The morality of Israel’s killing Palestinian civilians
I have been engaged in a Facebook exchange with someone who believes that killing civilians is always immoral. This moral stance means that, because Israel is killing civilians more effectively than Hamas, he believes Israel is morally more culpable than Hamas in the current conflict. He therefore cannot support her, and his sympathy for Palestinians outweighs his sympathy for Israelis.
Because his is an argument I hear frequently; because Progressives think their overarching pacifism is virtuous; because this man was invariably polite in expressing his views, appearing more misguided than malevolent; and because there were other people auditing this exchange on Facebook, I took the time to respond at some length his arguments. Although doing so seemed like a somewhat futile effort while the ceasefire held, given that Hamas took up arms again the minute the ceasefire ended, this issue is not going away any time soon.
The man’s core operating principle is that killing civilians is so verboten that he can never approve of a group, party, or nation that commits such acts. I know he felt virtuous when he wrote that, but I tried to get him to see that, in certain circumstances, his pacifism will leave him with more innocent blood on his own hands (morally, speaking) than his own ostensibly high-minded position would.
I asked him to imagine that a large, well-organized, well-funded terrorist group (which we’ll call “Hamas” for short) carries out a series of attacks against a Jewish nation (which, for convenience’s sake, we’ll call “Israel”). The attacks are not as deadly as Hamas would wish, but Hamas plans to continue with the attacks — eventually someone will die — with the culmination being a coordinated attack through Israel which will, if successful, kill upwards of 10,000 Israeli civilians. This man’s moral calculus would mean that the only way for Israel, as a moral nation, to avoid the impermissible immorality of killing innocent civilians in Hamas’s ambit would be for Israel to surrender immediately and, indeed, for it to do so regardless of the seriousness of Hamas’s provocation.
In a perfect world, against an equally moral enemy, this moral purity might work. Of course, in that perfect world, the enemy too would have held itself to this high moral standard — never kill a civilian — and wouldn’t have attacked Israel in the first place. Sadly, though, we do not live in a perfect world.
In an imperfect world, which happens to be the world we inhabit, Israel knows that Hamas’s goal is to slaughter every man, woman, and child in Israel. Israel doesn’t have to go down the primrose path of conspiracy theories and paranoia to reach this conclusion about Hamas’s end game. Instead, Hamas has made the death of Israel’s citizens — all of them — the centerpiece of its charter, it preaches this goal from every political and religious pulpit, it acts upon this goal whenever possible, and it has spent millions of dollars in foreign aid, including money from Israel herself, to plan a terrorist attack intended to kill those 10,000 of Jewish civilians.
Despite this stark reality, the man I’m debating insists that Israel still has only one moral choice: she must refrain from fighting back if that fight means that she might kill even one civilian. Only in that way, he says, can he give Israel his support.
Israel, however, has figured out something that this man, either because he’s blinded by the self-righteousness of his own idealism or because he’s as genocidal as Hamas, refuses to grasp: If Israel takes this allegedly moral high ground and surrenders to Hamas, she will effectively have killed all off all of her own civilians. In other words, no matter what choices Israel makes, the nature of her enemy means that Israel will have the blood of innocents on her hands.
As between those two choices — either kill a few hundred Palestinians civilians or watch 6 million of your own people being brutally slaughtered — a non-suicidal nation will always opt to value its own citizens’ lives first. Moreover, a moral nation, such as Israel, even as it recognizes that civilian deaths are inevitable, fundamentally values life and does everything possible to protect both its own and its enemy’s citizens. Still, Israel recognizes that the nature of war, sadly, is death.
Put this way — living in the real world rather than the idealistic fantasy world — it’s clear that the responsibility for civilian deaths lies entirely with Hamas. Israel, by choosing a course of action that minimizes civilian deaths is on the side of the angels.
My debating opponent was unimpressed by this argument and, to the extent I refused to condemn Israel for killing any Palestinian women and children, accused me of a lack of empathy and sensitivity. My counter was that it is he, not I, who is guilty of those sins. First, as I noted above, his world view means he would rather see Israel commit suicide to the tune of 6 million more dead Jews, rather than allow Israel to defend herself at the cost (the sad, but necessary cost) of an almost infinitely smaller number dead Palestinians. Viewed that way, his position is unbelievably callous.
Moreover, pulling back from Gaza and looking at the big picture, one can see even better how un-empathetic and unkind his position is. By allowing the cancer of fundamentalist Islam to spread (in the form of Hamas, ISIS, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian Mullahs, etc.), he is consigning millions of people and many generations to the living death of life under Islamic fundamentalist rule. To back up this point, I gave him a down-and-dirty list of the horrors of life under radical Islam. (And please note that I’m not talking about the more house-broken version of Islam of the type that prevailed in Turkey before Erdogan started an internal jihad.)
Life under radical Islam means executions and lots of them. The short list of capital crimes includes female adultery, homosexuality, theft, blasphemy, conversion to another faith, heresy, killings in self-defense, etc. If someone is spared execution for those sins, life under Islam means brutal whippings (sometimes to death) or the amputation of bits and pieces of the human body.
