The Squeegee Men of the New World Order

Jonah Goldberg

1/2/2009 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

If you're old enough to have been around in the 1980s, and possibly even if you aren't, you probably know the name Leon Klinghoffer. A wheelchair-bound elderly businessman, Klinghoffer was murdered and dumped over the side of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists in 1985.

But do you remember Gavriel Holtzberg? He was an American executed in Mumbai in November. His wife Rivka, an Israeli, was six months pregnant and was also executed at close range. How about Naomi and Alan Scherr? Naomi was Alan's 13-year-old daughter. They were killed while having dinner in their Mumbai hotel. Paul Johnson Jr.? He was one of several Americans kidnapped and executed in 2004 in Saudi Arabia.

We don't remember these names because nobody made a big deal about them. It's not that their deaths were considered trivial events when they happened. But it was merely the news of the day, maybe the week, and little more.

Now compare that to Klinghoffer. His murder was a worldwide event. Presidents and prime ministers thundered their outrage. Newspapers editorialized ad nauseam about the cowardice and villainy of the perpetrators.

Yasir Arafat's PLO had to play along, pretending they would never be involved in such a heinous act. Farouk Kaddoumi, Arafat's "foreign minister," suggested that Klinghoffer's wife had murdered and dumped her husband overboard to collect the insurance money. For the record, the Klinghoffers took the cruise to celebrate their 36th wedding anniversary.

In 1993, near the height of America's anger over out-of-control crime, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote a seminal article for the American Scholar on "defining deviancy down." Moynihan argued that crime had gotten so out of control, Americans responded by simply defining deviancy down until many crimes seemed normal.

One of his more famous examples was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. On Feb. 14, 1929, seven gangsters were killed by rival gangsters. "The nation was shocked. The event became legend ..." Moynihan observed. "I leave it to others to judge, but it would appear that the society in the 1920s was simply not willing to put up with this degree of deviancy. In the end, the Constitution was amended, and Prohibition, which lay behind so much gangster violence, ended." But by the early 1990s, the United States was experiencing the equivalent of a St. Valentine's Day Massacre every weekend.

One response to the crime epidemic was to redefine violent crime as a "public health issue." Traditional law enforcement was simply incapable of dealing with the "social pathologies" and "root causes" of the wave of gun violence and the like.

Fortunately, this approach, while far from dead, was relegated to the back burner by the successes of anti-crime initiatives in places like Rudy Giuliani's New York. The solution, it largely turned out, wasn't to become more tolerant of criminality by recasting it as a cultural or lifestyle choice or by invoking root causes (as The New York Times often did), but to become less tolerant of crime. In New York, turnstile jumpers, graffiti artists, even the infamous "squeegee men" were treated as the lawbreakers they were. One heartening moral of the story is that sometimes deviancy can be defined back up.

We learned a similar moral after 9/11. For years -- starting around the time of Klinghoffer's murder, as it happens -- policymakers in both parties debated how to define terrorism. Is it a law-and-order issue or a military threat? If it's a military threat, how do we define a "proportionate response" -- this legalistic phrase entered the national-security lexicon back then, too. By the end of the 1990s, the best and the brightest of the Clinton administration found the answer in a lawerly kind of proportionality, blowing up empty office buildings as a way to "send a message" in response to attacks on America and her interests.

After 9/11, the gloves were off. The far left beseeched the government to retaliate with, at most, a proportionate response, but no one cared. We toppled the Taliban as a warm-up act. Terrorists weren't criminals anymore, they were enemy combatants, ineligible for the Geneva Conventions. But the war in Iraq and reports of American zeal in the war on terror have left a sour taste in our mouths. That there have been no terrorist attacks on our soil only bolsters the sense that terrorism is manageable, even banal. Barack Obama leads a counteroffensive from a legal establishment that wants to treat terrorists like any other criminals. Terrorists in Mumbai or Jeddah are little more than the squeegee men of the New World Order.

This vain legalism will run its course for a good long while, I suspect. And we will hear and then forget a lot of names before we relearn some hard lessons.