Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Not Like Us

Among the many opinions on the conflict in Gaza, there's been a particularly disturbing subset. The most troubling reactions have been those expressing the attitudes that entire groups of people are inherently inferior, or less than human, or deserve to suffer or die, or their deaths don't matter whether they’re innocent or not. The actual death and destruction that's gone on is much worse than any chatter, of course, but these attitudes further fuel the carnage and undermine the prospects of a lasting peace. Whether these attitudes are extolled by respected "serious" pundits with blithely imperialist views or less prominent chickenhawk cheerleaders, they remain extremely dangerous and toxic.

Exhibits #1 and #2, irony-free, come from HTML Mencken of Sadly, No:

Can’t you just feel the regret and sorrow of glennocidal tendencies thwarted — thwarted, I tell you! Alas…

Shorter Verbatim Debbie Schlussel:

I’ve concluded that the only way this war can be “won” is if most of the Palestinians in Gaza–and the so-called “West Bank,” too, where HAMAS has a lot of support–are decimated, which the world will never allow Israel to do, and which Livni and Barak (and Olmert) don’t have the guts to do.

Shorter Verbatim Patrick Bateman Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet Stephen Green:

The only process towards peace is the kind of war one side can’t commit, and the other side won’t.

Exhibit #3 is a more general, short piece from NPR, titled "Gaza Fighting Reverberates In France" (follow the link to listen):

The recent conflict in Gaza touched nerves in France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish and Muslim communities. Despite the cease-fire in Gaza, many say the fighting there has done lasting damage to relations between Muslims and Jews in France.

Exhibit #4 comes from via Glenn Greenwald (emphasis his):

Former McCain-Palin campaign spokesman and current Weekly Standard editor Michael Goldfarb notes that Israel, a couple of days ago, dropped a 2,000-pound bomb on a Gazan home which killed a top Hamas leader . . . in addition to 18 others, including his four wives and nine of his children. About the killing of those innocent civilians, Goldfarb writes (h/t John Cole via email):

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. But to wipe out a man's entire family, it's hard to imagine that doesn't give his colleagues at least a moment's pause. Perhaps it will make the leadership of Hamas rethink the wisdom of sparking an open confrontation with Israel under the current conditions.

We've seen Goldfarb before, but he seems intent on plunging new depths. (You won't be shocked to learn he's also pro-torture.)

Exhibit #5, also from Greenwald, features Middle East "expert" Tom Friedman (emphasis from Greenwald):

...Friedman's column today is uncharacteristically and refreshingly honest. He explains that the 2006 Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon was, contrary to conventional wisdom, a great success. To make this case, Friedman acknowledges that the deaths of innocent Lebanese civilians was not an unfortunate and undesirable by-product of that war, but rather, was a vital aspect of the Israeli strategy -- the centerpiece, actually, of teaching Lebanese civilians a lesson they would not soon forget:

Israel’s counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.

Israel’s military was not focused on the morning after the war in Lebanon — when Hezbollah declared victory and the Israeli press declared defeat. It was focused on the morning after the morning after, when all the real business happens in the Middle East. That’s when Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: “What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? For whom?”

Friedman says that he is "unsure" whether the current Israeli attack on Gaza is similarly designed to teach Palestinians the same lesson by inflicting "heavy pain" on civilians, but he hopes it is:

In Gaza, I still can’t tell if Israel is trying to eradicate Hamas or trying to “educate” Hamas, by inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population. If it is out to destroy Hamas, casualties will be horrific and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. If it is out to educate Hamas, Israel may have achieved its aims

You also won't be surprised that most of this group cheerleads for war in general. Greenwald, on a roll, addressed this in yet another post:

Many of our nation's most grizzled super-tough-guy cheerleader/warriors -- the ones who insatiably crave those sensations of vicarious power from play-acting the role of warriors from a nice, safe distance -- are responding to my post of yesterday by beating their chests, swaggering around, and citing General Sherman to explain (in their best John Wayne voices) that War is Hell. All good warriors (like them) know that anything and everything done to those who "start a war" is justified.

Of course, if you ask Hamas why they blow themselves up in pizza parlors and shoot rockets at homes in Southern Israel as a response to the 40-year Israeli occupation and recent blockade, they'll tell you the same thing. If you ask Hezbollah why they kidnap Israeli soldiers and lob rockets into Israel in response to Israeli incursions into Lebanon, they'll make the same claim. If you ask Al Qaeda why they fly civilian-filled airplanes into civilian-filled buildings in response to American hegemony (and endless military actions) in their region of the world, they'll explain that jihad is hell and anything done to advance it is justified. You'll hear the same thing if you ask Russians why they destroyed Chechnyan residential blocks, or if you ask Serbian leaders about their genocide, or if you inquire with Rwandan tribal leaders about the brutality of their attacks, or if you ask virtually any other war criminal why they had to resort to such extremes.

