Death by a Thousand Cuts

Wednesday, October 10, 2018 |  Tsvi Sadan

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a "letter to the editor" (never published) to the daily Ha'aretz, in which I compared this newspaper's tactic for political change to a Bushido wrestling match I once saw. The wrestlers delivered what looked like insignificant blows to one another, until finally one of them collapsed without warning. In and of itself, each blow was insignificant. What made the difference was the cumulative damage. 

Several years later, in 2005, Jered Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, used the example of Lingchi to explain the concept of "creeping normality." Lingchi was a Chinese form of torture during which the torturer inflicted upon the victim a thousand cuts, each seemingly insignificant. The pain of every new cut rendered the previous one painless. But slowly the victim would be conditioned to accept his death as a welcome change. Political changes, argued Diamond, don't happen with a bang. They occur slowly, through many incidences, each in itself relatively insignificant.

Death by a thousand cuts, or creeping normality, takes place before our very eyes through "insignificant" incidences where Israelis begin to explain the conflict in radical new terms. The recent terror attack at the Barkan industrial park, in which two Israelis were shot dead, was quickly followed by fake news that the 23-year-old shooter had murdered those Jews as a result of recently being fired. The terrorist's father explained to Israeli media that his son was simply "weary of life." This new "mental problem" as an explanation for Palestinian terror, this new "cut" if you will, is supported by recent scientific research conducted by respected Israeli scholars who claim that from 2015 onward, almost 70% of the terrorists attacking Israelis have suffered from "psychopathological characteristics that included suicidal tendencies … severe mental disorders … and psychotic background." In other words, if you thought Palestinians were motivated to kill Jews by religious ideology or nationalistic aspirations, think again.

Likewise, the terror kites and balloons, the infiltrations and the violent riots along the Gaza border are now being labeled as "economic terror." Again, this new "cut" oozes out a fresh explanation for terror. The new Palestinian casus belli is no longer Israel's existence. It is economic stress. Other new cuts, each making the previous acceptable, can be seen and heard on a daily basis. To give one recent example, poet and songwriter Yehonatan Gefen posted on his Instagram page a photo of himself wearing a shirt reading, "All a suicide bomber needs is a hug" (pictured).

These cuts–some more painful than others, but each contributing to the cumulative damage–fuel a creeping normality in which yesterday's unthinkable becomes tomorrow's norm. If this continues unabated, it will result in Israel's downfall. For now, at least, most Israelis are resisting the new norm. They can sense something inherently wrong in explaining away terrorism as a byproduct of mental instability, just as they know Hamas isn't setting southern Israel ablaze because of a local cucumber shortage.

Even so, past experience shows that Israelis are susceptible to radical new ideas, like transforming the PLO from foe to friend with the stroke of a pen. As such, it's important to remain vigilant against death by a thousand cuts.

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