Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Please allow me to introduce myself: the Klinghoffer case and sympathy for the terrorists

Thomas Sowell writes with clarity and succinctness on one unusual and especially troubling characteristic of the enemy we now face: its undeterrability (hat tip: Pajamas Media). Undeterrability makes this fight different from previous ones. It makes efforts at peaceful negotiation directly with that enemy worse than futile; it makes them dangerous.

There was one sentence in Sowell's column that especially caught my attention. In describing the nature of the enemy, he harked back to the 1985 Achille Lauro incident, in which 69-year-old wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer was murdered by Palestinian hijackers and his body dumped overboard.

Sowell asks:

What kind of people would throw an old man in a wheelchair off a cruise liner into the sea, simply because he was Jewish?

What kind, indeed? Human beings, for starters, not devils. But that doesn't mean we need to sympathize with them. And certainly we would be well within our rights to call Klinghoffer's murderers Nazi-esque, in targeting this particular man and treating him with such brutality merely because of his Jewishness.

I recall hearing the news of the hijacking and the shocking manner of Klinghoffer's death. At the time I had no context in which to place it; it seemed an inexplicable atrocity that chilled my blood. But it was incomprehensible, and so its significance as a signpost to the nature of the enemy was muted and blurred. It's only in retrospect that I'm able to say, "But, of course."

There's another thing I neither noticed nor comprehended at the time, but that I'm certainly aware of now. And that was the almost immediate post-modern interest of some in understanding--empathizing with, and even sympathizing with--Klinghoffer's murderers.

The opera "The Death of Leon Klinghoffer," produced in 1991 and written by composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, includes beautiful arias for the terrorists. It was received with accusations by some that it glorified terrorism, and kudos by others for its evenhanded treatment of the perpetrators' grievances.

In previous years, an opera on such a theme might have featured the terrorists as traditional villains steeped in evil, with thunderous and dissonant music to signify the horror of what they did. But in this version, they were given sonorous and lovely melodies to sing and sympathetic words to portray, whereas the Klinghoffers and their associates were apparently portrayed as petty and materialistic bourgeoisie.

To have taken this particular incident--in which a helpless and innocent man in a wheelchair was murdered in cold blood, his body dumped overboard--and somehow turned it into a vehicle for Palestinian grievances seems to me to be multiculturalism gone mad.

Who wrote the opera? The librettist, Alice Goodman, is an interesting tale herself. Born and raised as a Jew in Minnesota, educated in literature at Harvard, married to a British poet, she became an Anglican priest and opera librettist.

You can listen to Ms. Goodman discussing the opera here, in a BBC interview that features part of an aria from it by one of the terrorists (or maybe it's a recitative; I'm no opera expert). Despite having read about the opera fairly extensively prior to hearing the clip, I was still surprised at the emotional tenor of the singing. Yes indeed, without even being able to decipher the words of the libretto, just hearing the music and the voice of the kidnapper made it clear that he was being given a respect and a certain esthetic elegance and dignity that could only serve to elevate him in the eyes of the listener.

Then I listened to Ms. Goodman speak (an aside: why does she have a British accent? Is this some sort of affectation, is it a requirement for the Anglican clergy, or has she resided in Britain so long she's taken on the speech patterns?).

Ms. Goodman's answer to the question of whether the opera is anti-Semitic or an apology for terrorism is an interesting one. She says no (no surprise there); she believes that the charges of anti-Semitism and the rest are a result of her showing the terrorists as "human beings."

I disagree. I happen to think that terrorists are most decidedly human beings, as were Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin, and--well, every other human being who's ever lived. We all know how Hitler loved dogs, and was a vegetarian. To be evil does not require that one be a devil; being a human being who does evil will suffice. I believe in treating people as human beings, but that does not require giving evildoers a forum and writing lovely arias for them to sing.

Ms. Goodman says she speaks not just as the librettist, but as a priest, when she recognizes the perpetrators as human beings with ideals--wrongheaded, yes, but idealistic nevertheless--as though idealism somehow has a value in and of itself. Perhaps she's never heard about the road to hell, and what it's paved with.

Ms. Goodman acknowledges that the music and the words Adams and she wrote for the terrorists who committed this atrocity were lyrical and heartfelt, and she understands that this fact created "a dissonance difficult for some people to take."

Count me in as one of those people. I guess I'm just not highly evolved enough to understand the convoluted mental gymnastics required in comprehending how that doesn't constitute some sort of sympathy and apology--if not for the devil, then for the human beings who perpetrated this heinous act.

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