countries – cannot always succeed in preventing people with intentions of doing malice from wandering around armed with guns, but at it least knows what it ought to look for: Armed people with intentions are of malice.

Countries cannot look for people with trucks, or people with kitchen knives, or people with axes. It is harder for them to look for people who do not have a well-prepared plan that they have shared with others, who are under no chain of command. Against such people there is a need to regroup in three ways, all of them alien to citizens of countries like the U.S.: Bolster security to shorten the time of response to attacks. Strengthen the inspection of people based on the probability that they might act. And last but not least, prepare the population for a long haul that will include some casualties. 

The third requirement is probably the hardest thing to achieve. In this day and age, especially in the Western world, people are used to believing that they ought to get what they want. Thus, many of the people who gathered this week in Cleveland might cheer a candidate who makes promises that are impossible to deliver. And next week, the people who gather in Philadelphia might cheer a candidate who makes promises that are impossible to deliver. Donald Trump’s bold statements will not prevent a truck driver from becoming a mass murderer. They might even encourage him. Hillary Clinton’s supposed experience will also not prevent a truck driver from becoming a mass murderer. It did not prevent the killing of the ambassador in Benghazi. It did not prevent the advancement of ISIS. It did not anticipate the durability of Bashir Assad in Syria. When the world is going mad, experience may be less useful than imagination. 

Anger and apprehension are the feelings that drive the world into its current wild state of affairs. Anger at a system they do not understand and cannot support motivates Muslim terrorists who’ve been inspired online to act. Apprehension over these Islamic tendencies motivated the military officers who tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the Turkish government. Anger at the system motivates young African American shooters to act against police. Anxiety about these Blacks (and, possibly, also prejudice) can make police officers edgy. And with all the necessary caveats — because while we tend to forget this when we get angry, there is a huge difference between democratic-peaceful lunacy and undemocratic-violent actions — it is still worth mentioning the obvious: Anger at a system they can neither understand nor support will motivate the supporters of Trump this week. Apprehension about Trump and his supporters will motivate supporters of Clinton next week. 

Thus, even before arriving in Cleveland, I have already decided that while there I will take a couple of hours off to make time for a short trip Southward. Rather than spend these precious hours on hearing more speeches, or following more demonstrations, I will spend them visiting a gravesite, one of my favorite spots in the whole of the United States. 

It takes just one hour to drive from Cleveland to Canton, Ohio. It takes even less to climb the steps to William McKinley’s tomb.