Friday, August 04, 2006

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?

Politics, it's often been said, creates strange bedfellows. True enough, but that only scratches the surface of its strange alchemy. Political ideas, calcified by years of reflexive insularity, appear capable of even changing the chemistry of the brain, resulting in a condition we may as well call 'selective compassion'. There's no better example of this today than in the conflict between Israel and the two-headed beast of Hezbollah and Hamas.

When armchair pundits manned the virtual barricades for the latest crisis in the Middle East, they came armed with the well-oiled weapons of pat ideology. They know one side of the coin so well, but they never dare flip it for fear that they might land on 'tails' (naturally, both sides assume ownership of 'heads').

A Lebanese man mourns the death of a friend in an Israeli airstrike

For a clamorous contingent on the left, Israel is the US-client rogue state in the region, raining down death on innocent Arab children. Of course, there are elements of truth in this depiction. Certainly, for example, the Israeli army is far better equipped than their enemies, which makes their bombs much more likely to hit their targets. Israel also has a tendency to answer every attack with a response many times more devastating than than the original provocation.

Many on the left dwell upon this fact without thinking critically about the actual threats faced by a Jewish state virtually surrounded by Muslim nations that would like nothing better than to wipe it off the map. The tendency is to remove Israel from its geopolitical context and to see it only as an actor against Muslims, be they Palestinian or, more recently, Lebanese. As such, the temptation is to dismiss Israeli casualties as unimportant, especially when compared to the greater number of Muslim deaths.

Israeli soldiers mourn a fallen comrade

On the right, the tendency is reversed. Israeli casualties count more because the Muslims in the area basically have it coming. For example, the aptly-named John Hawkins of the blog Right Wing News recently wrote that the Palestinians "deserve anything and everything that happens to them short of genocide."

Again, there are kernels of truth in this perspective (although Hawkins' bizarre formulation takes things well beyond the pale). The Palestinians, after all, did elect a terrorist group to head their parliament, and the threat from Hezbollah, who have taken over southern Lebanon, is not imaginary.

The problem is that both sides, regardless of the merits of their argument, display a selective compassion for their team while remaining shockingly dismissive of suffering undergone by the other. In theory, I'm certain that these people believe they are champions of humanity; in reality, they're callous to the point of being inhumane.

Israeli citizens, regardless of what one may think of their government, do not deserve to live under the constant barrage of Katyusha rockets and suicide bombers. Furthermore, since their army is based upon universal conscription, it's not even appropriate to argue that their soldiers deserve to die in the southern suburbs of Beirut.

While it's true that the Palestinians voted in a Hamas-led government, the tendency is to believe that these virulent haters of Israel enjoy near-universal support. That view is mistaken. Hamas won a majority of seats in the parliament thanks to 44% of the vote. Fatah, their main rival and the heirs to Arafat's legacy, won 42% of the vote. Hardly a landslide. I don't think anyone would argue that all Americans support President Bush, who won in similar fashion.

It must also be remembered that people vote for a variety of reasons. Fatah, known for widespread corruption and failure, certainly represented a poor alternative to Hamas, and many Palestinians may have just done what plenty of Americans are keen to do: vote the bastards out. It's also hopelessly naive to look at the Palestinian election as though they had a choice between Hamas and some sort of liberal democratic party of peace and love. Palestinians are in a desperate situation and their options are severely limited. It would be disingenuous to place the blame for this situation on the collective shoulders of the Palestinian people, as if their views are indistinguishable from the military wing of Hamas.

Similarly, it's insane to claim that the Lebanese (many of whom, for the ethnically-motivated, are Christians and Druze, not Muslims) deserve their recent cruel fate. Yes, Hezbollah basically owns the southern part of that country, but Lebanon is not a typical nation. They have, since the bestial assassination of former prime minister Hariri in 2005, been trying to eradicate Syrian influence from their country, and their current government, while encouraging, is far from stable. They're certainly not powerful enough to sweep out both Syria and Hezbollah simultaneously and on their own.

Many Lebanese despise the influence of Syria and Hezbollah in their country and its politics. Those who do support Hezbollah, mainly the Shi'ite minority in the south, do so for a variety of reasons that are complex and point to a larger religious and ethnic divide in the Muslim world. To say that the Lebanese en masse deserve the wrath of Israel is to simplify a highly complex problem to the point of absurdity. If the problems of the Middle East were really as simple as some people think (Israel is evil; Muslims are bloodthirsty), then they'd be solved by now.

I want to be clear that I'm not arguing that it's impossible to make distinctions in this case or in other Middle East conflicts. I'm just weighing in against the kind of intellectual laziness that prevails these days. Fine lines of distinction can be drawn without stripping away the complexity of the situation and certainly without denying the humanity of the people put in harm's way. It's inevitable that civilians die in modern warfare, whether by accident or by design, but there is no calculus of death. The people dying are people with families and friends who mourn their loss.

This grief exists outside of politics. We'll need to recover our humanity to realize this.
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