07/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dispatch from Jerusalem

Jerusalem is a city famed for its faith and shamed by its violence.

That much I knew when I arrived here last month. What I didn't know was that the shame stems not from how much violence there is, but how little.

Take the attack yesterday afternoon near the King David Hotel, not long before Barack Obama's arrival.

For the second time in a month, a construction worker from East Jerusalem attacked a bus and several cars with a bulldozer. As with the previous attack, the worker was dead within minutes, shot multiple times from close range.

At first glance each incident would seem to conform to the familiar pattern of terrorism: first the spontaneous eruption of violence, then its quick and lethal suppression.

Yet the attacks also bear witness to something new.

The most obvious novelty, of course, is the bulldozer itself. The city's streets are teeming with them, the result of a massive project to install rail lines along the city's main thoroughfares. At one level, their use as an instrument of terror provides an uncomfortable reminder of just how this city works: now that the West Bank is (quite literally) walled off, the Arab population of East Jerusalem has come to serve as its sole supply of cheap labor.

Yet only when compared to suicide bombing does the full significance of "Caterpillar Terrorism" become apparent.

Perfectly suited for television, suicide bombing requires an organization both resourceful enough to recruit the bomber and savvy enough to manipulate the attendant media coverage.

By contrast, the two bulldozer attacks appear to have been acts of individual initiative. Neither has been tied to a known political organization, much less an articulated political agenda. Nor was either particularly well-suited for the media. And with no party or group to define what coverage they did generate, they appear as little more than random outbursts of quiet rage.

Which brings us back to the issue of shame. Why would two men willingly martyr themselves, knowing full well that their deaths would be politically meaningless?

The answer has everything to do with shame: more specifically, the shame of living with the reality of Israeli rule, day in and day out, and not doing anything about it. It's a shame born not from an excess of violence, but its absence: of perceiving an injustice with no possibility of political redress, and no armed resistance to join.

Yet such shame, of course, is not confined to the residents of East Jerusalem. Another curious feature of the bulldozer attacks is that the Israeli response demonstrates just how internalized violence has become within Jerusalem's Jewish population.

For instance, consider the following eyewitness account from yesterday's attack:

The Jerusalem Arab -- with an Israeli identity card -- continued driving the bulldozer down King David Street in the direction of the Inbal Hotel. I immediately started running after him at full speed -- praying to Hashem that he would not injure any more Jews and that I would have the merit to personally kill him. He smashed into a parked car on the left (Baruch Hashem it was empty), then into two cars in front of him....

When I was about 20 feet away, a civilian came from the left. He started shooting into the cabin of the bulldozer. Then, from the right hand side, a Border Policeman shot about 7 bullets from his M-16. The bulldozer came to a stop and the terror was over.

Never mind the avid belligerence of the eyewitness, his longing to "personally kill." Instead just think about what it means that two of the three initial responders were armed civilians. Neither of those men, obviously, knew that an attack would occur yesterday. Yet each went about their daily commute with a loaded gun.

What I want to say is that a large part of Israeli society, particularly in Jerusalem, is animated by a reciprocal form of shame. For some, it is the shame that Jerusalem should house an Arab population at all. But for most it's simply the fear of shame, of witnessing terror and not being able to personally respond. In either case, there is a perverted desire not for less violence, but for more -- either to truly unify the city, or to prove a peculiar form of self-worth.

As the bulldozer attacks reveal, the result of all this is a tragic stasis. The city that should be the most peaceful in the world is instead locked into a cycle of shame and violence, of terror and reprisal.

Hopefully one day that cycle will be broken. But until then the city feted for its faith will have little to celebrate -- even when Obama comes to town.