Fundamentalist Islam and slavery are a matched set. Slavery is rife in the Muslim world. Indeed, though few will acknowledge it, the Muslim world was the opening act in the Western slave trade that Britain and America eventually stamped out, something America did at great cost to herself.
Radical Islam means institutionalized misogyny. In sharia nations, women have no rights. Being denied the right to vote, leave home unaccompanied, drive a car, get a divorce, or engage in any other ordinary life actions would be bad enough but, too often, for women radical Islam and death go hand in hand. In Muslim territory (e.g., under the Taliban, under ISIS, under Boko Haram, under al Shabaab, in Pakistan, etc.), women die from lack of medical care; they die from honor killings; they die because, when married at 9, they have babies at 12; they die because they’re beaten to death; and they die because men fear them so much that the men would rather kill women than give them any rights, power, or freedom. Just as one example of this primitive fear, in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, the religious police forced 15 schoolgirls to burn to death, rather than allow them to escape a burning school-house without their veils.
When fundamentalist Islam holds sway, disease follows in its wake. Across large swaths of the Muslim world, imams routinely speak out against vaccinations which are seen as a Western evil. This is why children all over Muslim Africa and the Middle East die or are rendered invalids by polio, diphtheria, measles, and all sorts of other diseases that have been banished from the First World.
Grinding poverty is radical Islam’s constant companion. The teachings of Islam, when applied with fundamentalist rigor, have proved to be antithetical to economic success. To date, sharia nations have discovered only two ways to wealth: conquest and oil. Failing those, their people are consigned to lives of unimaginable, pre-modern squalor.
Endless war is an Islamist mandate. Democratic, free-trading nations seldom go to war against each other. Muslims always do. It’s no accident either. The Qu’ran envisions only two states of existence: submission to Islam (but it better be the correct type of Islam) or jihad until such submission is achieved. The number of Muslims Israelis have killed in their defensive wars pales when compared to the number of Muslims other Muslims have killed. The Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s (Shia v. Sunni) saw more than 2 million people killed on both sides. Iran’s most ferocious weapon was its battalions of young children who had been raised to kill. Hardened Iraqi commanders said that facing those soul-less children was the most frightening thing they’d ever seen. Fast forward to Syria, and the three-year long civil war (Sunni v. Shia) has seen more than 200,000 people killed or displaced.
Fanatically-practiced Islam doesn’t just mean war outside of a nation’s boundaries. It’s also a recipe for endless internal strife. In America, Republicans and Democrats insult each other, and then we all join together to bemoan how rude the other side is. That’s our version of “ugly” politics. In the Muslim world, competing tribes and races simply slaughter each other. In the Sudan, the Northern Arab Muslims first killed all of the countries’ Christians. Once that was done, they embarked on a racial purge, killing black Muslims. Tribal and sectarian allegiances mean that for too many Muslims subordinate to sharia regimes, life is short, ugly, and brutish.
Complete fealty to Islam primes a population for subjugation to tyrants. With its emphasis on submission and fatalism before the will of Allah (in other words, fundamentalist Islam’s complete absence of free will),the Muslim world is an open invitation to tyrants of every sort. Tyrants begin by brutalizing their own citizens. Bashir al-Assad’s comfort with the fact that, since 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed or displaced is part of a long tradition amongst Muslim rulers. Indeed, although the dead are his own citizens, he killed half of them. Likewise, Saddam Hussein was a murderous madman who is estimated to have killed 100,000 Kurds, as well as the hundreds of thousands who died in the long war with Iran. Qaddafi was famed for the brutal tortures he visited upon his poor subjects.
Coincidentally or not, the closer a culture hews to radical Islam, the more brutal it is at the level of ordinary civilians. Pakistan is a garden-variety Muslim country. Its news services routinely report on women accused of adultery who are gang raped and murdered. What doesn’t make the news is the casual brutality of pedophilia, wife and child beating, and horrific animal torture that is the norm in Pakistan and other predominantly Muslim countries. And let’s not even start with the honor killing that appears everywhere that Muslim populations achieve critical mass.
Anyone who subscribes to a moral relativism that says that life is too precious to allow Israel to defend herself when a rabid Islamic force is waging war against her – and to castigate either Israel or me for being callous about death – is unforgivably ignorant about the reality of life in the Muslim world.
The reality is that tyrannical regimes don’t walk away on command. They will kill or let die all of their people rather than relinquish their power. Moreover, one of the ways in which they maintain control over their citizens is to encourage those beleaguered, abused, pathetically ignorant citizens to enjoy killing “the other.” The best way to show ones compassion and empathy for Muslims and Arabs around the world is to discourage the fanaticism that consigns them to lives of almost unbearable suffering.
Intelligent empathy demands that, when it comes to the existential war between the Judeo-Christian tradition, on the one hand, and Islamic fundamentalism, on the other hand, one has to look at the big picture, rather than focusing obsessively on the tragedy (and it is tragic) of one dead child. The best way to show ones compassion and empathy for Muslims and Arabs around the world — especially the woman and children trapped in those societies — is to discourage the fanaticism that consigns too many of them to lives of almost unbearable suffering.