There are explanations for why Iran (the most likely suspect), perhaps in conjunction with Hezbollah (a plausible suspect as well), yesterday murdered seven Israeli tourists and wounded 33 more in Bulgaria. Iran may be retaliating for Israel’s assassination of its scientists. Hezbollah may still be seeking revenge for Israel’s assassination of master-terrorist Imad Mugniyah, the man reportedly responsible for Hezbollah’s 1994 attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish Community Center.
There are explanations in the same way that Osama Bin Laden offered explanations for Al Qaeda’s murder of Americans: He was furious over the stationing of American troops on Arabia’s sacred soil. But such explanations don’t help us fully understand.
They don’t help us understand why certain regimes, and certain movements, intentionally kill civilians, people who just happen to be in the wrong office building or tourist bus. In this case, the only way to understand such horrors is to understand the character of the Iranian regime, a regime willing to torture, murder and rape its young in order to keep itself in power. What Tehran did yesterday in Bulgaria was export its fundamental disregard for the dignity and sanctity of human life.
Yes, democracies can act barbarically abroad as well. In the 1950s, Britain murdered tens of thousands of Kenyans during the Mau Mau rebellion. The United States killed even more during Vietnam. But democracy also fosters certain habits, inclinations and patterns of thought that restrain government abuse. That’s why the United States never dominated Western Europe, or even Latin America, with the brutality that the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. It’s why Turkey didn’t respond to the deaths of its citizens on the Gaza flotilla by sinking an Israeli merchant ship. And it’s why Israel, even if severely provoked, would never blow up a bus in an attempt to kill scores of innocent civilians.
Reinhold Niebuhr spent the early cold war reminding the left that America really was morally superior to the Soviet Union and reminding the right that America would only remain morally superior if it honored the fragile system of democratic constraints that checked its capacity for evil. At Open Zion, we spend a lot of time echoing Niebuhr’s latter imperative, and decrying the erosion of democratic norms in Israel. But on certain days, it is Niebuhr’s first insight that constitutes the most relevant truth. Seven Israelis are dead and 33 are wounded not simply because Israel is locked in a geopolitical struggle with Iran, but because it is struggling against a regime fundamentally different from itself. It is a struggle Israel and the United States must win. And in the process, hopefully, Iran’s leaders will be called to account for the evil they committed in Bulgaria yesterday.