The Dissident
POLITICS AND CULTURE FROM NEW PERSPECTIVES
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DISSIDENT No. 2   


POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY
The Myth of Mandates

The Thoughtless Orthodoxy

The Priority of the Visible: How Democracy Empowers Terrorists

Ditching the M-word

Straight Talk about Economic Illiteracy

The Poverty of Good Intentions


BOOKS + IDEAS + PROVOCATIONS
Buddhist Capitalism

Theory Gets a Reality Check: Power, Money, and a Little Bit about Love

The Politics of Innocents


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DISSIDENT No. 1

DISSIDENT No. 3  

 


dissident
The Priority of the Visible: How Democracy Empowers Terrorists
BY EDOE COHEN



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The full effects of September 11 on American politics won’t be known, of course, for a long time. But a lesson in the long-run consequences of terrorism on democratic politics might be drawn from Israel, which has much unfortunate experience in the matter.

In June 1982, after the continued shelling of northern Israel by PLO forces based in Lebanon, Israel launched a full-scale invasion that drove out the PLO. Israel withdrew three years later, but maintained a 9-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon. In the following years, this border area saw frequent clashes between the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the Syrian and Iranian-backed terrorist faction of the Hezbullah. Hezbullah members frequently penetrated the security zone in order to shell the northern towns and villages of Israel.

The mounting Israeli casualty count in Lebanon between 1995 and 2000 produced intense domestic pressure for a complete withdrawal from Lebanon. “I think a growing number of people in Israel are sick and tired of the bloodshed in Lebanon. We want to bring the boys home,” said a participant in a November 30, 1998, protest near Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. Political pressures grew so strong that Ehud Barak was able to win a sweeping victory in the May 2000 elections by pledging to withdraw all troops from Lebanon within his first year in office.

TV and newspaper images of the casualties accounted for Barak’s election. Between 1995 and 2000, Israeli viewers were bombarded with poignant images from the Lebanese front. Scenes of mothers crying at their sons’ funerals, of Hezbullah terrorists (who brought video cameras) attacking Israeli strongholds, of the carnage after Israeli helicopters collided over Lebanon—all of these were shown incessantly, and all contributed to the public’s growing determination to withdraw from Lebanon.

Successful acts of violence are always televised and they always make the front page. “The more spectacular and brutal [the] deeds,” Brigitte Nacos writes, the more “press coverage and public attention” given to the terrorists.“As one terrorist put it, ‘we would throw roses if it would work.’”

The journalist, overtly unbiased as he may be, can show and report only actual events. This is a type of bias the reporter can do nothing to overcome. If soldiers are being killed in southern Lebanon, the media will report all they can about these killings. What they cannot show is the unseen: what would happen if Israel were to withdraw from Lebanon. Many journalists and experts speculated about and debated this option, but no one could actually foresee its effects; let alone depict them visually; let alone broadcast them live from the scene. Therefore, the public could see only one side of the picture. They might have heard arguments against withdrawing, but since no Israeli cameraman could go into the future and film how Israel would appear 30 years after the withdrawal, all they could see were the horrible images from Lebanon—generated by Hezbullah to shape Israeli public opinion.

There would be little point to terrorism without democracy, which empowers emotionally manipulable public opinion. Terrorists have discovered this drawback and have been taking full advantage of it. They terrorize the public in order to shape public opinion in their favor; in turn, public opinion influences leaders’ critical decisions.

Only afterwards could the effects of the once popular withdrawal from Lebanon be seen, because unlike the future, the present is visible. After the withdrawal, Israel’s northern border with Lebanon remained insecure, with Hezbullah still performing acts of terror against Israeli forces and Israeli towns in northern Israel. However, Hezbullah no longer had a 9-mile security zone to deter it. And the withdrawal from southern Lebanon gave the PLO a strong incentive to begin the Intifada a few months later, causing much more violence than had the occupation of Lebanon.

In the words of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, “a politician is one who acts with the coming elections in mind. A leader is one who acts with the coming century in mind.” There has always been a tension between leadership and democracy: for the populace to have the coming century or even the coming year in mind, it must know an awful lot about the present (and about the past, which can be depicted graphically, but in which the public is not much interested). The plain fact is that most people, through no fault of their own—life is short—know little about politics. That is the first problem raised for leadership by democracy. But dealing with terrorists also requires the patience and imagination to visualize the future. And that poses a special challenge to leadership in democracies, since the people, who are ultimately in charge, know only what grabs their attention, and the future cannot be soberly depicted in a way that does so.

This may not be widely recognized, but it is something terrorists understand all too well.

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Edoe Cohen is a second-year Columbia student.

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