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The Return of the Progressive Atrocity

It is the responsibility of Western activists to know who and what they support, and to separate themselves—openly and decisively—from programs and regimes that are predicated on violence and repression.

· 21 min read
The Return of the Progressive Atrocity
Photo by Amir Hanna on Unsplash

All lies and jest,
Still a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest…

~Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

In 1957, Albert Memmi addressed the question of the Left’s relationship with terrorism in his book, The Colonizer and the Colonized. Memmi was a Tunisian Jew, equally committed to socialist Zionism and anticolonialism. The Left tradition, he observed, “condemns terrorism” as “incomprehensible, shocking and politically absurd. For example, the deaths of children and persons outside the struggle.” 

But Memmi’s suppositions were outdated even as he wrote. The history of the modern Left’s romance with terrorism—not the “old-fashioned” version aimed at czars or imperial officials, but the kind directed against unarmed civilians—had already begun. It started with the Algerian War and gained momentum throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and beyond with the emergence of the Red Brigades, the Baader Meinhof Gang, the Irish Republican Army, the Japanese Red Army, the Weathermen, and the panoply of organizations included in the Palestine Liberation Organization and, especially, its Rejectionist Front. The latter held pride of place: “For the Sixth International, the Palestinian resistance is a banner ... an inspiration for the revolt of the dispossessed, both in its ends and in its means,” proclaimed Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a prominent Egyptian leftwing intellectual and activist.

It was at this time that the oxymoronic and ethically repellent concept of what the late Middle East scholar, anti-colonialist, and socialist Fred Halliday criticized as “progressive atrocities” gained credence on the Left, particularly within the Palestinian movement and among the groups supporting it. Of course, the Palestinian national project—like Zionism—has always contained a variety of ideologies ranging from peaceful coexistence to the elimination of the other. (The latter tendency is appallingly prevalent among many members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s current government.) But it is no exaggeration to say that the Palestinian movement, even before the founding of Israel in 1948, has been defined by terror more than any other, and that terrorist groups have always been prominent within the movement.

In the age of the “progressive atrocity,” PLO terrorist attacks on Israelis, Jews, and civilians throughout the world were hailed as instruments of liberation. A very partial list of such incidents would include the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics (the games continued, nonetheless) and the Lod Airport massacre the same year (death toll: 26, along with at least 80 injured); the Ma’alot massacre of 1974, in which 115 Israelis, mainly schoolchildren, were taken hostage (resulting deaths: 31); the Entebbe hijacking of 1976, in which Israeli and other Jewish passengers were separated from others and threatened with death (most were rescued by Israeli commandos); the 1978 Coastal Road massacre, in which a civilian bus was highjacked (death toll: 38, including 13 children; 71 wounded); the 1982 attack on the Chez Jo Goldenberg kosher restaurant in Paris, considered at the time to be the worst incidence of antisemitism in France since the Holocaust (death toll: six, with 22 injured); and numerous other instances of air piracy. Various international groups, especially Baader Meinhof of Germany and the Japanese Red Army, sometimes assisted their Palestinian brothers “in solidarity.” Not all leftists or leftwing organizations supported these actions, but to criticize them was a sign of “bourgeois moralism” as Ghassan Kanafani, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, put it. (Kanafani, who was also a gifted writer, was assassinated after the Lod attack by the Mossad.) 

Curiously, none of the groups that employed terrorism, other than the Algerian National Liberation Front, achieved its aims—well, sort of. The Algerians gained their independence, but the regime established by the NLF remains one of the most repressive on Earth—the NGO Freedom House ranks Algeria as “not free,” its worst category. The revolutions that did succeed—the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, Nicaraguan, and South African revolts—weren’t nonviolent, but they largely refrained from attacks on unarmed civilians. Indeed, Marxist movements had traditionally shunned terror against civilians on both moral and political grounds. Terror against civilians demoralizes ordinary people and almost always pushes them to the Right, often into the arms of authoritarian leaders; terrorism exalts the singular act at the expense of building a mass movement. André Malraux’s 1928 novel The Conquerors, set during the failed Chinese Communist uprising of 1925, opens with a dramatic act of terror; it is Garine, the book’s hero and a Marxist, who opposes this. The dire state of the Palestinian movement today suggests that there is an inverse relationship between the use of terror and the achievement of freedom.

In recent years, the Left’s embrace of terror seemed to have ebbed; you won’t find many defenders of al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, or Boko Haram. The notable exception has been groups devoted to the destruction of Israel: Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah, all of which still garner enthusiasm and deluded admiration. One might have thought that an orgy of sadistic murder, of the kind that Hamas committed on October 7th, would have inspired serious moral and political self-interrogation. As the past four weeks have illustrated, however, the exact opposite is the case.

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