Feel free to add any other examples, since this list is far from comprehensive – it's just some pieces I've read or heard in the past month that have stuck with me. It doesn't represent every flavor of idiocy and bigotry at work regarding Gaza, let alone the wider world. But then, it shouldn't have to. There are several attitudes in these selections that are noxious, toxic and dangerous. It shouldn't be hard to condemn anti-Semitism - or bigotry toward Arabs, Persians, and Muslims - or any other group. Neither should it be hard to bemoan the killing of innocent people, regardless of who they are. Neither should it be difficult to point out that even if one views a specific military action as 'just' versus immoral, it may be counterproductive to its supposed aims.

It's not an original observation on my part, but in democracies, going to war initially tends to start with lofty ideals being invoked, but as things get uglier, with lives lost and the cost of war growing more glaring, the rhetoric tends to get uglier, too. The "enemy" is increasingly demonized, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes as a conscious motivational, propaganda tool. The enemy is depicted as evil and inhuman, and that attitude starts to apply not only to the actual combatants, which can be problematic as it is, but to their entire nationality or group. This can lead to impasses. Human beings with different goals can perhaps be negotiated with, but how can one negotiate with pure evil? There's the old WWI line of the Brits, that the difference between them and the Germans was that "We believe in God, and they believe in Gott." Most war tropes grow far nastier than that, though, and this same dehumanization isn't limited to war, of course. But there is no problem to which dehumanization is the solution. It never, ever makes any situation better, it makes unnecessary war much easier, and its presence in general should be a giant warning sign that things could go in a bad direction. In contrast, consider the words of Terence : Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto - I am a human: nothing human is alien to me.

I've sometimes wondered how people can know "war is hell," a line hard to avoid, yet still be such stupid, reckless cheerleaders for war. The posts Greenwald links suggest part of the answer. "War is hell" for that group means that no one is responsible, that anyone can do whatever the hell he or she wants, and that any military action, no matter how foolhardy, reckless, or unconscionable, is justified. No matter how many innocent people were killed, needlessly, it couldn't be avoided, or it's excusable. Of course, that pathetic, callous, cowardly attitude is much easier to hold if those killed aren't seen as fully human or have been otherwise demonized. "War is hell" means exactly that – it's about the closest one can come to hell on Earth. Consequently, it's to be avoided if at all possible. Going to war is solely a matter of grim necessity, never a cause for celebration, and anyone opining otherwise is not to be trusted. Likewise, any attitude that urges less reflection about life and death issues such as war is immature and not to be trusted. Minimizing human suffering is terribly easy, not at all courageous.

Friedman's idea of "educating" through killing pretty much epitomizes the imperialist mindset. I guess I missed the point in classes on pedagogy - or in classes on history - or in any other class - where it was explained that killing members of a civilian population makes the survivors decide they love their opponents and prevents them from plotting their downfall. Friedman's stance is deeply immoral, and that can't be overemphasized, but it's also completely counterproductive to his stated goals. (It's hard to believe Friedman's never had that pointed out to him – but we've looked at him before, and I suspect that, as with the neocons, his ideology is driven more by a self-image than any sort of empiricism.)

The truth is, there are dangerous people in the world, and negotiation will not work with some of them. However, intent is not the same as capability, and dehumanization of even such people can be counterproductive. Why wouldn't you want to understand how your enemy thinks, and what he or she values? Isn't that just basic strategy? And the big pitfall, especially when people are genuinely, legitimately scared or angry – and that's definitely been the case for some parties with Gaza - is that an entire group is dehumanized, cruel or reckless actions become easier, new victims are created, and the cycle of vengeance is renewed. The demons, rather than 'the better angels of our nature,' prevail.

In American domestic politics, there are people with 'dangerous' views as well, even if the scale and the stakes may be less dire. They should be opposed, too, on talk shows, in national discussions, and when they run for office. They don't have a constitutional right to appear on television, but they do have a right to free speech, to run for office if eligible, and to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They may be wrong, ignorant, obnoxious and even dangerous (and perhaps should be called out on all of that), but they are still human. Depriving anyone of their human rights, their civil liberties, or their humanity damages something essential in our society, and hurts everyone.

This post is very far from comprehensive, and is less about Gaza and Israel specifically than it is about the persistent dangers of dehumanization and minimizing human suffering. Those issues, and the issue of going to war, are subjects that have been debated passionately for millennia, and one late night, quickly-dashed off blog post ain't going to solve much. However, I'll pass along David Neiwert's series on eliminationism in America, and some similarly-themed posts from here. I'll also add that our atrocious torture policies stemmed in part from similar dehumanization, and have been similarly counterproductive as well as deeply immoral.

Peace. We could all use it.

(Cross-posted at Blue Herald)


FranIAm said...

I am sitting here feeling empty, angry, speechless and yet filled with words that won't form themselves into sentences.

On this Holocaust Remembrance Day we are wise to remember what it means to fully dehumanize the so-called "other."

Tengrain said...

Oh, this made me so sad and mad to read. Friedman is an ass, an immoral ass.



Comrade Kevin said...

As a pacifist, I know full well how easy a concept it is to invoke "the other" for the sake of conquest and also how quickly blood-lust becomes war. I wish I could believe that it was not a natural state of being, but there must be some primordial basis for it. The reasons why, I know not.

I fear we have not evolved as a species enough yet.