Thursday, July 27, 2006

Civilians: deconstructing a meme

First, the meme itself, as relayed by a Globe and Mail editorial today:

Hezbollah and its like intentionally kill civilians and have no compunction about it. Democratic countries like Israel accidentally kill civilians when they respond, and regret it profoundly.

And in a blog combox:

Israel does not launch unprovoked attacks on civilians, Hizbollah does. Period!

There you have it, lucidly put in both cases. Good vs. Evil. Black vs. White.
Them vs. Us. The screen of history is pulled back once again to reveal the binary dynamo of the universe.

But I'd like to return to history, and to the phenomenal world. The current carnage in the Middle East is not taking place in a metaphysical realm. Civilians are being killed, and the uncomfortable fact, less and less easily explained away, is that Israeli forces are doing most of the killing. The current respective death counts stand at 433 dead Lebanese civilians, 17 Israeli civilians, and in temporarily forgotten little Gaza, about 70 Palestinian civilians, including 31 children.

Of course civilians are killed in war. But let us return to the meme. Hezbollah, we are told, intentionally kills civilians. After all, they did fire rockets into Haifa loaded with ball-bearings. But Israel, meantime, uses anti-personnel artillery cluster munitions and white phosphorus with impunity, although both are of dubious legality. The attacks that precipitated Israel's war on two fronts were both on strictly military targets, despite an odd revisionist chronology that has appeared here and there, claiming that Hezbollah showered Israel with rockets as a precursor.* But most of the dead in Lebanon and Gaza are civilians.

Hezbollah is blamed for using civilians as cover, trading on the good graces of Israel by using human shields. But that alleged tactic is evidently not working. So an alternative theory has now emerged: Hezbollah is deliberately setting up Lebanese civilians to be killed to win a propaganda war in the West. Alan Dershowitz argues both, apparently keeping a straight face while doing so.

One imagines a Hezbollah militant, drawing his support from sympathetic sectors of the civilian population: "Let's see. We'll set up a base over here, among our village friends, because the IDF won't bomb us. Oh, gosh, they are bombing us. Well, then, let's make sure they kill as many of our friends as possible, and hope that there's a photographer around."

Meanwhile, there are disturbing reports of civilian convoys of villagers ordered by the IDF to evacuate, even Red Cross vehicles, coming under Israeli fire. These are a little harder to rationalize, but that hasn't stopped people from trying. And then we have the dead UN observers, and armies of spin-doctors working overtime to blame that one on Hezbollah too.

So it's never the people who are actually doing the killing who are to blame--it's always somebody else's fault. The Right despises mushy leftists who talk about root causes and social problems. People are responsible for their own actions, they thunder. But when it comes to Israel, the Right wins the mushy contest by far, and personal responsibility goes out the window. It's Hezbollah and Hamas to blame, it's always Hezbollah and Hamas, as though those two groups erupted out of the ground one day, ferocious and menacing and ready to do battle.

If one is going to do root causes, one should try to trace those roots a little deeper. The capture kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, which supposedly started the present conflagration, was preceded by an IDF kidnapping capture of two Palestinians in Gaza. But we must return yet again to the meme. Israel is on the side of the angels. You have to go over to the dark side to get information like that. And here's a little more: thousands of Palestinians have been "disappeared" in the past forty years.

Northern Israel is now evacuating, at least temporarily. Their citizens are moving deeper into Israel. They are not coming under fire on the roads as they try to leave, and they have homes to return to. The same cannot be said of Lebanon. Here are the words of one commentator who is generally sympathetic to Israel:

"We don't want to do any damage to the Lebanese infrastructure and clearly, we don't want to kill any civilian life in Lebanon," Shimon Peres told Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday.

What planet does he live on?

Israel might have conducted two weeks of precision air attacks against "legitimate" military targets, but to argue -- and not see -- that in this boilerplate targeting approach, it is civilian infrastructure, and by extension, the people of Lebanon, who are the targets, is either dishonest or blind.

Dishonest, blind--or trapped by a meme from which there is, for far too many people, no escape.

*See, for example, "Hamas [sic] is reaping the whirlwind" by George Jonas in the Ottawa Citizen on July 22, not available on-line.

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