The Magazine

The Boys in the Cave

Murder by stoning and the fallacy of moral equivalence

May 28, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 35 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
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ON MAY 9, two 14-year-old Israeli boys who had been playing hooky from school and hiking on the West Bank were found in a cave battered to death and mutilated. In Western news reports, this horror was not permitted to stand alone. It was routinely coupled with a recent Palestinian death. "The deaths came two days after a 4-month-old Palestinian baby girl was killed by Israeli tank fire and further roiled emotions in a week of spiraling violence that neither side seems able to control," reported the New York Times the next day.

The coupling was invariable. "The deaths of children have enraged both sides," reported USA Today. Or as CNN summarized it, "In a region seemingly numb to violence, the deaths of both Palestinian and Israeli youngsters has struck nerves on both sides of the conflict."

Both sides. Tragedy all around. The presumption of moral equivalence between these two events -- and, by implication, between the two sides -- is by now entirely characteristic of the Western view of the fighting. And it is entirely wrong.

Consider these two incidents.

The Israeli firings in Gaza were not, as the reader might presume, unprovoked. Israeli tanks did not gratuitously go hunting for babies in Gaza. Israelis had been attacked by mortar rounds fired from Palestinian territory. Israel was trying to silence the mortars. If, say, Zapatista guerrillas were launching mortars into San Diego, is it conceivable that the U.S. Army would not cross into Tijuana to silence them?

Clearly, what happened in Gaza was the inadvertent death of an infant in the urban warfare the Palestinians launched eight months ago. Such deaths happen in every instance of urban warfare, from the post-Normandy fighting in the villages of France in World War II to the more recent NATO bombing of Serbia.

There is a difference, an immense moral difference, between this kind of unintentional death and what happened to those two Israeli boys. It is the difference between tragedy and infamy.

From the 1972 Munich massacre of Israel's Olympic athletes to the suicide bombers of today, the world has long since grown accustomed to Palestinian terrorism. But even terrorism -- the deliberate murder of innocents -- pales beside what happened to those two boys. Terrorism at least has a perverse logic: It is murder as a means to some political end. What happened in that cave was murder as an end in itself.

These boys were not targets. They were not deliberately sought out by a terrorist on a mission. The most chilling part of this story is that the boys were merely chanced upon. And then were torn to pieces.

Last year, two Israeli reservists lost their way and strayed into Ramallah, where they were lynched by a frenzied mob. The Palestinians then made up the story that the Israelis were suspected undercover agents.

What could the story be this week? Fourteen-year-old boys are neither spies nor soldiers. Yet they were bludgeoned to death with stones, their blood then dabbed on the walls of the cave.

This is not war. This is not even terrorism. This is bloodlust.

It is savagery so grotesque that it might not have been believed had we not all seen that picture last fall on the cover of Time of the Palestinian, having just beaten to death the two Israeli reservists in Ramallah, exultantly holding out his blood-stained hands to the crowd in a gesture of triumph.

People are not born with bloodlust. They learn it. It is no mystery where the Palestinians have learned it. For years Arafat's mini-police-state has been feeding his people the rawest Jew-hatred since the Third Reich. In television, radio, newspapers, and textbooks, Arafat has created the psychic infrastructure that sustains his endless war on Israel -- and gives us the barbarism in the cave.

"I hate the Israelis," declared Palestinian first lady Suha Arafat only two weeks ago. That hatred is in the air Palestinians breathe. A few days later, Syrian president Bashar Assad -- in the presence of the pope, no less -- accused the Jews of trying "to kill the principle of religions in the same mentality in which they betrayed Jesus Christ and in the same way with which they tried to kill the Prophet Muhammad." His defense minister then said on television: "When I see a Jew before me, I kill him. If every Arab did this, it would be the end of the Jews."

This is not from crackpots. This is not from the political fringes. This is from the highest level of the leadership among Israel's neighbors.

Keep that up for years, and you have raised a generation prepared -- no, designed -- to bathe in the blood of 14-year-old boys.