News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: I Will Die More Tragically Than You

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I Will Die More Tragically Than You

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. ~ George Orwell

Noting that Israel had a right to defend itself, Bush said, "Sometimes it requires tragic situations to help bring clarity in the international community... And it is now clear for all to see that there are terrorist elements who want to destroy our democratic friends and allies, and the world must work to prevent them from doing so." --President Bush to reporters at the White House, July 18, 2006.
Others' deaths affect us in many ways. The death of a loved one is naturally more painful than the death of a stranger down the road, on the other side of town, in other countries. You might even use that old cliché of rings created by a rock thrown into a pool to envision this. The rings near where the rock hits the water are the ones we love most and affect us emotionally more than those farther away from the center. ...

There's something true in the idea that we love ourselves more than anything else in the world. I could be unconcerned and indifferent to the death of the world, but it seems absurd to think that I would not care about my own death. The same thoughts and feelings associate themselves with the deaths of those that are of my flesh and bone of my bone.

Yet, there are cases where even the bonds of family and affection break down. Some of the more harrowing stories from history describe circumstances in which famine, plague, war, and so on eat at these bonds like a dissolving acid. Growing up, I read about the Ik, an African tribe whose social and cultural framework had been decimated by colonialism and natural disasters. The Ik were committing social suicide, part of which included starving parents stealing the food from their own children.

The notion of how much an individual loves themselves is immortalized in those terrifying words spoken by the Accuser to God concerning Job:
And the Accuser [Hebrew shatan, which means accuser] answered the LORD, and said, Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life. But put forth thine hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.
Strike down a person's children, destroy their property and leave them destitute. But touch a person's very skin and they will turn and repudiate all they love and even the sacred itself.

The Accuser's bitter truth that all humans love themselves and their lives more than anything is played out over and over in numerous action movies and cop shows. Many of the plots of these stories involve the threat of violence to get at the guilt of a perpetrator. What does it say about our society that artists play out in innumerable permutations this very sad fact about human life?

The love of self seems inborn to human beings. If there's one thing you can say, it is that humans will always gauge their actions in accord with how others and the world fit into an individual's needs and goals. The Accuser's words are terrible because they show how deeply this self-love goes, even to the destruction of those closest to us as long as we ourselves escape whole and alive.

No doubt, it is something like this understanding of human self-love that informs the various reasonings for torture that the current war on terror has brought to light. Perhaps a more egregious form of rationalizing how much a human will give up facing death comes to light in comments made by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in reference to defining who or what a civilian is in war and how to determine whether some civilians' death are more tragic than others.

Dershowitz writes:
There is a vast difference — both moral and legal — between a 2-year-old who is killed by an enemy rocket and a 30-year-old civilian who has allowed his house to be used to store Katyusha rockets. Both are technically civilians, but the former is far more innocent than the latter. There is also a difference between a civilian who merely favors or even votes for a terrorist group and one who provides financial or other material support for terrorism.

Finally, there is a difference between civilians who are held hostage against their will by terrorists who use them as involuntary human shields, and civilians who voluntarily place themselves in harm's way in order to protect terrorists from enemy fire.

These differences and others are conflated within the increasingly meaningless word "civilian" — a word that carried great significance when uniformed armies fought other uniformed armies on battlefields far from civilian population centers. Today this same word equates the truly innocent with guilty accessories to terrorism.
Dershowitz places his comments in the context of recent accusations against Israel about a supposed disproportionate response to the extremist Islamic Hezbollah's capture of Israeli soldiers at the Lebanon-Israel border.

These accusations have come from many sectors--media, government, politics. For example, breaking with what is perceived as the US refusal to engage with Israel in cutting back its invasion's ferocity, British Foreign Office minister Kim Howells said:
"I very much hope that the Americans understand what's happening to Lebanon. The destruction of the infrastructure, the death of so many children and so many people. These have not been surgical strikes.

"And it's very, very difficult I think to understand the kind of military tactics that have been used.

"You know, if they're chasing Hezbollah, then go for Hezbollah. You don't go for the entire Lebanese nation."
Dershowitz's point, of course, makes much legal sense. In terms of legal analysis, his argument may in fact be the answer. As a matter of law it might even hold sway at one time or another in either domestic or international legal decisions.

One could note, however, that just because it is a matter of law does not make it moral or just. Laws have often made such distinctions as Dershowitz makes--laws that eventually were found immoral. South Africa, for example, passed laws that discriminated between different categories of humans and, depending on whether they were black, white, or colored, had distinctly different penalties applied for the same crime.

My counter-example is not analogous to Dershowtiz's but more analogous examples could be found. But these examples will not be found unless there is something more important discovered. The important factor that is missing from Dershowitz's ruminations brings me back to suffering Job.

