It’s rare to stumble across an unambiguously racist comment on a putatively mainstream political website, so I was pretty shocked when this popped up (emphasis mine):
Setting aside the fact that Israel is a friend to the Western world while many Palestinians would prefer to see us dead, that Israel wants peace and the Palestinians want genocide, and that the Pals are a pathetic, parasitic, backwards, savage, unsympathetic people who wouldn’t know what to do with a state if they had it, consider the message that is sent when the world backs these sort of tactics.
The word “racist” gets thrown around with aplomb these days, so it’s important to distinguish between bog-standard blogospheric vitriol and a few cold, hard facts. Describing the Palestinian people as uniformly savage and parasitic is about as racist as you can get.
A few months ago, William Brafford wrote about my least-favorite political disclaimer: “Yes, I’m a conservative, but not that kind of conservative.” I won’t pretend that my disgust with the movement’s ugly underbelly is somehow representative of the Republican Party’s well–documented troubles with the youth vote, but the fact that a movement organ will publish something like this without batting an eye says something extremely disturbing about the state of American conservatism.
To the vast majority of Americans, to most other nations, and even to the United Nations, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was a just use of force. The Taliban regime, after all, was allowing Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for al Qaeda, a place for training and planning and launching attacks. The United States, in the eyes of most of the world, was fully justified in overthrowing the Taliban regime in an effort to uproot al Qaeda and break the back of that terrorist network. Our response was deemed as proportional in part because of the good being defended and the possible good that may result from the action (among the standards comprising the just war theory).
Israel is acting along the same ethical lines – yet when Israel does it, its actions are met with almost universal condemnation. The transparent double standard that is applied to Israel – a state that acts with extraordinary care to protect enemy noncombatants – is deeply troubling. Let’s just say if the nation we were talking about was non-Jewish, the response from many quarters would be dramatically different and far more sympathetic.
Some of Israel’s more vocal critics are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, but I think this argument is a straw man. Most people recognize that no nation has an unconditional right to military retaliation. The United States’ intervention in Afghanistan garnered broad support because a) the September 11 attacks were incredibly devastating and b) it was pretty plausible that Al Qaeda would continue to attack civilian targets absent some sort of military response. Weighed against the risk of collateral damage in Afghanistan, this rationale was very compelling to most reasonably objective observers.
The Gaza invasion, on the other hand, has incurred more civilian casualties than Hamas’s rocket attacks. There are also serious doubts about the ability of the Israeli military to defeat Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure. I think there are several responses (compelling and otherwise) to this point, but it strikes me as a straightforward empirical debate, not a question of anti-Semitism. Added to this confusion is Israel’s treatment of Gaza over the past few years and you have a situation that is dramatically different – both strategically and morally – than the United States’ posture after September 11. Needless to say, I think we should be able to engage in a debate about the merits of Israel’s strategic choices without resorting to accusations of anti-Semitism.
The crazy thing about this Michael Goldfarb post is that he concedes aerial bombardment rarely works (“It’s true that there are very few examples in 20th century history of a bombing campaign that actually broke the morale of a people at war . . .”) while simultaneously reaffirming his support for the latest round of Israeli air strikes. His justification?
These people willingly send their own children to their deaths simply to make a statement — to accomplish nothing but the murder of two Israeli civilians and signal their commitment to the fight. The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it’s not clear that they are rational, at least not like us.
This, I think, reveals the logic of collective punishment. No one who supports Israeli military action calls it collective punishment, of course, but if you believe that Hamas’s murderous ideology represents the Palestinian mindset, it becomes easier to rationalize a military response that risks significant collateral damage. Describing the Palestinians as uniformly hateful and irrational devalues the moral significance of Palestinian casualties. Civilian deaths can then be written off as an inevitable consequence of our enemy’s irrational choices.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time we’ve dehumanized enemies to further policy objectives that would be considered repugnant under any other circumstances. The torture debate, for example, was dominated by a perverse vocabulary that dismissed the fundamental humanity of detainees before they were even brought to trial. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Daniel Larison’s indispensable post on torture at the ACLU’s website:
Having labeled someone a terrorist, whether it has grounds for this or not, the government takes it for granted that all terrorists are irrational actors. Enemies have been excluded from the realm of the rational, and necessarily terrorists must be irrational, else they would not be terrorists and would not be our enemies — no rational person could be our enemy, as the tautology would have it. Now rationality is one of the basic marks of humanity, and in stripping the enemy of this the government strips him of his humanity, and thus of any claim to humane treatment in the eyes of his captors. Never mind that humans would owe humane treatment even to those who are not human — the perverse and simple logic of dehumanization is quite effective in silencing such doubts. With this process of dehumanization of captives, it becomes easier to abandon restraint and conscience.
Because my knowledge of the Palestinian conflict is pretty shallow, I’ll refrain from commenting on the effectiveness of Israel’s recent military action. However, I think a renewed outbreak of violence raises broader questions about proportionality and the legitimacy of military retaliation that deserve to be addressed.
At Conventional Folly, I went a few rounds with Sonny Bunch over whether policymakers should consider “proportionality” when formulating a military response to terrorist attacks. You could read Bunch’s comments, but Ramesh Ponnuru has the Cliffs Notes version in the Washington Post:
Critics of Israeli military action say that it is “excessive” or “disproportionate” to Hamas’s provocation. But that’s the wrong way to think about proportionality in war. The traditional just-war standard is that military action should be “proportionate” in that it causes fewer harms than it seeks to prevent. That’s a sane and sound moral standard. It does not mean that military means must inflict only as much pain as the enemy has inflicted.
The newfangled proportionality standard has several perverse implications, not the least of which being that military victories would almost always be considered morally illegitimate.
In this context, enemy combatants – whether they’re members of an opposing military or an irregular guerrilla force – are fair game because they’re willing participants in armed conflict. Ideally, we’d like to minimize military deaths on both sides, but voluntarily signing up for armed service is entirely different from getting caught in the crossfire.
So if the Israeli military suddenly assassinated every single Hamas operative, I doubt anyone would call their response “disproportionate.” But of course that’s not what happened, so we’re left weighing the collateral damage incurred by Israeli strikes against the prospect of continued rocket attacks. So far, the death toll in Gaza appears to be winning.
Some commentators seem to think that Israel is morally obligated to retaliate whenever its citizens’ lives are threatened. I understand the political logic of this approach – would any politician have the guts to stand up and tell his constituents to “sit back and take it?” – but I don’t understand why retribution should outweigh the prospect of Palestinian civilian casualties. Unless we’ve decided that the safety of Israeli citizens should always take precedence over the condition of their Palestinian counterparts, I think the moral imperative to spare as much innocent life as possible should be the determining factor when considering retaliatory military action. If an Israeli military response leads to more civilian casualties than the alternatives, I don’t think such action can be considered morally appropriate.