Thoughts on the Israeli/Lebanon Crisis

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In fields such as physics or mathematics, you need to spend a good chunk of your lifetime just studying and understanding everyone else's contributions. Then and only then are you qualified to contribute your own ideas to the literature. There would be no point in simply repeating someone else's argument or insight, except insofar as you expressed it more clearly for students in a textbook.

Things are different when it comes to politics. Here, policies are ruled out if they don't meet with (at least general and tacit) public approval. It doesn't matter if (most) economists believe that trade barriers make a country poorer. So long as the average citizen thinks that protectionism 'saves jobs,' the politicians can get away with catering to these special interests.

Because of this unfortunate fact, there is scope for writers (like me) to write articles that contain nothing but elementary common sense. I am by no means a student of Middle Eastern affairs, and yet I think it will help to reiterate a few basic points for the ongoing discussions concerning Israel 's bombardment of Lebanon .

First and foremost: It is immoral to kill innocent people. Most people would unhesitatingly endorse this statement, unless they knew we were talking about government soldiers, and in particular soldiers who worked for a government that they favored. (For the overwhelming majority of people, this would include 'our government.')

Many observers, including President Bush, have justified Israeli actions on the grounds that ' Israel has a right to self-defense.' Yes, that is true in most value systems'so long as we clarify to mean Israeli individuals have the right, since there is no such thing as the right of a country. But if we take the right to self-defense to include killing innocent people who had nothing to do with the original provocation, then we've thereby exonerated Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, as well as guaranteed that the Middle East will be in perpetual warfare and 'rightfully' so.

This leads in to the second (and final) main point of this article. (See, I told you this would be short and simple.) To wit, Western justifications for our violence are no less repugnant than those offered by the Palestinians and other such groups. Americans and the English, for example, certainly do think it is perfectly fine to achieve a military objective by mass murdering civilians. Allied bombers massacred untold thousands of civilians in Dresden , Tokyo , and (famously) Hiroshima and Nagasaki .

Now of course, the response will be, 'But that was the only way to win the war!' Actually no, that's not true. It was the only way to win unconditional surrender without 'unacceptable' American troop casualties. So you see, there are plenty of things higher on the value scale of Westerners than innocent civilian life. (In this case, at least two, namely 'not giving those smug Japanese a conditional defeat' and 'saving the lives of thousands of US GIs').

Let me deal with some immediate retorts. My critic might say, 'Give me a break! There is a huge moral difference between unfortunate collateral damage when attacking a military target, versus the intentional targeting of civilians for the maximum death toll, which is what those savages do.'

But I must confess that I do not see such a wide gulf between the two sides on this point. Is it really true that, say, the British starvation blockade of Germany was a purely military tactic? What about Doolittle's raid on Tokyo , which even my high school history book informed me was a symbolic act to (I'm paraphrasing) 'show the Japanese that their rulers couldn't protect them from US bombers'?

Let's also deal with an objection that runs like this: 'These Hezbollah types are cowards because they hide behind civilians. If they would don uniforms and fight out in the open, we could virtually eliminate civilian collateral damage. But since they choose to fight in this manner, we have no choice but to take the fight to the people.'

Again I must respond that the tactics of Hezbollah and other insurgency groups do not seem so principally different from Western values, adjusting for the military situation. It would be pointless for Arabs to take on American troops in Iraq in open battle, and that's why they eschew this technique. Now when you and your family watched Mel Gibson in Patriot, did you wince at his cowardice? (After all, British generals at the time were probably annoyed at the pesky raids on their supply lines and so forth.) Or did you instead congratulate yourself on being descended from such clever and resourceful fighters? It's true that he and his comrades never killed innocent people, but it's also true that the situation was not perfectly analogous to present-day Iraq .

People who say that Israel is just acting to protect herself ignore the fact that Israeli cities were shelled in response to the Israeli attacks. And people who condemn the 'senseless' terrorist actions in Iraq and elsewhere ignore the fact that 'terrorism works' in the same sense that other forms of violence 'work.' Critics say that placating the Palestinians and others will not lead to peace, just further demands. But by the very same token, recruiters for Al Qaeda can point to the case of Iraq and say, 'Do you na've fools really believe that if we just did what Bush and Blair ask, we would be free?' It is perfectly understandable that the terrorists in Iraq think the only way to get US withdrawal is to inflict a steady stream of casualties. Images of Iraqi babies blown to pieces don't seem to be doing the trick.

In a last ditch effort to avoid angry emails, let me close by saying that other governments would behave just as Israel 's were they in a similar situation. I believe that the Jews are God's chosen people and I hope the present article is not construed as anti-Semitic (though I know it will be).

I am merely claiming that it is immoral to kill innocent people, and drawing conclusions from that premise.

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Bob Murphy's picture
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