The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Moral Clarity

Suppose one morning you were to go to the bank to pay your bills, deposit a cheque, and take out some cash. While you are waiting in line for a teller a man in a ski mask with a gun comes in, orders you and everyone else onto the ground, and demands that the teller fill his backpack with money. With his cash-laden pack on his back he is about to make his escape when he sees that police cars have arrived on the street outside and he cannot escape the building without coming into their line of fire. The person who had been in line ahead of you is a visibly pregnant woman whom the robber grabs and holds in front of him, pointing his gun to her head as he demands that the police back off and let him escape.

Imagine that after that an officer steps forwards from behind the police lines, draws his revolver from his holster, aims it directly at the pregnant woman and shoots, killing her, her unborn child, and the robber with a single shot. Asked to explain his actions, the officer says that the robber was an evil man and needed to be stopped, that he had shown his callous disregard for innocent life by holding the pregnant woman hostage and if allowed to go free would undoubtedly do the same thing again to other people. Therefore the officer had decided, in the heat of the situation, to use lethal force to put the robber down. When asked about shooting the woman he says “it’s a tragedy, yes, but I’m not to blame. It was the robber who put her there so that I could not shoot him without shooting her too. He’s to blame not me”.

Would you expect his supervisors to accept that explanation? Would you expect the public and the courts to accept it? How about you, would you accept it yourself?

I didn’t think so. Yet the police officer’s explanation is identical to the justification that the state of Israel and her many supporters and defenders expect us to accept with regards to her bombings in Gaza which have resulted in the deaths of several hundred Palestinian Arabs, almost all of whom have been children, women, and the elderly. Hamas, which has been firing rockets at Israel for over a month, starting when Israel was conducting a crackdown in the West Bank under the guise of a search for three kidnapped Israeli teenagers that the Netanyahu government knew were dead, fires these rockets from sites where Israeli retaliation would maximize these kind of casualties. It hides its rocket launchers in schools, in hospitals, in densely populated residential neighbourhoods in urban centres, and basically everywhere it can find where a retaliatory bomb would take out huge numbers of non-combatants. Hamas is like the robber, holding the pregnant woman in front of him. Actually, Hamas is worse than the robber, because where the robber in the illustration was merely using the woman to try and escape from the scene of his crime alive, Hamas actively wills the deaths of the innocent people it hides behind because it uses the deaths, injuries, and massive damage to civil infrastructure that Israel inflicts, to obtain international sympathy and material assistance as well as to feed the anti-Israeli hatred of its own supporters.

Yet suppose for some strange reason, the robber in the story actually wanted the pregnant woman to be shot. He is committing a very odd form of murder/suicide let us say. Would this bolster the policeman’s case or be an additional argument against it? Would it not increase the policeman’s culpability by making him complicit in the crime that was actually intended? Similarly, does not the fact that Hamas wants the death of hundreds of Palestinian women and children from which it can generate the capital it thrives on, and the fact that Israel knows this, provide amount to yet another reason why Israel should not bomb schools, hospitals, and residential neighbourhoods?

If it came down to a matter of whether we should be cheering for the police or for bank robbers, then obviously the sane answer is that we should be cheering for the police. That Hollywood often sends the opposite message is no argument against that for Hollywood is not even close to being sane. Likewise, if it came down to matter of whether we should be cheering for Israel or Hamas, Israel the legitimate state is to be cheered rather than Hamas the terrorist organization. The hypothetical situation does not boil down to a question of whom to cheer for, however, and neither does the question of Israel’s recent activities in Gaza.

Israel’ most strident defenders like to accuse those who criticize or condemn her actions of “moral equivalence”. What moral equivalence basically amounts to is taking a conflict and trying to make the two sides morally equal when one side is clearly in the right. One does not have to claim moral equivalence between policemen and bankrobbers, however, to understand that the actions of a policeman who shoots a pregnant woman to take down the robber who is holding her hostage are inexcusable.

As an ethical error, moral equivalence is a bit like the theological error called antinomianism. Antinomianism is the heresy that teaches that because we are justified by grace we are therefore freed from the responsibility of trying to live righteously. It is a real, definable, error, but nine times out of ten when someone accuses someone else of antinomianism, it is because he himself is guilty of the opposite error of legalism. Similarly, moral equivalence is an actual ethical error, but in many cases those who accuse others of it are themselves guilty of something that might be called moral Manichaeism, of insisting upon seeing all conflicts in dualistic terms, as between light and darkness or good and evil. There is a strong tendency towards moral Manichaeism among Israel’s defenders, especially those who cry “moral equivalence” every time somebody suggests that killing Palestinian women and children, blowing up hospitals and schools, and sending missiles through residential neighbourhoods might not be something other than a perfectly justifiable action.

