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The Killer's Mind

By Steven A. Engel

In the end, despite all of the hatred, despite all of the rallies that called Rabin a traitor, a Nazi, an Arab, it all came down to one man and a gun.

Israelis buried their slain prime minister on Monday and the world mourned. Dozens of leaders from across the globe gathered in Jerusalem to pay tribute to a man who sought to bring peace to a nation that has never known peace. As Israel grieved, her people continued to look inward, to try to find where the assassin, Yigal Amir, had nested in the nation's soul.

The hatred had been clear for a long time now. The demonstrations had turned increasingly virulent as Yitzhak Rabin sought to push forward with the peace accord that would gradually end Israel's 30-year occupation of Palestinian lands. While Israel opened negotiations with former enemies in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, dialogue became increasingly strained along Israel's political spectrum.

Now in the days following the assassination, the right and the left have come together to discuss and debate how their resentment might have led one Jew to murder another. For a nation that regards its citizens as kin, Rabin's murder evokes the horror of patricide. But while Amir may have been swept up in the rhetoric of the militants, his kind lives not in Hebron but in infamy.

Friends described Amir as a reticent, friendly law student with a keep intellect. At home, he was always willing to help his neighbors, but mainly kept to himself. We have seen this man before.

Amir was a militant critic of the Palestinian peace accord who regularly attended anti-government demonstrations. But then that made him no different from tens of thousands of other Israeli hard-liners.

Amir was different in that he saw it as his mission to act on the words of the militants, and in so doing, he revealed himself to be an assassin and a zealot like Paul Hill or Sirhan Sirhan or Lee Harvey Oswald. Fundamentalists are distinguished not by their cause but by their mind. Cause provides fundamentalists with the vehicle for their designs, but then again, a rational purpose is not always required.

In his recent portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, Norman Mailer quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "On Heroism," in an attempt to understand the mind of the killer. "[Heroism's] jest is the littleness of common life. Heroism works in contradiction to the voice of mankind and in contradiction, for a time, to the voice of the great and good," Emerson wrote. "Now to no other man can wisdom appear as it does to him."

The righteousness of the hero is corrupted in the arrogance of the zealot. The zealot's mind mixes faith, reason and ego to come to its fatal conclusion. Amir's "wisdom" brought him to interpret the militants' belief in a divinely ordained "Greater Israel" as an end in itself, worthy of denying the divine principle of justice on which such a state must be founded.

Amir recognized Rabin's peace as a threat to this goal and hence Rabin as a traitor to his people. Others may have called Rabin names, but only Amir arrived at the logical conclusion of that charge. Traitors must be killed before they can do harm.

There is a final piece to the assassin's mind, and it is the piece that puts the gun in his hand. From the statements of Intimates, Amir appeared quite sane. But behind his reticence and behind his ideas lurked powerful impulses that drove him to murder.

Amir saw himself as an agent of God, much as Lee Harvey Oswald saw himself as an agent of "history." The young man's mania lay in this desire for greatness. Amir created a destiny for himself that would make him greater than Rabin. One brutal act would propel him out of obscurity. One brutal act would make him a hero or a martyr.

Behind the heart of fundamentalism lies the arrogance that imprisons the reason with its claim to final understanding. While Israeli rightly discuss the climate that allowed Amir to Justify his sick designs, in the end its origin lay in the mind of the assassin.

Steven A. Engel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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