Just before dawn, 9 April, 1948, a combined force of Israeli Irgun and Lehi troops, with a small number of Palmach, all in all about a company in strength, attacked the generally inoffensive Arab village of Deir Yassin, a couple of miles west northwest of Jerusalem. About the only uncontested matters are that there was an attack, in roughly company strength, on an Arab village that was apparently trying to keep out of the war, and had a non-aggression pact with the neighboring Jewish village. Oh, and that the village is gone now, and the site, and what buildings remain, home to a funny farm, the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Institute.
Contested matters – and probably all of them matters completely impossible to fully credit or to fully discount – include the degree of inoffensiveness of the village, the population, the number of dead, hence the percentage of dead, the amount of looting that took place, whether or not there really were any rapes, let alone mass rapes, and whether prisoners, armed or purely civilian, were killed – murdered, in cold blood – after the event.1 There seems no doubt that women and children were a substantial proportion of the dead.
In a real sense, though, the truth doesn’t matter in the slightest. The other Arabs believed the worst, and there was apparently at least enough truth in the worst to make it credible.
“Arabs throughout the country, induced to believe wild tales of ‘Irgun butchery,’ were seized with limitless panic and started to flee for their lives. This mass flight soon developed into a maddened, uncontrollable stampede. The political and economic significance of this development can hardly be overestimated…”
~ Menahem Begin
They weren’t just fleeing for their lives; as mentioned before, in another column, as individuals Arabs are about as brave as anyone. Instead, they also were fleeing dishonor, the dishonor of not being able to protect their women and girls from rape, to which the Arab press gave major coverage.
On 27 May, 1942, a team from Great Britain that had parachuted into the former Czechoslovakia attacked the car of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. On 4 June, Heydrich died. On 10 June, an attack was launched – it might have been called a reprisal but was apparently motivated entirely by revenge – on the Czech town of Lidice. First the men were shot, all those present, though a few more who were not in the town at the time were later rounded up and executed. The women and children were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where a small number of children were selected for adoption and the rest, to the tune of eighty-two, were gassed.2 The animals of the town were killed. It was burned and the remains blown up.
Rather than covering it up, the Nazis crowed about it, as they did about the collateral destruction of the village of Ležáky.
There was almost no resistance to the Nazis, in Czechoslovakia, thereafter.
The differences between the two? One group probably couldn’t have foreseen that their action would give results – ethnic self-cleansing – so completely in accord with their desired war aims. The other absolutely intended their example to terrorize and occupied populace into quiescence, and got that, but was mostly interested in simple revenge. Of course, they got that, too.
Note, there, that this suggests attacker’s intent is not the key aspect of effective terror. Compare that, too, with the previous column in which I noted that the Red Army Faction probably intended specific terror, and probably deluded themselves that they were achieving it, yet probably never even came close. In other words, attacker’s intent is nice and all, but the important thing is the effect on the target, which may or may not meet intent, and the most important thing is the perception of the target, or target population.
Now note the similarities. Where one might look at smaller terrorist groups as working, or trying to work, from the bottom up, here we have two very top down approaches. We have a reasonably or very well organized group, completely ruthless, efficient, not deterable by anything its victims can call on.
No, again it matters not a whit if Irgun and Lehi were none of those things; so long as the Arabs believed they were most or all of them.
And the target; a largish group, a complete village, containing within it a gene pool, a meme pool, a record of history, with which history all members of the village can identify. It could be any village; it could be yours. Moreover, if you’re an Arab in 1948 and you don’t get your family, especially the women, away from the Jews, it will be yours, you think, because Arab arms have proven so incapable of stopping the Jews. And if you’re a Czech, a few years earlier, and you or anyone in your village helps the resistance, Lidice will also be your village, because the Nazis can reach anywhere, to any village, and will do what they say they will do if they reach out for yours.
And that is how genocidal or civilicidal terror works, by going after an exemplar of everything you care about, not just family, but friends and houses and cemeteries and churches and old memories, your entire connection to the past and to the future…it threatens to erase them all.
Of course, sometimes it’s more than just a village, sometimes it’s an entire people and civilization. Think here Carthage and Corinth, both in 146 BC.
So civilicidal terror is always bad, right?
Maybe not. In fact, not. Look around. Note the room you’re in. Contemplate the building the room is in, the town or city the building is in, the expansive county, state and country in which the town or city is. Note the revolving planet, a lovely blue, dotted with clouds, holding them all. Now note that said world, country, state, county, city or town, and building, are not irradiated ruins, devoid of life. Consider that your family and friends still live or, at least, if they’ve passed, have probably done so naturally, without having been murdered in a mutual nuclear orgasm cum suicide pact.
You see, terror is at its best when it is a threat that need rarely or never be acted upon to be credible. Yes, yes, sometimes the occasional punctuation mark must be made of an abused corpse or a town of them, but, on the whole, the threat is more effective than the action.
That was what we did to each other, us and the Soviets. We threatened each other with civilicide, the complete destruction of everything the other cared about. And, so, sufficiently deterred by that terror, neither of us did it or let anything happen that would cause us to do it.
I’m probably going to take a little break on these terror columns, because they’re getting depressing, but I’ll likely get back to them.
1 If the prisoners were massacred, it was not a unique occurrence. One can argue about what happened at Rafah and Khan Yunis, in 1956, though I suspect the worst is about right. One has a harder time discounting Israeli commander Arieh Biro’s admission of tormenting then massacring some 49 Egyptian civilian detainees, in 1956. No, the Israelis were hardly unique in their guilt, they just tended to win more and so were able to perpetrate more. Where the Arabs won, they were as bad or, sometimes, worse. Biro, however, seems to have understudied the SS who guarded him in camp a little more diligently than most.
2 You can find pictures, school portraits, typically, of many of the children on line. I do not recommend looking for the pictures. The memorial is tough enough to see.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Specific Terror That Works.
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.