Hamas’ actions place Israel in a difficult situation to be sure. Israel has a right and even a duty to protect her citizens and society from those that would do them harm. Tom Wilson at Commentary, recently took exception to those who acknowledge this right in theory, but seem to deny it in practice, and he has a good point. Saying that Israel has a right to defend herself doesn’t mean much if in practice you condemn everything she does. It is not helpful or legitimate, however, to argue that because Israel is the “good guy”, therefore whatever she does is by definition just. Policemen are “good guys” and robbers are “bad guys”, but that does not mean that the cop who shoots the pregnant hostage in order to take down the robber is justified in doing so. We may agree that Israel is the “good guy” and Hamas the “bad guy”, and that Israel is as justified in protecting her citizens from Hamas as a policeman is in protecting people from bank robbers, but we cannot extrapolate from this that Israel is justified in killing women and children to get at Hamas because Hamas is hiding behind them, any more than a policeman would be justified in shooting a hostage to get at a robber because the robber is hiding behind the hostage.

4 comments:

  1. Gerry, you claim:
    "We may agree that Israel is the “good guy” and Hamas the “bad guy”, and that Israel is as justified in protecting her citizens from Hamas as a policeman is in protecting people from bank robbers, but we cannot extrapolate from this that Israel is justified in killing women and children to get at Hamas because Hamas is hiding behind them, any more than a policeman would be justified in shooting a hostage to get at a robber because the robber is hiding behind the hostage."

    Even putting aside the fact that nations have routinely intentionally massacred whole cities of civilians instead of targeting military forces to win wars (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden) your analogy is faulty on several levels. The robber in your analogy:
    1. does not pose a credible (let alone long-term!) mortal threat to the lives of millions of civilians.
    2. did not spend funds for humanitarian aid on the procurement, development, and production of thousands of rockets and missiles.
    3. did not allocate concrete intended for peaceful purposes to the construction of hundreds of miles of tunnels intro sovereign territory for use in the systematic abduction and/or murder of innocent civilians.
    4. did not join an organization whose charter is explicitly dedicated to the destruction of a sovereign nation.
    5. did not join an organization that calls for and praises the killing of Jews worldwide no matter their age or action.
    6. does not seek the means to destroy a sovereign nation and murder every Jew in it.

    Although I don't expect one, I'd be interested in any response.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Shlomo,

      You are correct that none of those thing are true of the robber although they are true of Hamas. That does not make the analogy faulty. The purpose of an analogy is to clarify and simplify a point. It is actually a bad analogy that reproduces what it represents in every detail. In this case, the point of the analogy was to show the flaw in one very simplistic argument that is commonly used by Israel and her defenders when criticism of the toll of her actions in civilian lives arises. It was not intended to refute each and every argument that can be made on Israel's behalf.

      The argument that when my foe is using innocents as human shields, he bears the full moral culpability for my killing them to get him, is bad moral reasoning. I cannot think of any other set of circumstances in which we would be expected to accept it.

      Demonstrating this argument to be flawed creates the opportunity for Israel's supporters to find better arguments. It would help if they realized that actions justified by necessity are seldom, if ever, actions that can be justified on the grounds of high moral principle. In other words, if Israel has to do terrible things out of necessity to secure the safety and survival of her society, I can respect that, but I cannot respect her at the same time complainingabout how unfair it is that she is not given the world's most virtuous nation award for doing so.

      Delete
  2. Gerry,

    "In this case, the point of the analogy was to show the flaw in one very simplistic argument that is commonly used by Israel and her defenders when criticism of the toll of her actions in civilian lives arises."

    I don't see what flaw you are referring to. If the threat Hamas poses were similar to the threat the bank robber poses, then Israel would not bother with deteriorating the capability of Hamas even at the cost of the life of just one civilian.

    "The argument that when my foe is using innocents as human shields, he bears the full moral culpability for my killing them to get him, is bad moral reasoning."

