The silence of the lambs
On this recent thread, about Jonathan Steele's Guardian article concerning the Hamas victory, commenter Shan made the following interesting observation:
I must take exception to your calling the killing of civilians in an Israeli air-strike "accidental." For someone who claims to care about what words mean, you must realize there is nothing "accidental" about it. The commanders who give the go ahead for a strike know perfectly well that some civilians will also die. They make the calculation that the cost of these deaths is less than the cost of allowing a terrorist to live.
They are probably right, and Israel, alone amongst civilized nations, takes the greatest pains to minimize civilain casualties in what is a war.
But to call it "accidental," as though it were like a fender bender on the highway, is disingenuous.
I used the word "accidental" in the sense that includes the idea of "unintentional." The definition of "accidental" is as follows:
Occurring unexpectedly, unintentionally, or by chance.
Shan is correct in pointing out that the innocent deaths from Israel's targeted bombing of terrorists are not unexpected. But they are most definitely unintentional, unwanted, and undesired.
But Shan introduces a topic that could use further discussion. Rather than to nitpick about the meaning of the word, I think his/her larger intention was to point out that the Israelis who decide to bomb a Palestinian terrorist do know that, although they try incredibly hard to reduce what is known as "collateral damage," chances are that their bombs will hit more than the intended target. That must be factored into the equation of every strike.
Ah, to have perfectly clean hands! To obtain a magic bullet that targets only the guilty is a wonderful goal indeed. But it is, unfortunately, an unrealistic dream at the moment--although the smarter and smarter the bombs (and intelligence) get, the closer it is to being realized.
The United States, Israel, and most Western states who engage in combat all aim mightily towards that goal. And that goal is getting closer and closer; compared to the messy horror of WWII or even an event as recent as the Gulf War, collateral damage has taken far fewer lives.
But this progress has had has the unintended effect of lowering the bar and raising expectations. Now there are many people who want (and expect!) that civilian (or "innocent") casualties in war, or in targeted terrorist assassinations, become zero. And that seems impossible.
It's impossible because bombs are still bombs, and they are not all that smart. Until and unless we develop a bomb that successfully seeks out only a single set of DNA, I think it will always be the case.
But Shan is correct in another way: these collateral deaths are not completely accidental, although they are completely unintentional on the part of the Israelis. There is an intent on the part of the terrorists themselves, a purposeful, cold, and calculated PR move. Let me explain.
One thing terrorists in the Middle East count on is the reaction of Europeans and Americans who hate and deplore the killing of innocents. That's most of us, of course. But there are those who deplore such deaths equally no matter what the circumstances, and those people are, in a sense, the "targets" of the terrorists, as much as the children they blow up with their bombs, although in a totally different way.
In other words, terrorists rely on people such as Jonathan Steele to ignore the fact that they (unlike soldiers, for example) purposely live among families, women, and children. This is a win/win situation for the terrorists: it either affords them protection because it plays on the opposition's reluctance to kill innocents (an opposition of which they are fully aware, by the way, although they may mouth words to the contrary); or, in the event of an attack, they count on the fact that deaths of such innocents will lead many in the West (such as our hero Jonathan Steele) to draw a moral equivalence between Israel and terrorists. Win/win, as I said.
The best thing, of course, as far as the Israelis are concerned, would be if the Palestinian government were to crack down on said terrorists so that the Israelis wouldn't have to. But this has never happened, despite intermittent Palestinian leadership lip service to that effect. Therefore the Israelis are faced with a dilemma.
Israel (or any other nation in the same position, such as the US in hunting down people such as Bin Laden and his henchmen) is faced with Hobson's choice: do nothing, and get hit over and over again by terrorists who, I repeat, purposely target innocents. Or kill those terrorists, and understand that some innocents will probably die also, despite the fact that you are doing the very best you can to minimize the killing of innocents in the process.
Kindheartedness is a wonderful thing, as is empathy. No one with any sense of either can fail to feel sorrow and even revulsion when innocent people are slaughtered. But what is the proper response? To recoil from the entire situation with such horror that one fails to draw any moral distinctions whatsoever? That way leads to other horrors, I'm afraid.
There is a paradox here. One finds it, for example, in pacifism (see my pacifism series for a rather lengthy discussion of the matter). That paradox can be stated many different ways--for example, Orwell's "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf" (go here, and scroll down to the heading "rough men" for a discussion of whether Orwell in fact ever said exactly those words).
In this respect, note also the Talmudic "he who is kind to the cruel ends up being cruel to the kind."
The truth is, there is no way to be totally and unequivocally kind. One is always implicated in some sort of cruelty no matter what stance one takes, passive or active. The Israelis try to avoid the infliction of death on innocents, knowing that by fighting back at all, they will inevitably inflict some. But if they desisted from the assassinations, and were "kind to the cruel," they believe (and rightly so, in my opinion) that it would lead to the loss of far more innocent lives, particularly those of Israelis.
Israelis try to make their bombs smarter and smarter, and in this case "smart" means "killing only the target." Palestinians try to make their bombs dirtier and dirtier, and in this case "dirty" means "killing as many people as possible, and the more innocents, the better."
Why do some observers persist in seeing no difference? Why do some insist on holding Israel and the US to a standard that is both impossible and dangerous, a standard by which no self-defense would be possible, and by which "the cruel" would end up triumphing?
There are many answers. Some people hate America and Israel so much that they would rejoice at their destruction. Those people are not the subject of this particular discussion.
I am more interested in the others, those unrealistic Utopians who have abdicated the responsibility to make moral distinctions about killing--types, purposes, contexts, goals. What is their motivation? I believe that many of them are driven by the need to keep their own hands clean (please see this post of mine, particularly the second half, for a more thorough discussion of this phenomenon and what lies behind it). It serves their cause to believe, against all evidence throughout the long march of history, that all violence can be avoided if we wish it to be, that it can eradicated by pleasant talk and understanding.
To distinguish those situations in which talk has a chance of working from those in which it does not is a difficult task. But it is one that must be faced realistically, and not covered over with dreamy imaginings.
To deplore the killing of innocents is easy, especially when there are no immediate consequences for doing so. Safe in Western countries, protected by freedom of speech and all the wonders it entails, it is easy to forget the truth of what Orwell said (or perhaps didn't exactly say): People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf. It is easy to forget that such violence can never be perfectly targeted solely at the guilty. Nevertheless, we must do our best to see that as few lambs as possible are led to the slaughter.