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The Root Causes of Moral Evil

No matter how many innocents are murdered, Western intellectuals will never stop making excuses for terrorists

Edward Rothstein
November 08, 2023
The Manhattan skyline following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, 2001

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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It is difficult to admit that I might have been as wrong about 10/7 as I was about 9/11. The pogrom that Hamas perpetrated in Israel this October was almost immediately compared to al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And the comparison was well worth making. Each attack was a horrific breach of a nation’s borders and security, resulting in soul-quaking death and suffering. If anything, the Hamas attack was even more devastating, given the small size of Israel, the still-accumulating evidence of unimagined barbarity, and the fact that it was intended to be an existential act of violence, part of an attempt to destroy a state and its people.

And after both 10/7 and 9/11, I reacted very similarly and, it turns out, very wrongly. I mused in The New York Times a few weeks after the al-Qaida attacks that they might lead to a serious reassessment of orthodoxies cherished by many intellectuals as well as guardians of the disciplines known as postcolonialism and postmodernism.

Despite the ardent convictions by so many of the absolute evil of the West, and despite the belief that almost anything done to the West was justifiable because of what the West had done to others, and despite the doctrines of postmodernism that insisted that (aside from those absolute judgments) almost anything else asserted was purely relative and that no moral statement had any objective standing, surely, I suggested, 9/11 would force some recognition of error: It seemed to demonstrate that not everything could be justified, and some things really could be unambiguously condemned. The West’s most “advanced” doctrines, taught to a generation of students, would surely have to be reexamined.

So if just before the 9/11 attacks, The Nation could publish Edward Said, the eminent literary theorist and anti-colonial activist, attacking the “false universals” of the West that he said were used to enable “corporate profit-taking and political power,” then surely, after the attacks there would come an accounting and reassessment.

But doctrines were not shaken. They were not even stirred. The week after the attacks, a writer in The Nation asserted they were, in fact, the result of Western injustices. Another called the United States, the “world’s leading ‘rogue state’” which has killed “hundreds of thousands if not millions, of innocents.” Again and again, these acts were reputed to have been caused by the primal injustices of the West. Islamic terrorism was justified as a reaction against the “root causes” of “why they hate us.”

As it turned out, in the aftermath of 9/11, the doctrines of the intellectuals became even more ... doctrinaire. In the following decades, the “root-causes” argument was heard anytime a particular kind of terrorism was confronted. The extremism of a terrorist act was taken to be proportional to the size of the grievance. Think of what awful things had to have been done to inspire that kind of primordial fury!

Not only that, but as has been reiterated again and again over the decades, if you respond to terror in any combative way without addressing the purported injustice, then clearly you are becoming part of a “cycle of violence.” The injustice theory of terrorism asserts that the only way to eliminate terrorism is to address the “root cause.” In other words, give the terrorists precisely what they desire because what they desire is the elimination of injustice. In this curious inversion, the terrorists are given the moral high ground.

Doctrines were not shaken. They were not even stirred.

The invocation of “root causes” was always a bit peculiar, though. Somehow, an appeal to “root causes” never made an appearance when right-wing terror reared its ugly head. No one insisted that Timothy McVeigh’s mass murder in Oklahoma was the result of a just grievance, caused by the failure of America to remedy the ongoing and clearly intolerable oppression of the rural poor. But when it came to attacks done in the name of anti-colonialism or leftist convictions, the root-cause arguments were immediately put in play. They even shaped the ideology of mainstream films like Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which applied them to Israel; the film distorted history in order to assert that Israel’s response to terrorism only led to even more terrorism in a “cycle of violence”—because the Israelis failed to properly address “root causes,” of course.

I could say the advocates of these doctrines were moral idiots who never really learned from history. But then, neither did I. Because last month I believed—again!—that the evidence on view in Israel would jostle those orthodoxies. After all, what Hamas put on uninhibited display was, first, the genocidal impulse in its rawest form. One of the killers used a victim’s phone to call his parents and boast of having killed 10 Jews, inspiring enthusiastic parental approval. Others burned entire families alive, beheaded and kidnapped babies. The killers didn’t even have to offer any justification or manifesto for their actions. The Hamas charter makes it a religiously ordained mission to kill Jews, and so was it done, with great fervor.

