In praise of moral equivalence

Rahul had a very good blog post discussing the doctrine of ‘collateral damage’ and the related doctrine of ‘moral equivalence’. The idea is that they intentionally kill civilians, and we accidentally kill them. So, even though we kill hundreds or thousands and they kill dozens, they are morally inferior. Indeed, they are morally inferior twice over, because first of all, they kill civilians on purpose, and second of all, they force us (poor us!) to kill civilians because we are trying to kill them, and they keep hanging around all these civilians all the damned time.

This is, as Rahul says, a jumble of racist and incoherent arguments. Let us try to disentangle this jumble.

First, let’s take the idea that they target civilians and we don’t. This is false. We target civilians all the time. Leave aside the bombing of civilian infrastructure and the wholesale destruction of civilian areas, like Jenin Camp in 2002, because we can still argue that we visited all this destruction while trying to get at people we didn’t like.

We deliberately target civilians for murder. Israeli snipers fire straight into the centre of the Red Crosses on Red Cross trucks. They have shot children and administered a coup de grace at close range, in Gaza. In Iraq, Rahul took a photo of ambulances in Fallujah with nice clean bullet holes through the driver’s side. And of course, there was the recent murder of the UN observers. Canadian Prime Minister Harper defiled the Canadian who died their as he defiled the other Canadians who Israel has killed by saying that he doesn’t think the UN post was targeted. He won’t pay any political price for making the statement. But it is still worth noting that he says so from Canada, and Robert Fisk, who is in Lebanon, described their killing this way:

In past years, I have spent hours with their comrades in this UN position, which is clearly marked in white and blue paint, with the UN’s pale blue flag opposite the Israeli frontier. Their duty was to report on all they saw: the ruthless Hizbollah missile fire out of Khiam and the brutal Israeli response against the civilians of Lebanon.

Is this why they had to die, after being targeted by the Israelis for eight hours, their officers pleading to the Israeli Defence Forces that they cease fire? An American-made Israeli helicopter saw to that.

Second, Rahul points out that evidence we offer that Hizbullah targets civilians is that they use inaccurate weapons.

This means either that

1) When we use our accurate weapons to kill civilians we are doing so on purpose, or

2) We are using inaccurate weapons and killing civilians, in which case we are condemning Hizbullah for doing something we do more of.

The third argument for the moral superiority of our killing of more people is that they are cowardly because they are around civilians, forcing us to kill them. About this argument, Jonathan Cook had this to say:

The UN head of humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, who is in the region, accused Hizbullah of “cowardly blending” among the civilian population, and a similar accuation was levelled by the British foreign minister Kim Howells when he arrived in Israel.

In 2002 Israel made the same charge: that Palestinians resisting its army’s rampage through the refugee camps of the West Bank were hiding among civilians. The claim grew louder as more Palestinian civilians showed the irritating habit of gettting in the way of Israeli strikes against population centres. The complaints reached a crescendo when at least two dozen civilians were killed in Jenin as Israel razed the camp with Apache helicopters and Caterpillar bulldozers.

The implication of Egeland’s cowardly statement seems to be that any Lebanese fighter, or Palestinian one, resisting Israel and its powerful military should stand in an open field, his rifle raised to the sky, waiting to see who fares worse in a shoot-out with an Apache helicopter or F-16 fighter jet.

Of course, in the prison of Palestine, Palestinian fighters do exactly that. They have no cover and no way of hiding from Israel’s armaments and complete surveillance. So they fire their puny weapons in order to show defiance, and to ensure that Israeli soldiers cannot operate with complete impunity on the ground, but instead need to hide in their armored vehicles. They are then slaughtered. But this does not win them any points with us, either. Our reaction is every bit as vulgar and racist in that case as it is in others. Mitch Potter from the Toronto Star, a truly disgusting racist, was quoted by Dan Freeman-Maloy likening Palestinians to rodents, a standard racist analogy, for facing the Israeli army on open ground: ‘“Another batch of Palestinian militants drawn out lemming-like and falling by the dozen to higher-calibre Israeli fire, just like their predecessors.” [For Potter to call Palestinians lemmings is certainly ironic].’

I recently heard that a Canadian general named Lewis MacKenzie has said that yes, Israel has killed hundreds, but considering the weaponry that Israel has this is a low figure, and that if Hizbullah had this kind of armament, Israel would be a parking lot.

MacKenzie’s argument, restated, is that the imbalance in numbers killed is actually much less than the actual military imbalance. Lebanese and Palestinians should take comfort, then, because Israel could be killing many, many more of them. And Israelis should be afraid, because even though they can’t, Hizbullah really wants to kill us all. MacKenzie is, in addition to being a general, a mind-reader. Jonathan Cook’s answer to this:

In fact, although no one is making the point, Hizbullah’s rockets have been targeted overwhelming at strategic locations: the northern economic hub of Haifa, its satellite towns and the array of military sites across the Galilee.

Nasrallah seems fully aware that Israel has an impressive civil defence program of shelters that keep most civilians out of harm’s way. Unlike Horowitz I won’t presume to read Nasrallah’s mind: whether he wants to kill large numbers of Israeli civilians or not cannot be known, given his inability to do so.

Rahul’s blog post concludes with the idea that the doctrine of “collateral damage” must be discarded because it is incompatible with the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions.

The jumble of “moral equivalence”, meanwhile, when unpacked, is false on every single count.

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.