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A Voice for Terror's Victims


As Israel's representative to the Third International Congress of Terror Victims, Valencia, Spain, Arnold Roth delivered this speech on the conference's opening day. The Spanish-language version of speech is here. And the slides which accompanied the presentation are downloadable from here (in Spanish) and here (in English) (Powerpoint self-running slideshow: about 12Mb)

◄ Israeli victim of terrorism Arnold Roth speaks at the Congress on Victims of Terrorism in Valencia, eastern Spain, Monday Feb. 13, 2006.  (AP Photo/Fernando Bustamante)

Click to see enlarged picture

"Malki's Father Scolds UN at Terror Meeting" (Australian Jewish News, 17-Feb-06) [PDF]


Terror survivors gather in Spain (13-Feb-06): "When you bring terrorism victims together, you find that we have a common language, a common pain," said Israeli Arnold Roth, who lost his 15-year-old daughter in a suicide attack in Jerusalem in 2002. [PDF]


Victims Of Terrorism Gather In Spain "Terrorism has: changed almost everything in my life [said Arnold Roth]and since then I remind people, even in my country, how essential it is to stop terrorism," he said, adding: "Terrorism goes beyond politics and that's what victims are totally aware of." [PDF]


European Jewish Congress News: Father of Israeli Terrorist Victim Addresses Spain Conference on Terror [PDF]


Basque News: Terror Victims Share Stories at International Congress


The Madrid Declaration on Terrorism, January 2004


Víctimas del terrorismo del mundo entero piden memoria, dignidad y justicia (ALBA 17-Feb-06)


Related Links:


A Voice for Terror's Victims

Arnold Roth

El Congreso Internacional sobre Víctimas del Terrorismo | 13th-14th February 2006 Palacio de Congresos de Valencia - Spain

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The organizers of this magnificent congress – and of the two previous gatherings in Madrid and Bogota in which many of us were privileged to take part - have created something beautiful, and moving. A meeting place. A solemn, dignified, respectful assembly. A celebration of our humanity and of our survival.

But it is not beautiful to be a victim of terror. It is not romantic. It is not transcendental and it is not heroic. It is not like the movies.  It is a nightmare and the deepest, most painful tragedy that most people will ever experience in their lives.

The Madrid Declaration of 2004 states the matter in a clear way:

Terrorism is never justifiable... Whatever its form, terrorism is always an unjust and unjustified, cruel, abominable and repulsive crime. It is an affront to the most basic rights of individuals and communities.“

It is not reasonable to be a victim of terror. It is one of the most unreasonable things that can happen to a person. We became victims because of someone else’s anger, someone else’s fight, someone else’s value system, someone else’s religion. We did not consent to become victims. We were not asked to consider the other person’s viewpoint, and we were not persuaded. We became victims entirely against our will, by surprise and with no preparation.

This process of becoming a victim makes very little sense to those of us who have experienced it. But the societies in which we live seek to understand terror. They try to get to the bottom of the anger and the hatred which animate terror by looking for root causes that explain it, that rationalize it. We have seen this done by journalists, by politicians, by community leaders, by our own neighbors.

As much as we find this painful and offensive, we must admit that it stems from a basic human need for explanation.

The need to understand, to find an explanation for the inexplicable and the irrational, has an interesting psychological basis. A distinguished scholar of social psychology from Harvard University once carried out a study – an experiment to try to understand our need to understand the other person.

She walked up to a line of people standing next to a copying machine. They were waiting patiently for their turn to make copies. In a loud voice, she said to the person at the front of the line: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use this Xerox machine?” She did this repeatedly, and on average some 60 per cent of the people she asked complied and let her push to the front.

She then modified her approach with some other groups standing at other copying machines. Now she said: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush.” On average, this was a much more effective approach - 94 per cent of the people in the line let her go to the front. For most people, “I’m in a rush” sounds like a good reason to ask to be treated differently. It makes some sense.

The most interesting results came when she used the following words with some other people waiting patiently in line. “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I must make some copies.” Although this was a deliberately nonsensical claim, it worked with 93 per cent of the people in the line. In other words, the nonsense explanation and the plausible explanation achieved about the same result. They persuaded more than 90% of the people.

It was not the quality of the explanation she gave that caused strangers to accept her request for preferential treatment. It was the mere fact that she gave a reason at all, and that she asserted it with complete confidence.

There is an important insight in this famous experiment. People are desperate to understand why things happen, to make sense of a given situation even when the reason offered to us is unreasonable, and even when it makes no sense at all. Some of these lines of people were in universities and public libraries. So we can guess that they were not all ignorant or foolish. They may have been similar to many of us sitting here today in this hall.

In these difficult and dark days, when wave after wave of terror have fallen onto civilized communities and onto pleasant and innocent families, this need for an explanation has let us down. It has placed us in a dangerous situation where society and its important institutions – in particular the mass communications media and the political sector – have failed us. In some cases, I believe they have even become accomplices of the practitioners of terror.

I will explain what I mean by referring to two examples. First I would like to look at how the most important global organization in the world is dealing with terrorism. I am speaking of the United Nations.

A committee of the United Nations has been trying for the past nine years to write a convention against terrorism. For ordinary people like us, this does not sound like the most difficult thing for lawyers and diplomats to do. We know that terrorism means the deliberate targeting of civilians for injury and death. But there is an international association of states – I will not name it – comprising some 57 countries, nearly 30% of the 191 member states of the United Nations. For nine years, this association has frustrated the writing of the United Nations anti-terror convention by insisting that terrorism must be defined not by the nature of the act but by its purpose. If an act is done in the cause of “national liberation” then this important group of states believes the act is not terrorism.

