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Monday, February 02, 2004

Interesting Times: Life is many things

by Saul Singer
Jerusalem Post: I thought about my brother Alex this week, but not in circumstances I have known in the 17 years since his death. For all those years, I have focused on Alex's life, not on how he died in battle on a rocky hilltop in Lebanon, and even less on the terrorists who shot him.

This week's prisoner deal, however, made the issue unavoidable for my family and a number of others who lost soldiers in Lebanon. Among the released prisoners was Anwar Yassin, who had another 13 years to serve of his 30-year sentence for killing Alex Singer, Ronen Weisman, and Oren Kamil on September 15, 1987.


Alex Singer

The surprise introduction of a personal element has not helped crystallize my muddled views on the deal. A pundit's job is to make tricky cost-benefit analyses, but even before I knew Alex's killer was in the mix, my calculator had short-circuited. How to compare the concrete freedom of one Israeli, even one who may have been kidnapped under circumstances partly of his own making, against the potential victims of unrepentant released terrorists? What weight should be given to the injustice that Yassin, 36, will be given a hero's welcome, and has a whole life ahead of him?

I am comforted by the fact that the price that so many Israelis have found expensive is regarded by Palestinians to be cheap. Some analysts found Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah to be more defensive than triumphant, and have noted that most of the Palestinians were small fry on the terror ladder, sprung only a short time before their scheduled release.

Yet while I find the morality and advisability questions to be murky, one message is not: the vast contrast between the value placed on human life. Prisoner deals represent a rare and stark quantification of the human value gap.

The same imbalance that horrifies us says something profound: Alex's killer may be a hero in his home town, but he was worth on the order of 1/400th of one Israeli's freedom. The reason we have to trade so many for so few is that we value human life and freedom differently.

To our enemies, this is precisely our weakness and their chief asset. It is no accident that the suicide bomber is the emblematic weapon of the struggle of our age. Each such bombing repeats the question, literally in our faces: Can a society that loves life beat one that celebrates death? Al-Qaida and its groupies are explicit about this. "We know that you are still deluded by your power and think that your fortresses and destroyers and aircraft carriers will protect you. ... these are worth nothing in our eyes. ... we can face you one-on-one and make you taste the despair of those who have put their faith in this world," said one bin Laden mouthpiece.

The jihadis are right that we are more vulnerable than they. Our societies are wide open, and every prick hurts. As the aggressor, they automatically enjoy the initiative and can always choose the softest target, be it the Red Cross in Iraq, vacationers in Bali, or a cafe in Jerusalem.

Ho Chi Minh said to the French in the 1940s, "You can kill 10 of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds you will lose and I will win." Or as Henry Kissinger said, if guerrillas do not lose, they win; if the defenders do not win, they lose.

Today's jihadis may seem even more invincible than yesterday's guerrillas, who were ruthless but whose goals included staying alive. But increased asymmetry does not just cut in the jihadis' favor. In the end, the jihadis are not just up against free governments, which may be weak, but the human will to live, which is strong.

It would be a mistake to mirror-image the West's this-world, life-affirming orientation on more fatalistic cultures. We should not assume that all young Muslims are secretly pining for Western freedom and prosperity. But neither should we assume that the jihadis' death cult has spread within its own culture past the point of no return.

Loving death is not alien to all cultures, but it is alien to all life. Nor does loving life necessarily negate a willingness to sacrifice it.

"Life is many things. It is fragile, beautiful, full of opportunity to create and improve our world," Alex wrote from IDF officers' school to an American friend. "But it is also short. To kill, in the most extreme cases, can be just. There are more important things than one life," my brother said.

Alex loved life, but he was willing to die to save lives - as he did when he stopped Yassin from fulfilling the murderous mission that captured documents showed he had planned to carry out in Israel.

The forces of life have infinitely more untapped power than the forces of death. The jihadis' real theory of victory is not based on the West's fear of death but on our naivete and false sense of security. It is these, not our love of life, that must be overcome.
Saul Singer is the Editorial Page Editor of the Jerusalem Post and author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11. He can be reached at saul@jpost.com

I'm ordering his book, and in the process decided to also get Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars by Yaacov Lozowick, who is the director of the archives at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Museum. I like this, that Booklist said about him: "Like the proverbial liberal who is mugged into conservatism, he is a former peace activist who voted for Ariel Sharon in response to the collapse of the Oslo process and the ongoing violence directed at Israeli civilians." Reminds me of myself, and so many of us now. . . I wonder if he too is mystified and or disappointed by Sharon?