Wednesday, August 20, 2014

James Foley: An outrageous death among many others

Of course the outrage is justified.  It's not hypocritical either, but it's narrowly focused.  We don't exactly accept comparable brutalities like those committed by Western powers.  However we're so used to them, we omit them from any moral balance sheet.

The brutalities are the oldest of old news: when the US conducts air strikes, it knows with certainty that civilians will be killed.  It conducts them anyway.  As result, living innocents get their arms torn off, their eyes blasted away, their legs severed.   The US also knows some of these people aren't adults.  They are children.  (These acts of the Obama rĂ©gime are no worse than many acts of many other rĂ©gimes, North and South, East and West, throughout recent history.)

Again, to be clear:  the US acts with certain knowledge of the atrocious mutilations and killings that will result from its actions.  If I blow up a house when I know I will shred or squash to death several innocent people, it doesn't really matter if I just 'intended' or 'wanted' to kill a someone I considered a very bad person.  I am judged a murderer and held responsible for these crimes.   That's a judgment often and rightly visited on Israel, with appropriate repugnance.   But I never, I mean never, see that holding-a-dead-rat-by-the-tail disgust at the US among those who vent their outrage at Foley's killers.

IS commits in-your-face atrocities.  The US commits off-stage atrocities.  The US victims suffer exactly the same agonies, are just as human, just as innocent, and end up just as maimed or dead.  They gush blood; their guts spill out into the dust. If you cannot maintain ongoing repugnance at US actions - and I'm not saying you should - don't get all shocked by IS actions.  It's not a good idea.  Better to understand that no, not everyone is outraged at Foley's death, quite the contrary, and they are no more morally skewed than you are.   Unlike you, they do keep in mind what the US has done off-stage, and how its lovely decent Western allies hardly make a peep about it, and about how the lovely sensitive Western public is equally unperturbed.

To bear that in mind is maybe an important step in promoting a world in which James Foley doesn't meet a brutal death at brutal hands.  To reduce brutality probably requires an honest understanding of what it is.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Gaza: a bare-bones moral assessment

The following attempts a systematic, unsparing look at the moral rights and wrongs of the Gaza war.  There's no discussion of international law, because laws can be morally good or bad, and whether something accords with a law doesn't tell us much about moral right and wrong.

People talk a lot about moral diversity but if any right is well-recognized across times and places, it's self-defense.  It's of course central to the Gaza conflict.

Self-defense needn't apply only to immediate, swift and obvious threats.   Suppose we live in the desert, and you gradually deprive me of water without which my crops will fail and I will die.  That is a threat to my existence, and I have a right to defend myself against it.

What that right allows me to do depends on my alternatives.  I'm probably obliged to choose the least destructive or harmful alternative available to me.   I can't go and kill you if just filling in your drainage ditch will put a permanent end to the threat.

This restriction on self-defense is often questioned.   If you are posing a mortal threat to me, some say I needn't make nice calculations about what response is least destructive.   So what alternatives need be considered before adopting a radical one is a bit uncertain.

Now apply these generalities, not simply to the Gazans, but to the Palestinians.  Their fates are inextricably intertwined.  It would be irrational for either party to suppose that, if one is the object of a mortal threat, the other isn't.

Are the Palestinians faced with such a threat?  That seems to be the case.   Its obvious manifestation might be the occupation, but it has deeper origins.  They relate to the founding principles and institutions of Israel.

Israel was founded as, implemented as, and intended as a 'Jewish state'.  The Israeli government and a very solid majority of the Israeli people are deeply committed to this idea.  What does that mean?

In this context 'Jewish' has a quasi-racial definition:  'Jews' from anywhere, whether or not they profess or practice the Jewish religion, are entitled to citizenship.  This kinship notion of 'Jewish' ultimately relies on whether or not your ancestors were considered Jews.   Since these ancestors too may not have professed or practiced Judaism, the criterion makes tacit reference to biological traits.  This distinguishes it from the citizenship criteria of other states whose rules grant entitlement to those whose parents had nationality based on their language or place of residence.

The theory is complemented by the reality.   Israel is a Jewish state in a sense which has nothing whatever to do with religion.  Its citizenship policies solicit and embrace immigration according to criteria which have nothing to do with belief, place of birth or language, but only with lineage.

So much for 'Jewish'.  What about 'state'?  A state, according to the conventions of political science, is an entity that holds a monopoly on violence in a certain geographical area.  That means that the state alone decides everything, including who lives and who dies, in the area it controls.  Whoever controls that state therefore has the power of life and death over whoever lives there.  In a Jewish state, it is Jews who control the state.   So in the Jewish state, Jews have the power of life and death over everyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who lives there.  When Jews are selected on quasi-biological criteria, the Jewish state's operating principle is something very close to racial sovereignty.