Their definition is not at all interested in how barbaric that act may be. Or how random. Or how defenseless and innocent the victims.

I am neither a diplomat nor a politician. But I have consulted with some academic experts and it is clear to me what this means. It means that terrorism when it is done for a bad cause is bad. Terrorism when it is done for a good cause is good. An individual citizen, a diplomat, a journalist or a country which holds to this view is not against terrorism at all but simply opposed to bad causes.

The effect of this regimented attention to semantics is that in its entire history the United Nations has failed time and time again to express an unequivocal condemnation of terrorism.

Shortly after the terrible events of 9/11, Mr Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, proposed some compromise language which condemned terrorism unambiguously while still reaffirming the right of self-determination. But he failed to persuade those 57 countries.

He tried again in 2004 after the tragic massacre of school-children at Beslan in Russia. But two of the countries that were members of the Security Council at that time – I am referring to Pakistan and Algeria, both of which are members of that group of 57 – again demanded a watering-down of the language before they would give it their support. The condemnation of terrorism was again abandoned.

Five months ago, the UN picked up the issue one more time. A special UN committee with the grand title of “High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change” formulated this definition:

“Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or abstain from doing any act.”

Five months ago, it was reasonable to expect that lessons had been learned from the attacks of the terrorists in Bali, Madrid, Beslan, London, Baghdad, Jerusalem and so many other places. Two of the most important Islamic representatives, one from Pakistan and one from Egypt, were among the many public figures who gave this language their explicit support. Mr Annan must have been confident when he included it among the proposals he sent to the major summit of United Nations member states in September 2005.

But it failed. At the last minute, the clear language of the definition which I read to you a moment ago was removed from the resolution – taken out and thrown away. The reason was the same one as before: the unrelenting objection of that same association of 57 states.

To dismiss this depressing chain of events by calling it a difference of opinion over definitions is to miss the point. There is an actual, practical life-and-death question here which we, assembled here in this hall, are uniquely placed to answer: Is it ever legitimate to target women, children and other noncombatants? For nations comprising some 30 per cent of the United Nations, the answer – tragically, astonishingly - is yes.

My daughter Malki was 15 when the terrorists came for her in Jerusalem. She was a musician and a youth leader. She loved to work as a volunteer with disabled children. Everyone who knew her remembers the smile which was so large it left almost no room for her eyes.

None of this mattered to the terrorists.

Some of the men and women who murdered my child are in prison in Israel. Others are alive and well and free and active. Some of them have even become newly-elected members of parliament – not the parliament of my country but the parliament of the neighbour with whom we desperately want to live in peace.

This brings me to the matter of the communications media.

I am a person who reads newspapers and magazines intensely, mostly through the Internet. Since the death of my daughter Malki, I read them carefully and I pay close attention to the words they use. You may have noticed that the media seldom use the word “terrorist”. Instead, the men and women who kill innocent civilians in restaurants, who place bombs on train carriages and buses, who stab and beat children in kindergartens and playgrounds – these are called fighters, activists, protesters, militants, insurgents, anything except what they actually are: murderers, terrorists, barbarians.

I believe that this avoidance of plain and clear language happens because journalists, editors and publishers are unsure, themselves, of what terrorism is. They need to hear our voices. They need to understand – to really understand – that terrorism is not some kind of romantic struggle for dignity. It is not a noble alternative form of warfare. It is the purest, most physical expression of hatred and intolerance.

The Madrid Declaration ends with a reminder that the struggle to defeat terrorism unites civilized people from every country in humanitarian ideals:

As victims of terrorism we do not want revenge or retaliation. What we do want is freedom for future generations from the suffering that, unfortunately, so many of us have had to endure either directly or indirectly in finding that one day we had become victims of the cruelty of these criminals. We are convinced that by standing side by side, government leaders and everyday citizens, with our determination and teamwork, we can overcome the suffering and breathe life into the hope for a better world.

This message has an echo in Jewish traditional literature, in the Midrash and the Talmud. It is expressed this way:

“He who is compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate”.

כל המרחם על אכזרים סופו שהוא מתאכזר לרחמנים

The wisdom of this statement is as great today as when it was first transmitted from teacher to student, nearly two thousand years ago.

The cruelty of terrorism has become a strange kind of secret. Many politicians are too frightened to speak about it by name. And many in the communications media prefer to hide from it by the use of euphemisms and explanations which explain nothing. We, who understand better than everyone else the cruel and barbaric nature of terrorism and the high price which civilized society pays for its continuation, we the victims, must stand together. We have a solemn obligation – in the name of compassion - to remind our neighbors and our leaders that the vision of a better world demands an uncompromising struggle. A struggle to bring terror to an end. To stop the terrorists by every possible means.

By being merciful to terror and to terrorists, we are being intolerably cruel to ourselves, our children and our society.

To protect the principles and values of a civilized and tolerant society, it is imperative that our voices – the voices of the victims of terror, the inspirational words of the Madrid Declaration – be heard in the United Nations, in the media, in our own governments and in every public place.

Thank you.

Arnold Roth speaks from the rostrum at the Congress on Victims of Terrorism in Valencia, Monday Feb. 13, 2006. 


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