Monday, July 24, 2006

Cult of Civilianality

With reports that almost 6,000 civilians were killed in Iraq in May and June, bringing the death toll of civilians for the year to 14,388, and daily news reports of civilian death tolls in Israel, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, there is rising concern about the cost of war to those the liberal media refers to as "innocent bystanders." The Bush Administration tried to alleviate some of this concern by calling on Israel to "limit as much as possible so-called collateral damage not only to facilities but also to human lives," in the eloquent words of White House spokesman Tony Snow. To show just how much they care about protecting the innocent, the Bush Administration is rushing delivery of precision-guided smart bombs to Israel, which will make it possible for Israel to conduct more compassionate bombing raids in Lebanon. But others are questioning whether these civilians are really as innocent as they seem. Is it possible some of them may actually deserve what's coming to them?

"I am not buying into the innocent civilians meme," writes the Atlas Shrugs' Pamela, the Internet smart bomb whose delivery Israel unaccountably rejected, though it is hard to imagine after watching this video who would make a more impassioned and articulate advocate not only for Israel but for world Jewry as a whole. "If by ignorance, complicity, neglect or helplessness the Lebanese wouldn't throw Hezbollah out and establish a strong government, then they must pay the price for the sins of Hizbollah. And if people put up with dictatorships, theocracies, totalitarian regimes -- as they did in Nazi Germany -- they deserve what Hezbollah deserves."

Civilians, schmivilians, agrees Harvard Law professor and torture advocate Alan Dershowitz, who earned his reputation by selflessly rushing to the defense of clients like Claus von Bulow and OJ Simpson who suffered unfair discrimination because of their extreme wealth. He would like the media to replace the whole notion of civilians with what he catchily calls a "continuum of civilianality." Instead of lumping, say, women, children and goatherders into one vague category of innocent bystanderesqueness, he believes that each civilian death should be rated on a sliding scale of complicity not unlike the scale used by other less successful attorneys to calculate legal fees for indigent clients. Hovering around 9.0 on Dershowitz's continuum are victims of "Hezbollah missiles and Hamas rockets" that "target and hit Israeli restaurants, apartment buildings and schools." But while he believes "the line between Israeli soldiers and civilians is relatively clear," Hezbollah and Hamas militants unfortunately are nearly indistinguishable from "civilians," he says, putting the word in the print version of air quotes. "Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians," he writes, an argument that may especially come in handy the next time he is on a sinking ship with too few lifeboats.

Regrettably, not only do innocent Lebanese and Palestinian civilians and guilty militants all look alike, Dershowitz argues that those who insist on living in areas where terrorists live after receiving ample warnings from the Israeli Army to abandon their homes, are guilty by association and deserving of collective punishment. "Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit," he writes though he does make an exception for those who "cannot leave on their own" presumably because they are old, sick, infirm or impoverished. While these unfortunates may lack the means to flee the carnage, they can at least take some solace in the fact that when the final tallies of body counts are toted up, they "should be counted among the innocent victims," according to Dershowitz. While it's difficult for the military to make such distinctions in the heat of battle, he thinks the media should do so after it's all over instead of just broadcasting raw body count data.

For example, on the sliding scale of tragedy that we might refer to, borrowing the title of another Dershowitz essay, as the "Arithmetic of Pain," if terrorists are at 0.0 and babies are at 10.0, people from Lebanon would tend to fall below 5.0 while people from Israel would tend to fall above 5.0. So when the media says, for example, that a family of three Israelis died in a Hezbollah rocket attack in Haifa and a family of three Lebanese died in an air raid in Southern Lebanon, we are not getting the full picture. But if the media reported instead that a 9.2, a 7.3 and a 9.4 died in Haifa and a 3.7, a 4.1 and a 10.0 died in Southern Lebanon, wouldn't that give a more accurate, a more human picture of what really happened? Then all that you would have to do is average out the figures and you would see that the Haifa attack was an 8.6 in the "Arithmetic of Pain," while the deaths in Southern Lebanon rated only a 5.9.