    I'm not aware of anyone of note having argued that Hamas bears "full moral culpability" for Palestinian civilian deaths during Operation Protective Edge. I have seen multiple Israeli officials and supporters of Israel assert that Hamas "is to blame" for those deaths given that:
    1. Hamas is openly & explicitly dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
    2. Israel attacks only military targets (perhaps this is the wrong strategy, though, given that the civilians voted for the military targets)
    3. Israel asks (via phone calls and leaflets) the civilians to leave the targets the IDF is going to attack
    4. Hamas asks civilians to stay in and around those targets areas because the IDF is going to attack them

    You are more than welcome to blame Israel. A challenge, though: name another case of an organization running social services and low-level government activities for a geographical region (after having been elected by the people of that region) that is explicitly dedicated to the destruction of a neighboring sovereign country.

    "In other words, if Israel has to do terrible things out of necessity to secure the safety and survival of her society, I can respect that, but I cannot respect her at the same time complainingabout how unfair it is that she is not given the world's most virtuous nation award for doing so."

    Well, fair enough. But condemnation is a bit different than a mere lack of respect! Remember, though, every time you condemn Israel for defending herself you raise the costs of Israel's current strategy of deteriorating but not eliminating neighboring threats to her people.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Similar discussion at The Thinking Housewife:

    http://www.thinkinghousewife.com/wp/2014/07/the-toll-in-gaza-and-israel/

    Two snippets:

    James N. writes:

    I’m writing not to defend or upbraid Israel, but rather to call attention to a post-1945 phenomenon which has manifested itself again and again, which is the willful forgetting of what the noun “war” means, and what it implies for those who invoke its fearsome spectre.

    Hamas, in its charter and in its public utterances makes no secret of the fact, or rather the claim, that it is at war with Israel. Within the past half-decade, Hamas has said that it would “open the gates of Hell” to visit destruction on the Israelis and their works.

    Now, in a more sensible world, Hamas’ calling Israel out in that way would lead to a military campaign by Israel with the goal of forcing Hamas to surrender, meaning that Hamas would accept, voluntarily and fully, whatever terms Israel saw fit to impose. Such a campaign would presumably not involve civilian casualties on a 1939-1945 scale (after all, these are Arabs we are talking about, not exactly known for martial vigor). However, just as we put Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki to the sword, Hamas, having invoked the gates of Hell, might be expected to fear whatever flew out of these gates.

    But, no. Hamas has the UN, enlightened opinion in Europe and in the Obama administration to make sure that the effluvia of Hell only flows in one direction.

    I like Israel, sure. I also like it that America can choose her friends and not buckle to intimidation by con artists and thugs.

    If Hamas wants war as badly as they say they do, then, by all means, let them have it, and have it until they don’t want it anymore.

    Shlomo Maistre writes:

    This is an important point. The fundamental reason why Israel does not give war to Hamas until Hamas accepts whatever terms Israel dictates is because Israel is not de facto a sovereign nation.

    The willful forgetting of what “war” means, which James N. rightly notes seems to be a post-1945 phenomenon, is intricately related to the lack of de facto sovereignty of almost every nation on earth, which (and not coincidentally) is also a post-1945 phenomenon. Though there’s room to quibble with any specific list, I’d designate the United States, Russia, China, and Germany as the only de facto sovereign nations on earth at the moment.

    Israel cannot eliminate Hamas’s capacity and will to wage war because such action would require the permission of a sovereign nation. Israel receives American economic support and diplomatic protection in exchange for acting in alignment with American interests to an extent. Certainly chief among American interests is that Israel remains its client state and not an actually sovereign one. For now, as Israel has not taken sovereign (or what is called “unilateral”) action by decimating Hamas or bombing Iran without permission, Israel appears to place greater weight on the benefits of American support than the debilitating strings attached to it.

    Hamas, as is so often the case with the weaker power in a modern day conflict, reports less directly to a sovereign power than does its adversary. Hamas is primarily and directly supported by the Palestinian Authority, Qatar and Turkey – at least at the moment. The first is a puppet of the American State Department. The second is home to America’s largest military base in the Middle East. And the third has been shifting of late under Prime Minister Erdogan from the American to the Russian sphere of influence.

    You see, the elimination of Hamas would directly harm the interests of an American puppet (the Palestinian Authority), a pseudo American ally that is a key oil exporter and a burgeoning client of the American defense industry (Qatar), and a NATO member with rising moral authority in the Muslim world that is a key player in regional pipeline politics with the capacity to consolidate Russian influence over European economies at the expense of American influence (Turkey).

    ReplyDelete