"Whose 4-year-old get killed?"
With just six words, Joe Klein demonstrated the truest consensus piece of U.S. foreign policy: an overwhelming reliance on force. Last month, in a discussion about U.S. drone policy on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," with host Joe Scarborough (himself a former conservative Republican congressman), Klein invoked some Seriousness (h/t Glenn Greenwald for the Guardian):
SCARBOROUGH: "What we're doing with drones is remarkable: the fact that over the past eight years during the Bush years - when a lot of people brought up some legitimate questions about international law - my God, those lines have been completely eradicated by a drone policy that says: if you're between 17 and 30, and within a half-mile of a suspect, we can blow you up, and that's exactly what's happening . . . . They are focused on killing the bad guys, but it is indiscriminate as to other people who are around them at the same time . . . . it is something that will cause us problems in the coming years" . . . .
KLEIN: "I completely disagree with you. . . . It has been remarkably successful" --
SCARBOROUGH: "at killing people" --
KLEIN: "At decimating bad people, taking out a lot of bad people - and saving Americans lives as well, because our troops don't have to do this . . . You don't need pilots any more because you do it with a joystick in California."
SCARBOROUGH: "This is offensive to me, though. Because you do it with a joystick in California - and it seems so antiseptic - it seems so clean - and yet you have 4-year-old girls being blown to bits because we have a policy that now says: 'you know what? Instead of trying to go in and take the risk and get the terrorists out of hiding in a Karachi suburb, we're just going to blow up everyone around them.'
"This is what bothers me. . . . We don't detain people any more: we kill them, and we kill everyone around them. . . . I hate to sound like a Code Pink guy here. I'm telling you this quote 'collateral damage' - it seems so clean with a joystick from California - this is going to cause the US problems in the future."
KLEIN: "If it is misused, and there is a really major possibility of abuse if you have the wrong people running the government. But: the bottom line in the end is - whose 4-year-old get killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror."
No, seriously, read that again:
Whose 4-year-old get killed? What we're doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here will get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.
What Klein doesn't seem to realize is that within the space of minutes, he has effectively defined 4-year-olds as "bad people," and that "indiscriminate acts of terror" that kill 4-year-olds are only bad if they happen to a certain people. Do I think President Barack Obama shares this abhorrent view of Klein's? Absolutely not: there's nothing in his prior career to suggest that he believes one group of people to be superior to another. But he's still presiding over a government that has fostered a status quo in which Klein's comments are, if blunter than most would say, consensus. The president has ramped up drone strikes as an apparent alternative to "boots on the ground" counter-insurgency. Many in Washington—myself included—have claimed this is "less bad" than wholesale invasions of countries, which the prior administration was so keen for. This is true—but even if they're "less bad," drone strikes are still condemnable.
Sure, we get to view drone strikes as targeted, and not "indiscriminate": we're not the victims. But to those maimed and killed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or wherever else, what are drone strikes if not indiscriminate? Drones are piloted by men and women thousands of miles away and are invisible to the victims until the explosion. It's a secretive, "hands-off" method of killing; nobody knows the process by which we determine who deserves to die and who doesn't. As Scarborough noted, "if you're between 17 and 30, and within a half-mile of a suspect, we can blow you up, and that's exactly what's happening."
There's no way around it: Indiscriminate attacks that kill 4-year-olds—even if they are not the intended target—are evil. What's more, if these attacks do not qualify as terrorism, then there's no utility in the word. We can't rely on intent to determine what is terrorism and what is not, yet that is the scenario we've constructed. "I killed your 4-year-old, but for a good reason," is no better than "I killed your 4-year-old." And if you're thinking, "But what if we got X number of terrorists with the same strike that killed the 4-year-old?," please recognize that you are willingly whitewashing the murder of a 4-year-old.
The latest outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration is another instructive example of how Beltway thinking is dominated by this subjective view of violence. For the moment, let's view the situation without context: Hamas and other Islamic militant groups in the Gaza Strip are indiscriminately firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. Obama is right, then, in saying that "there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." Thus, the Israeli Air Force's continuous pounding of Gaza is justified in defense of their country.
Here's a fun little ditty, courtesy of Gilad Sharon in the Jerusalem Post:
We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.
There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.
Were this to happen, the images from Gaza might be unpleasant – but victory would be swift, and the lives of our soldiers and civilians spared.
