Monday, February 16, 2015

On randomness

Sar Shalom

There has been much written about Obama's use of the word "random" to describe the attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket outside Paris, and his spokespersons' defense of that characterization. While asserting that the Hyper Cacher is not a manifestation of Jew-hatred is clearly a major offense, it would be worth taking a look at what the word "random" means before asserting that that is the meaning of the word in this particular instance.

It would be helpful to illustrate the possible meanings with some hypothetical examples. Suppose Hamas were to launch a salvo of rockets going north-northeast from Gaza in a manner that they could land in Qalqiliya as easily as they could land in Petach Tikva. Now suppose Hamas put controls on the guidance systems to make sure that they land in Petach Tikva and not in Qalqiliya. Now suppose that Hamas instead of launching rockets north-northeast from Gaza were to launch mortars at an IDF convoy preparing to invade Gaza. Which if any of those scenarios are "random?" For two of the three, the answer is unambiguous. If Hamas were to be unconcerned whether the rockets landed in Petach Tikva or Qalqiliya, it would be a completely random act and a mortar attack on an invading convoy is clearly not a random act. However, the rocket attack at Petach Tikva sparing Qalqiliya has a random element and a non-random element. I would maintain that the randomness of the indiscriminate attack on Israeli nationals would be more significant than the efforts to spare Qalqiliya. Furthermore, it is this randomness that would contribute to making such an attack a war crime.

Returning to Hyper Cacher, while the attack was discriminating in its target among Frenchmen, it was not discriminating in its target among Jews. An example of a discriminating target among Jews would be an office of the Hebron Fund, a group that promotes activities that the Very Serious People of the world arrogantly say "legitimately" grieves the Arab world. By selecting the non-discriminating target, the attackers introduced some degree of randomness to their act, and that randomness exacerbates their crime.

The above description only states a possible meaning for Obama's use of the word "random." From just the speech in which he used that term, one could not tell whether the meaning was that the attackers intended to kill Jews and didn't care anything else about the victims or that they attacked a random supermarket that happened to be kosher. Obama does have a record of being blasé about Islamic radicalism, a record that would induce people to leap at the second meaning. However, before the speech in which he described the act as "random," he did describe it as anti-semitic, which would mean either he was retracting his initial statement or he intended the first meaning. If that was his intent, it was not the first time he made this type of gaffe.


  1. Can't say that I get the point this post makes, but it would not be the first time for me.

    The way was how it was handled after. Rather than just say it was random AND antisemitic, they played one at the expense of the other, and came off as insensitive to French Jews.

    It's a disconnect to say that all lives matter, but prefer some over others. It is easy to criticize religious hate without blaming all adherents of a faith, and hard to understand why it's so difficult for some to directly criticize Islam's excesses without a mea culpa. And the need to pretend it is not Islam is rather absurd, rather than to say that Muslims should disavow the violent part of jihad. Other faiths changed with the times, why not Islam? Perhaps it's that simple.

    1. For a further explanation, read Jonathan Chait's take on turning a gaffe into a major blunder:

    2. I understood Chait. Of course it was turned into a blunder, precisely because they tried to justify the gaffe. Instead, they should have admitted the gaffe and reinforced there was antisemitism at play. They opened the door for people to believe that it was intentional, but it was clearly insensitive to Jews and French Jews in particular.

      At this point, the need to call Copts merely Egyptians is more troubling than an insensitive gaffe. Along with the Crusades remark, and in light of what he said about NC, it may cost Obama more among people who can see the disparate treatment.

  2. The crux of understanding the identity in identity politics of professional outrage is that the people who use it say THEIR identity is the only identity that matters that exists. Everyone else is either lumped together in a great mass of nothingness or they're the enemy. When Obama says things like this he means that his favored professional Muslim group has no rationale and no need to so much as consider that anyone else or their identity even exists. As far as Obama is concerned if a Muslim does it, their targets could be anyone, or even pets or cars or anything else. And it doesn't matter because there's no difference in any of those things.

  3. I love to quote Matti Friedman:

    The West today is preoccupied with a feeling of guilt about the use of power. That’s why the Jews, in their state, are now held up in the press and elsewhere as the prime example of the abuse of power. That’s why for so many the global villain, as portrayed in newspapers and on TV, is none other than the Jewish soldier, or the Jewish settler. This is not because the Jewish settler or soldier is responsible for more harm than anyone else on earth – no sane person would make that claim. It is rather because these are the heirs to the Jewish banker or Jewish commissar of the past. It is because when moral failure raises its head in the Western imagination, the head tends to wear a skullcap.

    One would expect the growing scale and complexity of the conflict in the Middle East over the past decade to have eclipsed the fixation on Israel in the eyes of the press and other observers. Israel is, after all, a sideshow: The death toll in Syria in less than four years far exceeds the toll in the Israel-Arab conflict in a century. The annual death toll in the West Bank and Jerusalem is a morning in Iraq.

    And yet it is precisely in these years that the obsession has grown worse.

    This makes little sense, unless we understand that people aren’t fixated on Israel despite everything else going on – but rather because of everything else going on. As Maurras wrote, when you use the Jew as the symbol of what is wrong, “all things fall into place and are simplified.”

    What ISIS did to the Copts was an act of genocide, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, which is why it is necessary to raise the religion of the victims.

    Indeed, from a site that is verboten to some, who would rather stay in a bubble where one idea is presented, or else, I saw:

    ISIS released a new video Sunday–“Message Signed in Blood to the Nation of the Cross.”

    As I said, genocide.