What many tend to forget when they read or re-read Job is that it is not a book trying to "justify the ways of God to man." It is, rather, more about Job and how he reacts to his suffering. As I have noted, the assumption among many is essentially in agreement with the Accuser; that is, if you attack a person so it hurts and threatens their very existence they will give up everything and everyone, even to the extinction of their own humanity.

But Job does not do this. Instead, Job's suffering brings out in him a growing awareness not only of his suffering but the suffering of those others who are invisibly persecuted among us. Job, the rich, religiously righteous man, comes to see and identify with those whom he used to believe were suffering because they had somehow sinned against God. Yet Job--sinless Job--himself suffers. Seeing that it is not because the poor and dispossessed sinned but because of the injustice of others, Job realizes that he and they are indeed one.
Men move boundary stones;
they pasture flocks they have stolen.
They drive away the orphan's donkey
and take the widow's ox in pledge.
They thrust the needy from the path
and force all the poor of the land into hiding.
Like wild donkeys in the desert,
the poor go about their labor of foraging food;
the wasteland provides food for their children.
They gather fodder in the fields
and glean in the vineyards of the wicked.
Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked;
they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold.
They are drenched by mountain rains
and hug the rocks for lack of shelter.
The fatherless child is snatched from the breast;
the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.
Lacking clothes, they go about naked;
they carry the sheaves, but still go hungry.
They crush olives among the terraces*;
they tread the winepresses, yet suffer thirst.
The groans of the dying rise from the city,
and the souls of the wounded cry out for help.
But God charges no one with wrongdoing. {Job 2-12)
This change of consciousness, the realization that in his power he had blinded himself to the suffering of others is brought about in Job through his suffering. In realizing that suffering levels one to equality with all others--that in suffering we are one, Job can begin to understand a justice that transcends self-interest and self-love. He begins to see that only through maintaining an existence that does not separate from suffering but maintains the link to suffering can he begin to act justly.

Dershowitz's argument--though set in terms of legalistic spectacle--ultimately fails to appreciate the depth of suffering of others. In trying to characterize the sufferings of others, he attempts to carve out categories of suffering that will eventually denude people of their pain. Ultimately, these distinctions would begin to benefit those in power to justify the indiscriminate killings of innocents simply because they fall into categories that Dershowitz hopes to brand as less tragic than others.

The vision of Job, however, refuses to level suffering to categories. For Job, all sufferers suffer equally, no matter their circumstances. Whether they learn from that suffering is no matter for others to determine. Less so is it any person's part to pass judgment on the ultimate justice of their individual projects and enterprises. Acting in full justification for what we feel and believe is just, the final judgment on that is reserved for a much larger vision and horizon than a mere human or even collection of humans can ever hope to attain.

In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the author James Joyce's alter ego has a discussion about the use of the word tragedy used by newspapers to describe the deaths of people. Joyce makes the rather pedantic argument that though someone's being run over by a horse and carriage is regrettable, it is not tragic. That concept is related to specifically aesthetic categories used in drama and theater. The death of Oedipus is in no one comparable to the death of someone in everyday life.

Without subscribing to Joyce's pedantic brilliance, I think his comments apply to times when lawyers like Dershowitz rhetorically use the term to describe the deaths of civilians killed in war. The category of tragedy is not the right one to use n this context; the categories are justice and injustice. And to conflate the two categories merely shows the confusion that Mr. Dershowitz has in determining an appropriate way to think and act in the present world of "asymmetric warfare."

Update 1 According to Nicholas Blanford ( via War & Piece):
A UNIFIL officer said that the Israelis had told them they would not hinder cars travelling north on main roads. But the overwhelming evidence Sunday suggested that cars were being attacked regardless of their occupants and direction of travel.

"They have been hitting civilian cars all over the place," said Peter Bouckart of Human Rights Watch, who had just returned to Beirut from Tyre. "I have been in many war zones, but this is one of the most dangerous places I have seen.

Update 2 Lenin's Tomb writes:
But this is the lingua franca of the 'war on terror'. One is used to such guardhouse lawyering over the use of torture, over the destruction of marketplaces in Baghdad, over the use of death squads and so on and on. This is the cheap alchemy of capital, whose norms are ductile, glittering generalities, frequently to be melted down and refashioned. Capitalist morality valorises the ruling class's interests while endlessly condescending to, ridiculing, demonising and anathematising opposing interests - and capital pays a class of entertainers and scribes and polemicists and, yes, lawyers to obscure this, to persuade you that you have something to gain in this, that you have a vital stake in the arms industry, in keeping the fuel-deathlock economy running exactly as it is, in abandoning your right to a decent pension and paying instead for renewed nuclear weapons while working yourself to an early grave. Your are to be persuaded that British ruling class interests in the Middle East are 'our' interests. This class has a keen sense of audience: radio shock-jocks raise hysterical alarums about "the Muslim threat" (which is to do with im'grants n stuff), while liberal columnists expatiate about womens' rights, free speech (and "the Muslim threat" thereto).

