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A formula for murder

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Excellent column from Jon Chait. My only quibble is with the claim that the IDF consistently tries to minimize civilian casualties. I’m no expert on this by any means but it seems to me this claim may be too strong. But that’s really not relevant to Jon’s broader point:

Hours after Hamas terrorists carried out a horrifying pogrom against Jewish civilians, 31 progressive student groups at Harvard released a collective statement insisting they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” The statement did not condemn the murder, abuse, and kidnapping of civilians.

Around the same time, conservative publisher Ben Shapiro had a revealing exchange on X. In response to Ian Bremmer, who wrote, “palestinian civilians are not responsible for the atrocities of hamas terrorists. but they will suffer the consequences,” Shapiro made a sharp rejoinder: “No, Hamas is responsible for both the atrocities against Jews and what now happens to civilians under their control. They deliberately hide behind those civilians. They are currently telling civilians to STAY IN PLACE despite Israeli warnings to get out.”

I would not say these ideas are equally evil. But the two statements use similar language, defining “responsibility” as entirely resting on one side and transferring guilt from a governing entity to the people living under it. And they share their most important traits: a refusal to acknowledge that the political and military goals they are pursuing must be balanced against the humanity of innocent civilians or even a recognition that innocent civilians exist on the other side at all. At their core, they reject universal humanity.

Bremer was not absolving Hamas, nor was he even opposing Israeli retaliation. He was simply expressing regret that innocent Palestinians would die as a result of Hamas terrorism. That is the sentiment Shapiro refutes.

The two statements I quoted are broadly representative of forms of thinking I have seen in relatively wide circulation. Recognizing the ways in which these thought patterns have analogs on the opposing side is a kind of road map to dissecting the dangers we must all guard against. There is a link between ideas and action. The horrifying thing is first implied and then it is stated directly.

Spokespeople for the “decolonization” wing of the left have repeatedly made statements refusing to condemn, or outright celebrating, Hamas’s rampage. Slogans at pro-Palestine rallies like “By any means necessary” and “From the river to the sea” have always suggested an unbounded right to commit violence to advance the cause.

In recent days, that blank check has been cashed. Students for Justice in Palestine celebrates the atrocities as “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance” and explains, “This is what it means to Free Palestine: not just slogans and rallies but armed confrontation with the oppressors.”

It is easy to dismiss simplistic rhetoric as the ravings of youth, but these ideas are arguably more sophisticated than the claims made by grown-up leftists. Professional journalists and academics greeted the atrocities in Israel with statements like “What are the people of Palestine supposed to do to stop the crimes besides fight back?” and “What did y’all think decolonization meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers.”

Now, observe the same kinds of rhetoric on the right. Let go of the question of which form of evil is worse and simply recognize the pattern of thought.

Here is a small excerpt from Gerald Baker’s Wall Street Journal column:

“As Israel begins its campaign of righteous retaliation and starts trying to eliminate the terrorist threat once and for all, the regular crowd of left-wing politicians and their acolytes in the media will demand “restraint” (some were already doing so even as the slaughter of Israelis was unfolding) and denounce a response they will deem ‘disproportionate.’

“Pray tell, what is a ‘proportionate’ response to an enemy that indiscriminately mows down young partygoers at a concert, drags off terrified grandmothers to an unknown fate in some Gazan hellscape, and spits on the half-naked body of an innocent young woman they have just murdered?”

Baker is not merely arguing that Israel should use less restraint than some other people propose. He is arguing against restraint at all. Of course, the complete absence of restraint would literally mean killing every human being on the Gaza Strip. Does Baker believe that? He doesn’t say he doesn’t. Instead, he suggests the proper proportion should be defined by Hamas’s own savagery. The moral standard he implicitly proposes Israel adopt is that used by Hamas. What did y’all think counterterrorism meant? Vibes?

Yes, Hamas is counting on Palestinian civilian deaths to deter Israel. Yes, the Israeli military seeks to minimize civilian suffering in pursuit of its goals, while Hamas seeks to maximize it. Collateral damage is a famously antiseptic term for a horrible dilemma of asymmetric warfare. I have no answer. I simultaneously believe that the use of human shields should not exempt terrorist groups from reprisal and that the deaths of innocent people are tragic.A moral equation that does not have human beings on both sides is a formula for murder.

Watching the pro-Palestinian cause proceed from implying support for terrorism to directly expressing such support should give some pause to the war-hawk faction. If you hear your allies making claims that place no weight at all on the value of innocent Palestinian lives, you should understand they are laying the groundwork for horrors that will follow.

Again, I have no interest in joining the game of measuring which evil is greater. Do you want to believe the position of Shapiro and Baker is less evil than that of the left because Israel’s response is retaliatory and has not yet taken shape? Go ahead. Do you want to believe it is a greater evil because it represents a mainstream faction within American politics and Hamas apologism remains factionalized on the far left? That is also fine. I personally consider defenses of terrorism more barbaric than cold indifference about collateral damage, but I can accept opposing beliefs about which evil is the greater evil. I insist only that they are both evil.

Whatever calculation you make must begin with the premise that the deaths of innocent people are evil. I simply don’t know what the answer is. What I do know is that any ideology that is not bounded by a recognition of universal humanity is too dangerous to be let loose upon the world.

I’m reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, when he was describing the pedagogical methods of his tutor. The teenaged Lewis said something about “these fiendish German atrocities.” (This was during WWI).

His tutor pressed him, asking him if it wasn’t the case that fiends were imaginary. Lewis replied, “well these brutal atrocities.” The rejoinder: But the brutes do nothing of the kind!

Lewis then asked his tutor what the appropriate description for these atrocities was.

The tutor replied, “perhaps you could describe them as merely human?”

. . . Email from longtime LGM reader:

“My only quibble is with the claim that the IDF consistently tries to minimize civilian casualties. I’m no expert on this by any means but it seems to me this claim may be too strong.”

— no, it’s actually a reasonable statement.  The IDF are no angels, and they’ve had some horrific lapses in the past.  But given the circumstances, they’ve done surprisingly well.  There is a strong tradition of relative restraint.  They do things like giving warnings before hitting civilian areas and broadcasting evacuation routes.  They don’t do evil shit like the double-taps the Russians use in Ukraine, trying to catch response workers with a second strike.  When going into messy situations like southern Lebanon or Gaza, they preferentially use professional soldiers and older reservists instead of college-age conscripts, in part because those guys are less likely to lose control.  

— N.B., I lived in the West Bank for a while.  I am no fan of the occupation generally, or the current Israeli government in particular.  This isn’t a Brave Little Israel thing.  The IDF exercises restraint for reasons of cool pragmatism, including an understanding that the moral high ground (or at least the perception thereof) is a nontrivial strategic asset.

This in no way means they won’t do horrible stuff in Gaza!   Because a ground war in Gaza is going to be the fucking worst.  It’s a super densely populated urban area where Hamas has had literally decades to dig in.  Half the population is under 18 and everyone, /everyone/ hates the Israelis like poison — they won’t find a lot of collaborators or native guides.  Also, while most of the people who say “well Hamas puts bunkers under schools and uses civilians as human shields” are assholes trying to score points, it’s unfortunately true that Hamas does in fact put bunkers under schools and use civilians as human shields.  Also-also, the current Israeli government is full of right-wing shitbags and psycho settler types who secretly or not-so-secretly yearn for ethnic cleansing.  Fish rot from the head down, so it’s not clear how well the IDF will maintain that tradition of relative restraint.

So it could get really ugly.  But all that said, Chait’s point is valid — the IDF does in fact try, most of the time, to minimize civilian casualties.

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