Total destruction of a territory and a huge amount of deaths is not unpleasant. Unpleasant is when Metro is running 15 minutes late for the morning commute; unpleasant is when my sports team loses a game; unpleasant is when my cat has a hair ball. Killing many, many people is not unpleasant.*
The Palestinian territories have been occupied by Israel for 45 years. Sure, everyone knows about the Israeli occupation. But what it really entails is so much more than bland rhetoric: a country-wide suppression of legitimate national and civil rights. The elimination of freedom of speech, assembly and movement. Widespread use of mundane tactics such as checkpoints and roadblocks to deliberately make daily life more difficult and less dignified. The constant threat of imprisonment without charge, often for years and decades at a time.
No people on earth would face such attacks on their rights and stand idle. (I will not entertain arguments ala, "They hate the Jews," or "They're irrational, and its impossible to cooperate with them." Such rhetoric is best confined to the racists who are so eager to believe fellow humans come from inferior stock.)
Often we hide behind labels so as to negate the possibility of non-violent diplomacy. Yes, it is without question that Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have committed innumerable acts of terrorism against Israelis—witness today's heinous bus bombing in Tel Aviv. Suicide bombings—abhorrent and undoubtedly a war crime—are the most infamous attacks. But the wave of Palestinian suicide bombings largely dried up by 2005. These attacks are in the past tense.
Now, do I think Palestinian rocket attacks are a war crime? Yes. Are they designed to terror opposing civilians? Yes. Are they indiscriminate? Yes. Moreover, militant rocket campaigns are absurdly counter-productive: their actual effect, in terms of casualties, is minimal, and their range severely limited (though in this conflict we've seen an isolated expansion of that range) and cause nothing more than sympathy for Israeli attacks. But do I think they're worse than the Israeli bombing of Gaza? No.
So, why is it impossible to dialogue with Hamas? Way back when they won Palestinian general elections in January 2006, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was interviewed by the Washington Post, during which he explained his group's position:
What agreements will you honor?
The ones that will guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with 1967 borders -- as well as agreements that would release prisoners.
Would Hamas recognize Israel if it were to withdraw to the '67 borders?
If Israel withdraws to the '67 borders, then we will establish a peace in stages.
What does that mean?
Number one: We will establish a situation of stability and calm which will bring safety for our people -- what Sheikh [Ahmed] Yassin [a Hamas founder] called a long-term hudna.
Does a peace in stages means the ultimate obliteration of the Jewish people?
We do not have any feelings of animosity toward Jews. We do not wish to throw them into the sea. All we seek is to be given our land back, not to harm anybody.
Do you recognize Israel's right to exist?
The answer is to let Israel say it will recognize a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, release the prisoners and recognize the rights of the refugees to return to Israel. Hamas will have a position if this occurs.
Does this read like the ravings of a mad man hellbent on destruction, driven by a hatred of Jews?
In Washington it appears commonly accepted that states inherently cannot commit terrorism—the definition of terrorism requires that its user be a non-state actor. But say Palestine were an actual, functioning state, and Hamas ran its government. Change nothing else—rocket fire is ongoing from Gaza into Israel—other than Palestine's statehood. How then can a state's use of force in what it believes to be the defense of its people be labeled terrorism? Terrorism is thus defined not by the act itself, but merely any action from a group we deem to be illegitimate.
The commonly heard "right to defend itself" is another canard. What we've done is pick a certain point in a cycle of violence that goes back decades—and, remember, began as a result of Israeli occupation—and thus determine who is the aggressor and who is the defender. If Israel is defending itself, so is Hamas. If Hamas is committing wanton acts of aggression, so is Israel. (Please recognize that the argument is largely the same for those who claim Israel is the aggressor in any one flare-up: in this situation, nobody gets to pick and choose who shot first. It's not cut-and-dry—it's not "Han shot first.")
But if what is bad in this situation is not terrorism, but violence itself—leading to the deaths of many people, combatants and (mostly) non-combatants—then we should rethink our mindset. According to the Israeli non-profit B'Tselem, one side has killed at least 6,600 people since 2000; the other has killed almost 1,100 during the same timespan. How, other than the subjective definitions we've constructed and adhere to so religiously, do we determine that the side—the same side that is occupying by force the other's territory—that has killed six times as many people is the one we should support?
If our understanding of terrorism is defined merely as "political violence we don't like" then it has ceased to have any value in our discourse. Its purpose is to obfuscate, not reveal. We're at the top of the pyramid, but this doesn't mean that we should follow debased, destructive policy. We can and must hold ourselves to higher standards. The imperative is not to determine which 4-year-old gets killed; it's to prevent 4-year-olds from being killed.
*Though at least the Israeli political calibration makes at least some sense. The Jerusalem Post is clearly a right-of-center paper; Gilad Sharon is the son of a former right-wing prime minister. But in Washington, Time and Joe Klein are viewed as center-left. Arguing that it is OK to kill 4-year-olds so that our 4-year-olds don't hypothetically die is not center-left—it's appalling.