In the war against terrorism, America and Israel face an enemy whose implacable evil is difficult to comprehend. The mentality of the people launching suicide bombing attacks against Israel is perhaps best revealed not in those they kill, but in those they injure.

We need to think about the state of soul required to pack bombs full of shrapnel and nails and rat poison, intended to embed in flesh, to maim children and condemn them to months or years of agonizing rehabilitation, and lifelong disfigurement and disability.

This kind of weapon manifests a will to exterminate, utterly to obliterate, the humanity of the victim.

Israel is dealing with an enemy resolved to deny the humanity of the Israeli people. That denial, expressed in deeds of coldly calculated violence and mayhem, threatens to do more than just delay serious negotiations for peace. It threatens, as well, to poison permanently the atmosphere for any negotiations, even should the violence ever stop.

The passions evoked by the wantonly cruel murder of innocent loved ones cannot easily be tamed and suppressed because a “peace process” supposedly requires it. Cold-blooded efforts to kill innocent children will eventually put Israel into a mindset of settled and permanent resistance to the possibility of negotiations. This kind of violence engenders deep-seated responses precisely because it says to the people of Israel, “you are not human beings.”

The anger of the American people in the wake of the World Trade Center bombing has been profound and lasting. And, yet, this was a single event. The Israelis have been suffering equivalent attacks over and over again. The response of the human heart to profound assault cannot be turned on and off like a spigot. Eventually, anger and resentment will seek a solution that will bring the matter to an end once and for all – whatever it takes. If Israel reaches that point, a negotiated solution may become permanently impossible.

The need to stop the violence before Israel’s patience is completely spent supports the Israeli government’s proposal to put a physical barrier between the two sides to inhibit the continuing flow of this kind of assault. For unless one finds a way to physically stymie this expression of exterminating hatred, the barrier of violent rejection of peace will destroy all prospects for a negotiated resolution. A physical barrier may be the only way to create a space in the human heart where some reduction of violence allows passion to subside enough for fruitful talks to begin.

It is indeed remarkable that there remains, on the part of the government and the people of Israel, a commitment to move forward with negotiations to try to achieve a peaceful outcome. An objective observer must wonder where the patience comes from to respond to such unqualified, barbarous violence with a continued willingness to sit down and talk, if that becomes possible.

But the renewal of violence over the last days and weeks, and increasing evidence that the disposition to such violence has spread through much of Palestinian society, must deepen our concern that the mentality that sees violence as a nihilistic end in itself is reaching critical mass in the West Bank and Gaza.

If so, it has never been more important that the United States repudiate those connected with the terror, and be alert to support any emerging leadership of Palestinians of decent conscience. In fact, dozens of prominent Palestinians made an unprecedented appeal to Islamic extremist groups in a full-page ad in the “Al-Quds” newspaper last week to stop attacks on Israeli civilians.

The key to achieving peace with justice lies in people of conscience on the Palestinian side stepping forward with the courage that will be required to reject violence. They must do so not just because violence threatens the peace process, and not just because it kills Israeli civilians. More importantly, decent Palestinians must speak out now to save the souls of their own people from a corruption worse than any external tyranny.

The greatest harm that can be suffered in the fight against perceived evil and injustice is not physical death or “occupation.” It is the death of the conscience and spirit cut off from the nourishment of moral law. This death threatens us above all when we begin to believe that the evil we see in our enemy frees us from moral obligation in our own lives. The barbarism of those who have voluntarily destroyed their own claim to participate in civilization is the deepest evil to which human beings can fall. Such a people utterly abdicate any claim of fitness to assume the benefits and blessings of responsible self-government.

That, I fear, could be the destiny of the Palestinian people. If an Israeli fence, an Israeli wall, helps them avoid this calamitous fate, while courageous Palestinians try to pull their people back from the brink of moral suicide, it may be the wisest course – and the best for which we may hope today.

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