Through the actions of a lone man with an unstable mental history, the Middle East wars have hit my community. Naveed Haq, from a middle class Pakistani-American family in eastern Washington State, shot six women at the Seattle Jewish Federation, in the city where I live. He killed one and left three critically wounded, saying “I am a Muslim American, angry at Israel.” I’ve never been to the Federation offices, but I’ve worshipped at affiliated Seattle synagogues, attended Federation-sponsored events, and met one of the women who was critically wounded. So Haq’s reprehensible attack felt personal. Aside from the shooting of Jewish Defense League founder Meir Kahane and an ambiguous 1994 incident involving a New York taxi driver and a van of Hasidic students, this may be the first politically motivated killing of an American Jew by an American Muslim in the past sixty years. As such, it risks sharply increasing the level of fear in America’s Jewish communities, and with it the reflex support of even the most questionable Israeli actions.
We could dismiss the deaths as isolated from politics, the actions of a single deranged individual. Over 16,000 Americans kill each other every year. This past March, a man shot and killed seven participants in a Seattle rave because he resented their lifestyle. Maybe if Haq hadn’t attacked the Federation women, he would have shot someone else.
But I doubt it. So the question is whether the actions taken in response to this shooting will move us toward or away from further violence, here and in the Middle East. Before the shooting, Seattle’s Arab American Community Coalition had been organizing a silent march for a Lebanon ceasefire. When the news hit, they postponed it, and issued a release saying they were appalled by the attack. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” they said. “Violence against anyone because of ethnicity or religion does not advance the cause of peace, justice and liberation in Lebanon, Palestine or Israel. Attacks on civilians must stop in Gaza, Beirut, Haifa, and certainly in downtown Seattle.” Along with other Jewish, Christian, and Islamic leaders in the city, they called for common mourning and interfaith dialogue.
It’s tempting, particularly for those of us who are Jewish, to use this shooting as an excuse for supporting Israeli military escalation, and to blur the urgency of halting the bombs and shells falling on equally blameless civilians in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. Haq eventually surrendered to police. But according to this logic we must teach a lesson to his compatriots–who continue to fire rockets and set off suicide bombs, attacking innocent women, men and children in Israel–because terror will understand only the language of force.
Except that Israel has followed this punitive approach again and again in the forty years since it occupied the West Bank. It’s never brought security, only more bitterness. Five days before the shootings I appeared on a Seattle Jewish radio show along with the local head of Jewish Voices for Peace and an activist who worked to support Israeli policies. Though it was a friendly dialogue, the rabbi who cohosted the show kept treating those of us who challenged Israel’s actions as starry-eyed dreamers, unwilling to acknowledge the realities of a violent world.
But it isn’t naive to suggest that Israel’s massive attacks on Lebanon and Gaza will embitter a new generation. Or to point out that the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections was the fruit of daily humiliations Palestinians face and of Israel’s blocking the PLO from functioning as even a nascent government. We’ve come close to agreements that would have ended the occupation with a just peace, in the Taba negotiations and in the nongovernmental Geneva Accords, whose participants included the former commander of the Israel Defense Forces in the Gaza strip, the Palestinian Authority’s minister for prisoner affairs, a leader of the Palestinian guerrilla group, the Tanzim, and a cousin of assassinated Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz Rantisi. Unless we return to that path, those who live in the West Bank and Gaza, or view themselves as acting in sympathy with them, are likely to fight with whatever weapons they see as available. Absent a shift to widespread nonviolent resistance, of the kind that accounted for most of the first intifada’s political gains (as chronicled in the book and documentary A Force More Powerful), this means, most likely, the taking of more innocent lives.
The Seattle gunman was a troubled individual, not part of any political movement. He didn’t attend Islamic services and had even recently been baptized in an evangelical Christian church, though he didn’t attend that church either. But the situation that sparked his unconscionable action was the same that continues to fuel Israeli-Palestinian cycles of violence. Hezbollah seized Israeli hostages and dmanded prisoner exchanges in the wake of Israeli attacks on Gaza. Those from Gaza who abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit claimed to be acting in response to Israeli imprisonment of Palestinian women and children. Hamas now threatens retaliation for the deaths in the Lebanese village of Qana. As a result of the most recent Israeli military actions, 87% of all Lebanese now say they support the “resistance’s fight against Israeli aggression.”
The cycles of violence build on an individual level as well. When attempted London train bomber Hussain Osman was interrogated, he explained “More than praying we discussed politics, the war in Iraq … we always had new films of the war… more than anything else those in which you could see Iraqi women and children who had been killed… There was a feeling of hatred and a conviction that it was necessary to give a signal–to do something.” Although Osman was caught before setting off his bombs, others were not, and brought about more innocent deaths.
No moral argument can justify the Seattle shootings. Suicide bombings and the firing of rockets at civilian populations in Israel are equally contemptuous of innocent lives. But the question isn’t about justifications. It’s how to stop future violence. Whatever the actions of Hezbollah, forcing a fifth of the Lebanese population to flee their homes, destroying the power grids in Gaza and much of Lebanon, burning civilians with white phosphorous, and bombing villages full of children only makes matters worse. The killings here in Seattle should give Americans even greater impetus to demand an alternative.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change, and Soul of a Citizen See www.paulloeb.org. To get his articles directly, email [email protected] with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles