Friday, January 9, 2009

Complex and Simple

It has been difficult for me to contain my anger lately, when it comes to the dominant public response to the Gaza catastrophe. Israel's apologists are suddenly everywhere, once the media starts reporting the body count.

There is some kind of disease rampant in our society right now, which causes people to invert normal moral reasoning. Complex things are suddenly simple, and simple things are suddenly complex to the victims of this disease. Powerful is weak, and weak is powerful. Those suffering from this disease are immune to facts and reason. Mere empirical data has no sway with them. It is maddening to watch the tortured analogies being spewed by "experts" and politicians, bloggers and pundits all turning things into their opposite. It is as if they are living in photo-negative world where black is white, and white is black.

Let me give you an example. This is a quote from Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, used by Senator Jon Kyl who spoke in favor of a resolution supporting Israel's actions in Gaza. The whole text is here. He says:
Some geopolitical conflicts are morally complicated. The Israel-Gaza war is not. It possesses a moral clarity not only rare, but excruciating.
What? With all due respect Senator, have you gone out of your mind? Not complicated?

So I suppose that this current conflict has nothing to do with a century of western imperialism and interventionism in the Middle East. I suppose that this particular conflict is completely hermetically sealed off from the events that established Israel in the first place, or which led to their illegal occupation of territory beyond their internationally recognized borders in the 70's until today. It certainly must have nothing to do with systematic resettlement of palestinian groups, a collapsed infrastructure, the continual involvement of foreign powers on all sides (the US and Britain from the West, Syria and Iran from the East), or an entrenched culture of retaliation. It also was not precipitated by an 18 month siege during which even students were prohibited from entering or leaving the Gaza strip by the Israeli military.

Knowingly or not the Senator is relying on some form of Just War theory in order to make his argument that in this conflict Israel is justified, but he must not know very much about Just War theory, because in no way can Israel's current aggression be regarded as Just. To be just it must be proportional - the body count alone shows it is not the case. To be just it must not put innocents at risk - a vast majority of casualties on both sides have been civilians so far. To be just it must have been a case of last resort - given the enormous disparity in power between these two forces no one can make a credible argument that Israel had no other options available to them.

When we begin making simple things complex and complex things simple we are doing a very dangerous thing.

For example, various sides will describe this conflict as if it were essentially a religious war between Jews and Muslims. Apologists for Israel do this whenever they scream "antisemitism" at anyone who criticizes Israel. Supporters of Hamas, Hezbollah and others are just as bad when everything is "Zionism". This is not principally a religious conflict. Certainly not a straightforward one. Israel is a secular democratic nation. It does not act on behalf of the Jewish people or inspired by Jewish beliefs. Palestinians are not uniformly Muslim, and even those that are Muslim, are frequently more driven by claims of basic injustice and a sense of national identity than by religious ideology. The roots of this conflict are complex and have as much or more to do with economics and international relations than with religion.

On the other hand, there is an aversion to seeing simple truths. Here are two:

Launching military assaults on schools, mosques and residential neighborhoods is wrong. There is no justification for this. Yes, Hamas is despicable for using human shields. But if a criminal bank-robber is using a human shield the police do not take the risk of killing the hostage. They negotiate.

No matter what the provocation, the party with the greater power is the one who bears the most responsibility for the conflict. Power means not having to respond. Israel is a nuclear power with an extraordinarily well equipped and trained military. Hamas is a bunch of lunatics with some homemade mortars. If 5 year olds are throwing rocks at a teenager, the teenager does not have the right to go beat the crap out of the kids.

When it comes to simple truths like these, people will make all manner of complicated excuse for their side. Apologists for Israel have been hammering the point for years that the Israeli army does everything in their power to avoid civilian casualties (except, you know, not fire at civilians). Their attacks are surgical and they give forewarning etc... etc... whereas Hamas flagrantly aims directly for civilian targets. This fact only serves to highlight the disparity of power at play here. Hamas has supposedly been doing their best for years to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible and still they have managed to kill only a tiny fraction of the number that Israel has.

The worst aspect of this topsy turvy disease is that the victims hurl insults at anyone who tries to point out the inverted logic, as though disapproving of Israel's military action meant we wished harm on the citizens of Israel. I deplore all violence, and I refuse to participate in the wild justification of mass-scale murder, whether it is our nation, an ally, or an enemy that commits it. It's that simple.

Addendum: Go read this blog for an intimate human portrait of the situation in Gaza. It is co-written by persons on either side of the Gaza-Israel border.


Doug Hagler said...

Maybe one of our podcast episodes should be on just war theory. It is always misused, and we could go through the original requiements, then analyze the many conflicts, say, the US has been involved in, and vote on whether we'd call it a just war.

For me, the main problem in the Gaza conflict is choosing sides at all. If you have chosen a side, you are already pretty much morally bankrupt. If a guy from family A is stabbing family B to death, and a guy from family B is stabbing family A to death, the moral response is not, is never, rooting for guy A or guy B. And the majority of our arguments we're having about Gaza is whether we should root for guy A or guy B. Meanwhile, families are being stabbed to death, and no one seems to have the vision to imagine some kind of non-family-stabbing solution to the conflict of A and B.

Aric Clark said...

Doug - I think a podcast on Just War would be really helpful. Really.

And I totally agree. I'm not rooting for Hamas here. What they're doing is despicable, but rolling out the tanks is not the answer. It's never the answer.

Doug Hagler said...

Another interesting podcast could be the inevitable (oft-answered and oft-asked) question "So what's the answer, smarty-pants?" Its often thrown out there as if it hasn't already been addressed in a thousand thousand ways, but we might take our own shot at it.

Jodie said...

One of the worst legacies of the neo-cons is America's abandonment of "just war".

Jodie said...

In watching some of the CNN coverage I was intrigued by an ordnance that starts off as an air burst and then sends bright shining balls of fire to the ground leaving behind a trail of white smoke.

The balls of fire sometime bounce off the ground and seem to set things on fire.

After searching the internet for the weapon that matches that signature what I found was white phosphorous.

White phosphorous is a horrible weapon, sometimes classified as a chemical weapon. If a piece of it gets on your skin, it burns all the way to the bone. It can't be put out.

As a weapon it is banned by international law. The only legal use of white phosphorous is as a smoke screen.

Israel denies using any illegal weapons. It appears they are using white phosphorous as a smoke screen only.

In heavily populated urban areas.

Jodie said...

Right before CNN broke to show the plane landing in the Hudson, it was showing pictures of burning phosphorous on the UN compound in Gaza.

CNN has not shown the pictures of the burn victims, but if you google images you will find them.

If you have the stomach.

Aric Clark said...


between White Phosphorus, attacking the UN building, blowing up thousands of pounds of food meant for humanitarian assistance, and generally executing a war against densely populated urban areas there can be little question that Israel's war here fails the Jus in Bello side of Just War - that is they are not executing the war in a just manner whether there was just grounds for the invasion or not.

Hamas is not, and has never, executed the war in a just manner either - intentionally launching rockets at civilian targets etc... So there is enough blame to spread around, but as my mama used to say - 2 wrongs don't make a right.

Jodie said...

And as best as I can tell, Hamas is not Gaza, nor is it an effective foe. Is getting Hamas killed worth losing all the world's support and all the widows and orphans and dead and maimed civilians?

This is not God's Israel. But if God still has a people, it draws the world's hate to them in ways that will be most difficult to overcome.