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.
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