A little more than seven years ago, on June 11, 2003, an 18-year-old Palestinian, Abdel Mahdi Shabneh, cradled a Kalashnikov and proclaimed violence to be the only means by which his people could combat Israeli occupation. Shabneh’s target would be Jerusalem’s busiest street, at the busiest time – Jaffa Road at 5 p.m.
Shabneh boarded bus 14A disguised as an Orthodox Jew. He detonated a massive explosive belt concealed under his prayer shawl, killing 17 people. His victims ranged in age from 20 to 75.
A few minutes before midnight I received a call from my father. “Damon” he said, his voice cracking, “Savta [grandmother] was murdered on a bus today.”
The utter devastation and shock in my father’s voice is something that will be with me for the rest of my life. My father happened to be in Israel when the tragedy occurred, his first visit in almost a decade. My aunt and father had the daunting task of making the trip to Abu Kabir to identify the mortal remains of their beloved mother and burying her the next morning.
Seven thousand miles away terror was no longer a distant concept; it had been violently imposed on my consciousness. Losing a grandmother is always a sorrowful occurrence, but when an 18 year old has his grandmother brutally murdered by another 18 year old, the experience is a vastly different one.
A month before she was murdered, I was fortunate enough to see my grandmother one last time in Jerusalem. I was in Israel on the second leg of the March of the Living trip, and in our last conversation we spoke of my experience visiting remnants of a half-century old atrocity, a testament to the barbaric tendencies of man.
It was upon seeing the ovens of Auschwitz and Majdanek that I realized the uselessness in questioning the ways of God and the need to instead focus our energy on questioning and seeking to correct the actions of man.
I spent the day after her murder in a trance, repeatedly drawn to the image of Abdel Madi Shabneh, the person who had inflicted such pain on those I love. The newspaper showed him to be a scrawny boy with sheepish features. It was hard to picture him as the cold-blooded killer of my grandmother.
I took the loss quite differently from the rest of my family. If I were to now mention the name Abdel Mahdi Shabneh to any family member, I doubt he or she would have any recognition of whom I was talking about. In their minds the enemy is faceless: a Palestinian killed Savta; Hamas killed Savta; a Muslim killed Savta.
While all these labels are true, I chose to focus on the incident this way: Abdel Mahdi Shabneh killed my Savta. I wanted to understand what demon it was that drove a young man to such barbarity.
This murderer was not a scary Hollywood-style sensationalized villain. He was a young kid who could barely manage a respectable mustache. Shabneh was the epitome of the banality of evil, the term used by Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann.
The evil perpetrated by such characters is arrived at through a failure or absence of the faculties of sound thinking and judgment. These individuals lack the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of their activities tangible for them.
It’s this vacuum that leads to politically and morally irresponsible choices. The violence perpetrated from such evil is truly a mindless menace.
When a Jew dies of ordinary causes the acronym z”l (zichrona l’vracha – may her memory be blessed) is added to the name. Savta’s name, however, received the acronym H”yd (Hashem yikom damah – may God exact revenge for her blood), which is reserved for those killed sanctifying God’s name.
But revenge is something that comes under God’s jurisdiction while tikkun olam, or “fixing of the world,” is the sole responsibility of man. We are here on this earth to transform the darkness and create light. Whatever his motivation, Shabneh’s actions ultimately were the result of a defective mindset. There is no violent solution by which we can conquer such an enemy. If this war is to be won, it will only be through the dismantling of the regressive state of mind that is present in those who resort to violence.