Critics of Dershowitz claim that by fudging the lines between civilians and soldiers he is making the same argument terrorists make to justify their attacks. But this could not be further from the truth. Terrorists don't value any life at all, not even their own. To them everyone is a 0.0. Some people have also mistakenly compared Dershowitz's words to those of terrorist sympathizer Ward Churchill, who said after 9/11 that the people in the World Trade Center were not "innocent" because they "formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire … both willingly and knowingly." But while Churchill believes no one is innocent, Dershowitz is merely saying that innocence is quantifiable. Paraphrasing a passage from George Orwell's Animal Farm, Dershowitz concludes his brilliant essay by saying, "Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others." If the media adopted Dershowitz's simple idea, then we would all have a better idea of when to cry.

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10 comments:

BenMerc said...

"god said to abraham kill me a son..."

zenyenta said...

I don't even have a comment, other than to say you are brilliant as usual and all this is too tragic for me to get a grip on. For everyone. I can't see any winners coming out of this, no matter how their lives are valued, or not, by those who measure these things.

MistahCharley said...

I believe the very concept of "civilian" is obsolete and fails to reflect the reality of the world around us. Wars do not take place between teams of professional athletes, with umpires; wars are fought for the national interest, even the very survival, of the combatant group entities. To be a member of the group is to benefit from its success in war, and to be subject to the risks of war. Should a conquered population be enslaved, or should all the adult males be killed, or should every living thing - man, woman, child, and domestic animal - be slaughtered? It depends. See God's Word (the Bible) for examples of all of these.

"Civilian" is a medieval concept and we should accept that it is no longer relevant.

Aaron said...

Do we take character into account in this scale of killability? For instance, is a nurse less killable than a lawyer? How about a person who has been put in prison to a person who hasn't. Who is more or less "innocent civilian?" How in the world do we quantify innocence?

If I am defending myself, as goes Israel's claim to the legitimacy of this violence, then I am legitimized in killing only those who are attacking me. Collateral damage may be inevitable, but it is never excusable. If you punch me, and in defense, I throw a gernade at you, which stops you from punching me, but also kills 3 passer-by's than I have acted irresponsibly.

Israel must be prepared to wage this war in such a way as to avoid every possible civilian death. As we have seen, air strikes are proving incapable of this end. They then have a moral obligation to change their actions, or they lose any moral "high ground" they may have had. Ultimately, they need to actually act responsibly, or simply say, "we did what we had to do...civilians be damned," but this having cake and eating it too business is just not cutting it.

Blogenfreude said...

Some civilian targets are more equal than others?

Anonymous said...

It's easy to make fun of Dershowitz's sliding scale for civilians but the fact is he's right and you're not. Hezbollah wants civilian casualties in Israel --to terrorize the population and murder Jews-- and wants civilian casualties in Lebanon, too because "the West" --mainly Europe, will blame Israel.

Dershowitz's critique of Amnesty International --for defining "war crimes" as any action taken by Israel is also right on the money. It sounds like a ridiculous assertion until you read the report.

Scott said...

What's kind of strange is that many of the specific instances of Lebanese civilian casualties shown in the links from this post involve families in convoys shot by helicopter gunships while traveling north to flee southern Lebanon *as advised by the Israelis*.

So, not only are a fair number of them going to rate highly even in Dershowitz's calculus of innocence, just by virtue of age and/or lack of involvement with Hizbollah... not only were they killed or injured in a way where the attackers actually had line of sight, unlike for shelling and bombing... but given that they were *complying with Israeli requests to leave the area*, one wonders how Dershowitz could possibly say they were complicit in their own demise?

Has anyone confronted the man with cases like these and asked him to come up with scores he can defend, even if his bizarre proposition were valid to begin with?

richards1052 said...

Sadly, No just linked to this post & I wanted to thank you for what you wrote here though I'm writing this ages after you did.

Dersh will be a guest advice columnist for the Jewish Forward newspaper this week & Sadly No linked to my post about this travesty of everything anyone should hold holy. The Forward actually suggested its readers should pose questions to him about "ethical conundrums!"

I hope someone e mails the Dersh w. a question about the continuum of civilianlity.

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