In the war on terror, capital takes the leap of openly trying to redefine what is human and what is not, openly trying to resuscitate racist discourse. It resolves its crisis of profitability by slashing the wage bill and plundering resources, and binds you libidinally to this process by reminding you that your family will never be safe until we tame the Middle East with its cartoon collection of mad religious fanatics, Oriental dictators and rising brown tides. In this, Israel plays its part as it always has: from Iran to Nicaragua, from Afghanistan to the Maghreb, Israel is richly rewarded for being the global adjuvant to imperialist power, a role its founders sought for it since day one. By pounding Lebanon, it does what the US is temporarily restrained from doing, fighting a proxy war against Iran and Syria, two states in the Middle East not amenable to US bribery or sanctions. And the moral code for this rampage is: Never Makes Excuses for Terrorism; Israel Has a Right to Defend Itself; White Kids are More Human Than Brown Kids.
Update 3In Haaretz, Ze'ev Maoz writes:
There's practically a holy consensus right now that the war in the North is a just war and that morality is on our side. The bitter truth must be said: this holy consensus is based on short-range selective memory, an introverted worldview, and double standards.

This war is not a just war. Israel is using excessive force without distinguishing between civilian population and enemy, whose sole purpose is extortion. That is not to say that morality and justice are on Hezbollah?s side. Most certainly not. But the fact that Hezbollah ?started it? when it kidnapped soldiers from across an international border does not even begin to tilt the scales of justice toward our side.
It is now for someone on the Moslem side to admit something like this. Until all sides recognize their guilt, all the diplomacy in the world will not work.

Update 4 Via Mojo Blog, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s questions about the justice of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon:
"what future other than one of fear, frustration, financial ruin and fanaticism can stem from the rubble? ... Is the value of human life less in Lebanon than that of citizens elsewhere? Are we children of a lesser God? Is an Israeli teardrop worth more than a drop of Lebanese blood? ... Can the international community continue to stand by while such callous retribution by the state of Israel is inflicted upon us? ... Is this what is called legitimate self-defence?"
Update 5 (via Juan Cole) Mitch Prothero Wties at Salon:
Throughout this now 16-day-old war, Israeli planes high above civilian areas make decisions on what to bomb. They send huge bombs capable of killing things for hundreds of meters around those targets to destroy them, and then blame the inevitable civilian deaths -- the Lebanese government says 600 civilians have been killed so far -- on "terrorists" who callously use the civilian infrastructure for protection.

But this claim is almost always false. My own reporting and that of other journalists reveals that in fact Hezbollah fighters -- as opposed to the much more numerous Hezbollah political members, and the vastly more numerous Hezbollah sympathizers -- avoid civilians like the plague. Much smarter and better trained than the PLO and Hamas fighters, they know that if they mingle with civilians, they will sooner or later be betrayed by collaborators -- as so many Palestinian militants have been.

Update 5 Jerusalem Post reports:
The man who wrote the IDF code of ethics, Professor Asa Kasher, has indicated that in the current circumstances in southern Lebanon, provided the appropriate precautions are taken, it may be "morally justified" to obliterate areas with high concentrations of terrorists, even if civilian casualties result.

"I don't know what the truth is about the circumstances," Kasher stressed. "But assuming that we warned the civilians and gave them enough time to leave, and that the civilians who remained chose, themselves, not to leave, then there is no reason to jeopardize the lives of the troops," he told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Update 6 According to Mojo today:
See also the New York Times yesterday, in which Israel's Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, announced that "all those now in south Lebanon are terrorists who are in some way related to Hezbollah." "In some way related"? Hezbollah, of course, is more than a militia, and employs some 250,000 Lebanese in various capacities, including schools, grocery stores, and orphanages.
Update 7 CounterPunch reports:
A booklet published in 1973 by the Central Region Command of the Israeli army subscribes to this same doctrine. In it, the Command's Chief Chaplain writes:

"When our forces come across civilians during a war or in hot pursuit or in a raid, so long as there is no certainty that those civilians are incapable of harming our forces, then according to the Halakhah they may and even should be killed Under no circumstances should an Arab be trusted, even if he makes an impression of being civilized In war, when our forces storm the enemy, they are allowed and even enjoined by the Halakhah to kill even good civilians, that is, civilians who are ostensibly good. [7]
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