September 22, 2019

Horrorism in the Middle East

“…there are only wrong choices, and it’s like I’m … I’m finally seeing it now for the first time: Nothing good can happen in this f—-d-up world we’ve made for ourselves.”

— Carrie Mathison, “Homeland,” Season 4, Episode 8, Nov. 16, 2014


You know who agrees with Carrie about the Middle East these days? Everyone. We sit here an ocean away and watch it go from bad to worse. 

There’s New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who wrote this week, “What is unbearable, in fact, is the feeling, 13 years after 9/11, that America has been chasing its tail; that, in some whack-a-mole horror show, the quashing of a jihadi enclave here only spurs the sprouting of another there.”

There’s Tom Friedman, also writing for The Times, who all but threw up his hands in his last two columns. “In sum,” he wrote, “there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on ISIS that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight.”

There was the estimable Robert Satloff, in Politico: “It will likely take an even more dramatic brand of divine intervention to prevent a slew of worsening Mideast problems — renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Islamic terrorism, Iranian nukes and so on — from landing squarely on the desk of the next U.S. president.”

And former diplomat Aaron David Miller, who wrote this week on, “We’re stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, and where ambiguity and uncertainty will rule over clarity and stability for years to come.”

This week began with the execution of American hostage Peter Kassig, and before it was out, we witnessed the attack in a Jerusalem synagogue, which left (as of press time) five Israelis dead. 

These acts share a brutal, personal, senselessness that “terrorism” doesn’t quite begin to describe. A British journalist coined a better term: “horrorism.”

Horrorism combines terror with the purposeful depiction of as much personal human suffering as possible. Terrorism uses bombs, and airplanes; horrorism uses knives, fists and axes. The ISIS video, the aftermath of the bloody synagogue — there is nothing more frightening than what one pair of human hands can do to a fellow human.

In Israel, after the creation of a strong, vibrant nation state, we are back to Kishinev 1903, and the pogrom that inspired Theodor Herzl to push for a Jewish state. As the poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote back then, “… the hatchet found them there.” And again it finds them, and again we mourn, “A place of sainted graves and martyr-stone.”

And that’s what makes great minds, starting with Carrie Mathison, despair. After all the involvement, money, strategy and grand plans, we are back to the Bronze Age, back to bloodlust and human sacrifice. What’s worse, as the political solutions recede, the religious aspects of these conflicts loom larger and larger. 

In Iraq and Syria, the religious war — a disaster we helped create — now seems entirely predictable. In times of chaos, people gravitate toward what the philosopher Robert Nozick calls “protective associations.” Kurds become more Kurd, Sunnis more Sunni, Shiites more Shiite. If a functioning state can’t offer protection and security, pre-existing identities will.  

“When the state collapsed,” legal and Islamic scholar Noah Feldman writes in “What We Owe Iraq,” “people had little choice but to find some marker of identity that they thought would have some chance of working for them. And these were the identities that were there. We didn’t create these identities —they already existed — it’s that we turned those identities into focal points for self-organization, by virtue of our failure to provide security. And we therefore made these ethnic/denominational identities much more important for Iraqi politics than they otherwise would have been.”

Speaking last month at Harvard Law School, Feldman (who will be a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple Dec. 4-6) said he doesn’t think ISIS will survive three years facing opposition from most of the Arab and Muslim world. But he doesn’t say that what will follow will be any less extreme.

In Israel, there’s a similar dynamic. Secular Palestinian leadership is almost an oxymoron. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas foments revolt and Jew-hatred on the one hand, then condemns, in the weakest possible way, attacks on innocent Israelis. Lacking strong secular leadership, young Palestinians from Gaza to East Jerusalem turn to their “protective associations” — religious leaders, the mosques, Hamas.

The police call them “lone wolf” attacks, but you can only have lone wolves when there is no alpha dog.  

Attacks in Jerusalem, the holy city, carry the import of holy war. Things can so easily spiral out of control, beyond the city limits, beyond Israel and into the rest of the world.

“The religious dimension of the conflict is very dangerous and explosive,” Shin Bet security services chief Yoram Cohen told members of a Knesset committee, according to Ha’aretz, “because it has implications for the Palestinians and for Muslims everywhere in the world. We have to do everything possible to instill calm.”

Instill calm. When he figures out how to do that, he should let the rest of the world know how.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at Follow him on Twitter @foodaism.