How innocent my expectations—or hopes?—now seem! Root-causes explanations took root almost immediately, on a global scale, nearly obliterating all the horrors done to the victims by their genocidal killers—a service which appeared to be the point of the root-cause argument. At the same time, we were assured that actions like burning children and babies alive—once the grieving Israelis were forced to provide endless video clips, photographs, and autopsy reports proving these atrocities were real—could hardly represent the true feelings of Palestinians themselves. This despite the fact that any widespread rejection of Hamas was completely invisible inside Gaza as well among the far-less-fettered Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank, who supposedly yearn for a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians will live side-by-side in peace.

Did I actually harbor any kind of hope for that kind of denunciation—something that we might have expected from any responsible polity on the planet? Or for a world reaction that might demand it? How naive! Yet again! Why, after all, should it take place? In the contorted ideology of our time, Palestinians hold the root-cause card, which confers complete moral and political absolution for just about anything and responsibility for absolutely nothing.

Rejection of Hamas also appeared to be nonexistent among the highly educated Muslims who live and study in the West and who have so proudly paraded their passions and moral stature in recent weeks. Aside from those crowds of demonstrators and activists, displaying their placards and masks and hatreds, surely there must have been some who objected to Hamas’ hijacking of their ideals or convictions? Surely we would be hearing from those who might envision a Palestine liberated “from the river to sea” through peaceful, democratic means—a bit like the PLO, which, a few decades ago, disingenuously called for a “democratic secular state in all of Palestine”?

But not even that masquerade was attempted, so there was certainly no Palestinian movement imagining a compromise; nor was there any sign of responsible leadership or moral vision or pragmatic planning. Even the mention of it seems absurd. What kind of delusions do I hold? Should I expect something like the Jewish Yishuv, over a century ago, in which Jewish immigrants to Palestine joined their impoverished compatriots already there and slowly purchased land and farmed and developed institutions of self-governance? Even that history has been buried under grotesque distortions, in which contemporary advocates of gangsterism and fundamentalism are simply seeing reflections of themselves, instead of an example that might provide some illumination.

How ridiculously wrong those hopes have come to seem! Again and again! After all, Israel is responding to the murders and is now in full pursuit. And so we have a “cycle of violence” and “you have to understand” the “complications” and there is suffering on “both sides” and there is that gnawing “root cause” that Israel has failed to address.

What has been made clear over the past month is that under current ideological conditions, anything done to the Jews in Israel would be justified. Anything. And that something very close to nothing would be tolerated in response.

The fact remains that not only was there no organized Muslim or Palestinian or Arab protest against Hamas anywhere on earth, but over the last three weeks the world’s reactions have only become more and more perverse. It is as if the horrific mass killings served as evidence that there was no longer any need to even pretend to endorse the moral and intellectual values shaped by the best of Western thought, which includes the Enlightenment values on which Western defenders of the poor and oppressed (OK, call them Hamas) ostensibly rest their case. The very horror of Hamas’ actions was taken as proof of its just grievances. In turn, students at American universities have publicly celebrated these skewed perspectives, which are proudly validated by their teachers.

Relativism and symmetry hold sway (when convenient)—principles that work to excuse and explain Hamas without any thought about differences in how war is waged or what its goals might be. What has been made clear over the past month is that under current ideological conditions, anything done to the Jews in Israel would be justified. Anything. And that something very close to nothing would be tolerated in response.

The root-cause doctrine reigns supreme. And what is that root cause for Hamas? The existence of Jews and their state. The great international institutions of the postwar order might blanch at the blunt suggestion, but after all … you can hear them tastefully drift off and you begin to understand, perhaps, the stakes.

And so, I have been wrong again in my expectations that extremism and atrocity would cause some kind of rethinking or reckoning with the great moral evil that has been growing in our midst. My absurd hope is as foolish, it now seems, as believing that a “two-state solution” is just a matter of drawing the right boundaries and making the right accommodations.

Maybe I have finally learned? I doubt it, because those of us who refuse to embrace the lures of what Hannah Arendt once called “totalitarian terror” and reject the ideological mythologies that support it, still can’t believe the scale and scope of contemporary political hysteria. It is now on full display as its absurd calculus is being brought to bear on the war in Gaza, in which Israel must have the strength to persist despite the unholy clamor we hear daily, in which the doctrine of root causes casts Israel as villain.

Edward Rothstein has been Critic at Large for The Wall Street Journal since 2015, writing about museums, reviewing exhibitions, and contributing essays on a variety of topics. He was previously Critic at Large for The New York Times and has served as Chief Music Critic of The New York Times and Music Critic for The New Republic.