"The worst violence since ... ."
Once you start listening for it, you will hear this phrase, or something very similar, almost every time there's news from Israel. "The worst violence since Sept. 11;" "the worst violence in the 18 months since the latest Palestinian uprising began;" "the worst violence since the acceptance of a cease-fire;" and so on.
Surely this formulation is partly attributable to the media's need to make a routine development seem especially newsworthy. If there have been a thousand dog-bites-man stories, the 1,001st will no doubt be reported as "the first dog to bite a man named Eduardo since the beginning of the year ... ."
But this phrasing also can be seen as a sign of our unwillingness to draw sharp distinctions between wrong and right.
In 1993, then-Senator Patrick Moynihan wrote one of the most influential articles of the last decade. In the essay, titled "Defining Deviancy Down," Moynihan argued that deviancy - crime, mental illness, out-of-wedlock births, etc. -- had become so rampant, had so thoroughly soaked into the culture, that we simply had to redefine the abnormal as normal to cope. By setting the bar lower, we comforted ourselves with the notion that the percentage of abnormal behavior was still manageable.
Moynihan's most famous example was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. That event was a major turning point in American history, credited with helping to convince Americans to abandon prohibition. It warranted two entries in the World Book Encyclopedia. The actual details? Four gangsters murdered seven gangsters.
In the early 1990s, Moynihan noted, Los Angeles suffered from the equivalent of one St. Valentine's Day Massacre every weekend.
And, of course, we can say much the same about suicide bombings in Israel. Perhaps it's an admirable inclination to want to depict something like Wednesday's "Passover Massacre" as an aberration. But the fact is, suicide bombings and other violent acts are part of everyday life for Israelis and Palestinians. The aberrations are cease-fires and truces.
The United States suffered more than 3,000 casualties on Sept. 11. Proportionate to its population, Israel has lost 10 times that many to suicide bombers since 1993, when the Oslo Accords "Peace Process" began. And with women and children seen as the Palestinian's richest targets, who can doubt they've been far, far more terrorized?
The American reaction in the media and government to the perpetual violence is to rationalize it. More specifically, we, to use Moynihan's phrase, define deviancy down. Members of Hamas - the terrorist group that claimed responsibility for Wednesday's bombing as well as numerous other terrorist attacks -- are routinely called "activists" in the American media. NPR reports, "Palestinian anger increases each time Israeli troops attempt to kill one of their activists." The latest Time magazine cover story on Middle East violence uses the word "activist" synonymously with how most of us would use the word "terrorist."
In the United States, we are propagandized daily about how smoking is evil. Children are treated to endless commercials in which playground peers who encourage kids to smoke - or take drugs -- are depicted as awful human beings. Hamas pressures children to become suicide bombers. The Palestinian Authority encourages children to hate Jews with a bloodlust normally associated with Nazis. But these people are only "activists" because they aren't doing it to our children.
Such moral equivalence is perhaps the best example of deviancy defined downward. In May of last year, two 14-year-old Israeli boys were lured or dragged into a cave, beaten to death and then mutilated. This was around the same time a 4-month-old Palestinian girl was killed by Israeli tank fire in a battle with armed Palestinian militants who'd been firing mortars at Israel.
The media, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted at the time, treated these events as morally comparable. "The deaths of children have enraged both sides," reported USA Today. Or as CNN declared, "In a region seemingly numb to violence, the deaths of both Palestinian and Israeli youngsters have struck nerves on both sides of the conflict."
Both deaths were tragic. But the killings were not morally equivalent. Civilians die in urban battles. Israel didn't go looking to kill babies. The murderers who beat those Israeli boys went out of their way to do it. But the media in America - and much more so in Europe - treat such acts to be on the same moral plane. The United States undoubtedly killed plenty of innocent Afghans in response to Sept. 11. But that doesn't mean we're as bad as the masterminds of Sept. 11, does it?
America began the war on terrorism with a clear understanding of what terrorism is. Alas, that's been defined down, too.