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The Boston Globe

Problems That Can't be Solved

IT IS A FOOL who defines a problem in such a way that it cannot be solved. That was a watchword of Cold War arms limitation negotiators, but it seems a forgotten lesson now.

When President Bush defines the problem of terrorism by decreeing simplistically, "If you're not with us, you're against us," he makes solution of this complex problem impossible. By driving allies away, demonizing the nonaligned, and forcing an either-or choice on people who reject it, he is playing into the hands of the terrorists.

In Iraq, more and more average people, including many who hated Saddam, see America as the enemy. The 16 US soldiers killed in a helicopter Sunday are the latest to pay the tragic price for Bush's foolishness.

And so in Israel. Ariel Sharon is George Bush's junior partner, but when it comes to defining problems in ways that make solution impossible, Sharon is past master. Israel is traumatized by the despicable suicide-bomber assaults, and a people made to fear even the most mundane of transactions -- on a bus, in a cafe -- are given to extreme reactions.

Once a struggle is experienced as a fight for survival, public virtues of restraint, moderation, and even compassion for innocents on the other side can go out the window. It's either us or them. Those so ruthless in judgment of Israelis now are failing to grasp the single most important fact of their experience -- which is radical fear, not only for themselves and their children personally, but for the very survival of their nation. No Palestinian leader has yet emerged who seems willing to say aloud that such Israeli fear is the Palestinian problem, not the Palestinian solution.

If Palestinians, including those who have no use for the suicide-killers among them, seem to take satisfaction in this Israeli fear, it is as a match for their own fear. Frightened Palestinians, too, are at the mercy of "us or them." The broad population may reject suicide-murder in theory, but their mostly mute resignation before the fact undergirds the unwillingness of the Palestinian Authority to challenge the militant extremists. Trouble is, to define the problem as the Palestinian nihilists have, is to make solution impossible. A national resistance movement that depends on the suicides of individuals can only end in the suicide of the nation.


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Meanwhile, the Sharon government's policies have recruited many more suicide terrorists to act against Israel than they have deterred. Sharon has made Israel a far more dangerous place today and an extraordinarily burdened one tomorrow. As with Bush, Sharon's definition of the problem has come back to bite him. Now comes news of a new Israeli war machine -- a bulldozer that is operated by remote control. The bulldozer, used to destroy the homes of Palestinians linked, however ambiguously, to terror, was already a symbol of the troubling policy of general retribution. With such bulldozers unmanned, the Israeli soldiers who were their operators will no longer face the jeopardy of retaliation for demolition. But to what problem is such a bulldozer the solution?

How can Palestinian villagers experience such a machine as anything but a terrifying monster? As if war were not bad enough, this further depersonalization makes it worse, and it must escalate the very fear that fuels violence.

Depersonalized war becomes its own justification. Palestinians, confronting faceless demolition, will be more at the mercy of group think hatred than ever. Israelis, at a distance from the actual work of a machine designed to destroy homes and olive groves, will increasingly avoid the disturbing questions this tactic must give rise to. And so with Israel's new "security fence," aiming to keep terrorists out but also keeping Israelis detached from the ever worsening Palestinian suffering, to which such a fence can only add.

If the problem between Israelis and Palestinians is defined by each side as the mere existence of the other, there is no solution. Similarly, if America defines its enemy as anyone who is not, as President Bush put it, "with us," we are embarked on a lonely road to nowhere. (Curiously, the president here negatively reverses the position of his favorite political philosopher, Jesus of Nazareth, who said, positively, "Anyone who is not against us is for us," according to Mark 9:40.) Now that with Iraq Bush has a West Bank of his own, Jerusalem and Washington find themselves on the same dead end street, mapless.

Among Israelis and Palestinians, remarkably, hope for a new way persists. That is the significance of the so-called Geneva Accords, which build on the near-agreement of the Clinton years and about which Amram Mitzna wrote on this page last Saturday. The peace movement in Israel is not dead, and Palestinian voices can be heard denouncing terror and reaching for compromise. Now both sides must redefine the problem in such a way that it can be solved.

James Carroll

James Carroll

James Carroll, a TomDispatch regular and former Boston Globe columnist, is the author of 20 books, including the new novel The Cloister (Doubleday). Among other works are: House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power and Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age. His memoir, An American Requiem, won the National Book Award. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He lives in Boston with his wife, the writer Alexandra Marshall.


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