What then of the non-Jews who live in Israel or in the occupied territories?  Within Israel, it does not matter what rights Palestinians receive at the good pleasure of the Jewish rulers or for that matter, the Israeli electorate. (After all, Jewish sovereignty implies, in Israel, the preservation of a Jewish majority.) Since the state is committed to maintaining Jewish sovereignty, it is committed to the preservation of Jewish sovereignty.  Non-Jews, whatever their rights, must therefore accept that their very life is in the hands of Jews.  Jews decide whether they live or die.  As for those Palestinians living in the occupied territories, their position is if anything worse.  They live under the full force of the state without enjoying even the fragile rights that they would possess as Israeli citizens.

Is living under Israeli rule a mortal threat to non-Jews?  Someone might reasonably suppose so.  In democracies, your life is said to be in the hands of an electorate to which you yourself belong, and this is supposed to mitigate the threat.  In Israel, belonging to the electorate does not mitigate the threat, because the state guarantees that you fall outside the ultimate decision-making process:  it guarantees that elections will not take sovereignty out of the hands of the Jews.

Someone might think this argument a bit over-dramatic, a bit too one-sidedly theoretical.  After all, nowhere is it written that Israeli Jews have the power of life and death over non-Jews:  that's just an inference from definitions of 'Jewish' and 'sovereignty'.  So if non-Jews are living under a mortal threat - which would of course activate rights of self-defense - that might require more than a look at Israel's principles.

If so, well, more is abundantly available.  It isn't primarily about the long history of violence, some of it initiated by Palestinians.  It's about land and resources.

Israel (and before it the Zionists), to an ever-increasing extent, have been after the land and resources that support the Palestinians' existence.  Perhaps at some point in the past, this objective wasn't enough of a reality to constitute a mortal threat.  That point was certainly passed with the start of the occupation or its accompanying settlement policy.  Before then, before 1967, it might be said that Israel left the Palestinians enough to live on, and had no intention to take more.   Today, and long before today, no one can say that.

For some years now, it has been clear that Israel intends to keep building settlements and therefore to keep confiscating Palestinian land and resources.   Is it also clear that non-Jewish inhabitants of Israeli-controlled territory have no ultimate say in the matter.  It is clear that the 'internationally community', cowed by Israel and paralysed by America's UN veto, will do nothing to stop the process.  It has also been abundantly clear the Israel is committed to supporting the process with the very effective violence it has placed in the hands, as it likes to say, 'of the Jewish people'.   Finally it is clear  that sentiment within Israel itself has no prospect even of moderating the pace of expropriation.

This doesn't add up to absolute certainty that the Palestinians are faced with a mortal threat.  Who knows?  maybe peace, love and understanding will break out tomorrow, just as, perhaps, the person holding a knife at your throat may suddenly break down in tearful remorse.  However it's more than enough for rational Palestinians to perceive, with ample justification, just such a threat.  This threat is particularly ominous because it originates from a state that has proclaimed rights of racial sovereignty over the Palestinians. In these circumstances, the right to self-defense is very extensive.  The threatened person may use whatever means he has, including violence, in his defense, provided only that he has no grounds to believe there's a readily available alternative.

How specifically does this apply to current events?  Palestinian actions against the continual menace of the settlements and the occupation must be judged according to whether the Palestinians have rational grounds for believing there are less violent and indiscriminate alternatives readily available.   The alternatives must also be at least as effective in countering the threat, that is, in slowing Israel's relentless expropriation drive.

I leave that argument to others.  Ideally these others would be both experts in asymmetric warfare and intimately familiar with Palestinian realities.   Given the increasing savagery of Israeli policies, Israel's apparent immunity from international sanction, and above all the truly enormous disparity of Israeli and Palestinian power, I would not bet on the fortunes of those who presume to moralize about Palestinian conduct.  What's clear is that even if some Palestinian attacks prove to be unjustified, Israel has no right to a violent response.  You may be unjustified in attacking me, but I have no right to violence if I can simply withdraw from the scene.  Indeed Israel's continual and illegitimate appeal to violent self-defense, coupled with its increasingly savage appetite for collective punishment, only add weight to the Palestinian perception of a mortal threat.

This assessment is based on the narrowest of moral assumptions, a basic right of self-defense.  It makes no appeal to human rights, which Very Important People formulated in the past century and which they love to apply 'even-handedly' to both sides.  It doesn't consider other rights, such as resistance to non-lethal oppression.  Still it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel hasn't a shred of justification for its actions.