CENTER FIELD: The absurd and amoral disproportionality charge

‘A democracy cannot, therefore, allow its soldiers to fight with blinders, handcuffs and leg irons.’

House in poor part of south Tel Aviv where rocket shrapnel crashed through roof  (photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
House in poor part of south Tel Aviv where rocket shrapnel crashed through roof
(photo credit: BEN HARTMAN)
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer recently asked if Israel was “overreacting” in Gaza. Rebuffing this new, trendy disproportionality argument, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mocked those who say “yes, you have the right of self-defense, as long as you don’t exercise it.” Simplistic, voyeuristic media coverage spreads “Palestinian porn” – obsessed with exhibitionist victimization, not sex. Exploiting their dead, Palestinians seek to arouse the world’s guilt – while deflecting responsibility for triggering the conflict.
This proportionality indictment is not only absurd but amoral. When a democracy launches a just war, its moral obligation to its citizens and soldiers is to apply overwhelming force against the enemy, to secure peace quickly and authoritatively.
War by definition entails resorting to violent extremes.
The cliché that democracies are slow to anger but once mobilized become formidable, reflects the power harnessed when free-thinking citizens finally are willing to risk their routines because of the intensity of a threat. When deploying some of its citizens in the resulting armed conflict, a democracy’s first obligation is to guard the home front while solving the problem that prompted the war. The democracy’s second obligation is to try to protect its soldiers. A democracy cannot, therefore, allow its soldiers to fight with blinders, handcuffs and leg irons. The ugly reality remains that trying to limit ferocity in war is like trying to limit sweat in a basketball game – there’s no spigot to regulate such a natural, inevitable flow.
To be clear, the current progressive and media “proportionality” talk is not about crossing that red line of targeting civilians directly. The issue is war’s lethal side effects, what the Pentagon euphemistically calls “collateral damage” but should be labeled frankly as the death of innocents.
During America’s Civil War General William T. Sherman said: “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.” Sherman’s “war is hell” understanding linked effect and cause. When the cause is just, those guilty of triggering the war bear full blame for the war’s savagery.
Americans have usually fought more harshly than Israelis.
Even during these recent battles against a Hamas foe who respects no rules, Israel has often forfeited the element of surprise, dropped leaflets, even aborted attacks to save civilians. Sherman advised: “You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war.”
Over a century later, a leader far more ambivalent about military power, Bill Clinton, articulated his own brutal truth about the necessary balance of fear any self-respecting country must maintain when attacked, especially by terrorists. As the “Blackhawk Down” nightmare unfolded in Somalia in 1993, President Clinton complained to staffers: “We’re not inflicting pain on these f--kers. When people kill us, they should be killed in greater numbers.”
In that Battle of Mogadishu, between 1,500 and 3,000 Somalis died, including civilians. For some reason, the media at that time did not simply tally body counts without providing any explanation or context in an attempt to make the well-armed Americans appear brutal. Reporters emphasized the 18 dead Americans – especially after Somalis dragged some American bodies through the streets.
War reportage should not treat the casualty count as some kind of moral barometer. War is not a game; only in games such as golf does a higher score make you the loser.
The fact that Germany suffered over 10 times the number of war dead than Americans did in World War II does not change that war’s moral calculus. One can only imagine Wolf Blitzer on D-Day, counting German casualties without acknowledging German guilt. Americans were fighting a savage war – as all wars are – against a particularly heinous regime.
Hamas is similarly responsible for the carnage now. In fact, this “overkill” condemnation implicitly acknowledges Israel’s justification in responding to thousands of rockets launched from territory it left nine years ago. Hamas not only turned Gaza into a launching pad and tunnel warren, it has proved that as long as Israel exists, many Palestinians will call Israeli land “occupied,” disproving the Left’s blame-Israel-first occupation preoccupation. The issue is Israel, not Israel’s West Bank presence.
These difficult days, while most Israelis are sticking to their routines between scrambling to shelters during Color Red alerts, the closer you live to the Gaza border, the more your life is disrupted. Some Israelis emphasize the resulting disruption, fear and casualties in an attempt to compete with the Palestinian woe-is-me, we-are-the-victims war porn.
Most Israelis, however, prefer demonstrating indomitable insouciance, echoing Londoners resisting the Nazi Blitz.
Two weeks ago, amid the great tensions preceding the war, we celebrated my daughter’s bat mitzvah. After working so hard to learn her Torah portion, she made one request: that her father and two brothers start a family flash-mob to Ray Charles’s classic cover of “Shake a Tail Feather” during a post-bat mitzvah beach party for her friends (getting her mother and sister to dance was easy).
So there we were, Twisting and Phoney-Moroneying on the beach, flash-mobbing away, with the menace of rockets already clouding the magical Mediterranean night.
The image of this dance – and many other normalizing moments amid the moaning of sirens, shrieks and explosions of rockets and sound of feet running to shelters – illustrates Israelis’ scorn for Hamas threats. Cliché but true: living well is the best revenge.
We mourn both sides’ suffering – and hope for a quick, peaceful resolution. The memorial for the 2001 Hamas suicide bombing at the Dolphinarium disco vows “lo nafseek lirkod,” we won’t stop dancing. We are all saying that to Hamas, even while mourning our painful losses this week.
We won’t be manipulated by false claims of disproportionality into risking even more Israeli casualties. And we absolutely won’t stop dancing.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be a Visiting Professor at the IDC in Herzliya this fall. His latest book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was just published by Oxford University Press.
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