Monday, July 24, 2006

Standard talking points

The Israel Hezbollah clash continues to claim more civilians. As of yesterday, about 350 Lebanese and 20 Israeli civilians were dead. Israel's ground invasion is not going as smoothly as , say, the 1967 war, which lasted all of 6 days. Fighting is reportedly heavy. Hezbollah seems to have anticipated the ground invasion much as Israel did.

I got sucked into a water cooler discussion with a few colleagues yet again. The most striking thing is the consistency of the talking points used in defense of Israeli actions. The faithful parroting of these talking points by the ever compliant American media has had the desired effect - people who are otherwise perfectly reasonable have internalized them.

The first rhetorical question that gets asked is: who started it ? The schoolyard logic is that if we are able to establish that Israel did not start the conflict, that would absolve it of blame for all subsequent actions. While it is clear that Hezbollah triggered this round of fighting, both sides seem to have planned for it for a while. My problem though, is not with the fact that Israel responded, but with the exact nature of that response. I can't see how Hezbollah's having started the whole thing this time around justifies large scale bombing of civilian areas and infrastructure, such as a dairy farm.

In any case, Gideon Levy tackles the rhetorical question far better than I can. The man restores my faith in humanity.

When I make this point about civilian casualties and suffering, I find that people refuse to acknowledge it. The most I can get is the canned response: "it is unfortunate, but hey, what are you gonna do ?". One of my interlocutors exclaimed, "it happens in every single conflict!", somehow implying that it was nothing to get worked up about.

The second question is almost always "So what do you think is the solution ?". The burden is now upon me to suggest solutions to an intricate set of knotty problems which have persisted for decades. In a futile gesture, I suggest that the root of the problems is ultimately political. That doesn't wash. I then say that in the short term, it is better to tackle militancy with police action such as arrests and trials than by firing missiles into apartment buildings. I am then told that I am naive and that such action is not possible, despite the fact that precisely such action has resulted in about 9000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.

The clincher I find most puzzling is "We can't talk about what is happening while sitting here in America" or a variant thereof. Somehow, we forfeit the right to discuss or criticize anything that Israel is involved in because we are not in Israel. By the same token, we can't discuss any problems anywhere in the world, whether they be the horror that is Iraq, the inevitable disaster that is Afghanistan or the plight of the Darfuri people. The injunction is perhaps a way of saying that unless one has been at the receiving end of terrorism, one is forbidden from discussing responses to it. I don't buy that argument either, because other countries have had problems with persistent terrorism as well.

One major ethical escape hatch is to refuse to contemplate the numbers of civilian deaths. Casualty counts are not considered admissible evidence. No reason is ever given, of course, but "you can't think like that !" is thrown at me. My guess is that word has gone out that the moral high ground is impossible to achieve in the face of large casualty counts, so they should not be allowed in to the debate. This tactic is of course not new. It has been repeatedly used by the "we don't do body counts" hyperpower as well.

The use of these talking points by professional purveyors of propaganda (journalists, op-ed writers, think tank experts) is not surprising. Their livelihood depends on their ethical blindness. What is astonishing is that a lot of ordinary people have been completely bought the sophistry. I guess this is what willful blindness looks like.

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