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Learning The New Language

As we hear the accounts of the latest flare-up in the Israel-Palestinian conflicts, I feel it is important to remind folks that, when dealing with that particular situation, certain words have different meanings than we are traditionally used to assigning them.

For example, "civilians." To most people, this means folks who are not part of a military and not part of a particular conflict. However, this word has some different connotations in this context.

Israel has pretty much universal conscription. This means that nearly every Israeli has to serve in the military. Therefore, all Israelis of any age or sex is a combatant -- either past, present, or future. There are no Israeli "civilians," so therefore they are all targets.

Palestine is not a recognized state. It has no official military. Therefore, all Palestinians are civilians. Even -- and especially -- those who carry automatic weapons, fire rockets, and set bombs.

Thus, in any conflict, the "civilian" casualties on the Palestinian side will be considerably higher than on the Israeli side.

Next, remember that the Palestinians are never responsible for their actions, but the Israelis are always responsible for theirs. This explains why the Palestinians can fire rockets for months and months, terrorizing Israelis (and, occasionally, maiming or killing some), and it's regarded as little more than a nuisance by the rest of the world. But should Israel ever hit back, that is a "threat to the peace process" and "destabilizing" and "provocative" and a host of other such terms.

Then, remember that the rules of the Geneva Convention only apply to the Israelis. More than that, they are responsible for any and all violations on both sides.

One of the tenets of the Geneva Convention that protects civilians is the rule that the military must make efforts to separate and distinguish itself from civilians. They must wear distinctive uniforms and operate well away from civilians. In fact, should any nearby civilians be injured or killed in combat, the responsibility lies upon the party that put itself near them, not the party that actually pulls the trigger.

But when it comes to the Palestinians, they cheerfully surround themselves with willing human shields. They've fired their rockets from all sorts of places, most noticeably a school in session, in hopes that the Israelis will either not fire back or fire back and kill civilians -- it's a win-win for them either way.

Israel has gone to great lengths to minimize "collateral damage" -- that military euphemism for killing people and blowing up things that you don't intend to while you try to kill and blow up those people and things that need killing and blowing up. For example, they've reduced the size of warheads in their Hellfire missiles so they can blow up a car (and shred its occupants, often resulting in a ghoulish display that Little Green Footballs calls a "car swarm") while putting nearby people at minimal risk.

The core of this, I think, is the "moral equivalence" fallacy. There is a tendency to not want to render a judgment on either side, so as not to be seen as "taking sides." That is reinforced by the disparity in military capability and resources of the two sides: since Israel is more powerful than the Palestinians, by several orders of magnitude, they are held to a higher standard. That is reinforced by the raw numbers whenever the fighting flares up: considerably more Palestinians are killed than Israelis.

That's not because the Israelis are that much more bloodthirsty than the Palestinians. It's because the Israelis are that much more competent.

There's an old aphorism that needs repeating as often as possible, as it sums up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so perfectly:

If the Palestinians were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more conflict. If the Israelis were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more Israel.

Keep that thought in mind when you read or hear about the current fighting. And don't for an instant succumb to the "moral equivalence" canard.


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Comments (15)

Offered as a point of infor... (Below threshold)
nogo war:

Offered as a point of information
http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/04/gaza200804
depp=true
notiz=Nogo, why the FUCK can't you go away and STAY away?

And there is no resolution ... (Below threshold)
irongrampa:

And there is no resolution to the problem through negotiation. There WILL be resolution, however, when ALL the terrorist factions are neutralized- I will leave it to your imagination just how this is achieved.

Jay Tea writes,... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

Jay Tea writes,

If the Palestinians were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more conflict. If the Israelis were to lay down their weapons, there would be no more Israel.

Are you suggesting the idea that the Palestinians are the cause of all the violence and bloodshed? It seems to me that you view the situation as one in which the Israelis have been on the defense, and that without Palestinian aggression, there would be no conflict??? Is that a fair assessment of your view, or no?

In your opinion, what is the source of all this? And when did the problems start?

Keep that thought in mind when you read or hear about the current fighting. And don't for an instant succumb to the "moral equivalence" canard.

So in your opinion there is clearly one side that holds a superior moral position?

To me, it seems that each side has, over time, committed its share of atrocities. I have a difficult time saying that any one side holds a higher moral ground--except when we start talking about specific cases. Hamas and other Palestinian groups have done horrible things, and so have the Israelis. Neither side has exactly held a moral superiority--especially when we look at the whole conflict historically.

That's not because the Israelis are that much more bloodthirsty than the Palestinians. It's because the Israelis are that much more competent.

Ok. So you think that--if the weaponry of each side was in fact equal--that the Israelis would kill more people, as you say, because they are somehow 'more competent'? What makes you say that?

Just trying to clarify what you are saying here, since this topic can get a little complex. Just a little.

I have a difficult... (Below threshold)
SPQR:
I have a difficult time saying that any one side holds a higher moral ground--except when we start talking about specific cases. Hamas and other Palestinian groups have done horrible things, and so have the Israelis. Neither side has exactly held a moral superiority--especially when we look at the whole conflict historically.

Objectively false and I find the moral equivalence repulsive.

SPQR:Objectivel... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

SPQR:

Objectively false and I find the moral equivalence repulsive.

Ok, so you think that there is one side that holds a clear moral advantage. What part of what I wrote do you find objectively false?

How do you understand the term "moral equivalence," by the way?

What have you read about the histories that exist between these people, and what arguments have shaped your opinions.

I tend to think that there have been atrocities committed by both sides. Taken case by case, each side has committed acts that are, in my opinion, clearly reprehensible.

There is no need to explain away violence, because I don't think that is ethical, let alone justifiable. Palestinians have committed terrorist acts, indeed. The Israelis, for their part, have done things that I think are pretty damn shameful as well. It's been a long process that has had plenty of low points.

Side note:

Just so you know, I'm just here to talk about all this. I have respect for other viewpoints, and I certainly do not think that I have all the right answers. Just something to keep in mind when you read through some things that you might not completely agree with...

Ryan, I'm very familiar wit... (Below threshold)
SPQR:

Ryan, I'm very familiar with the history of Israel having read literally scores of works on the subject.

You are engaging in the very kind of moral equivalence that I find reprehensible. If Israel has committed some acts that you find immoral, and the Palestinians have committed some acts that you also find immoral then you conclude that they are equally culpable.

And as Jay Tea discusses above, that is just flat out despicable because the two sets of acts are not equivalent. The Palestinians have engaged in a long series of terrorist acts that intentionally target innocent non-combatants. The Israelis have - as Jay Tea addressed in part - a long history of working hard to focus on combatants despite the intentional shielding of combatants with non-combatants as practiced by PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah etc. The IDF's work on rules of engagement and operational practices of urban combat was ground-breaking and the US Army paid close attention to their work over the last decade or two.

Israel has a long history of open, democratic government of Western values that they have had to work hard upon to maintain in the face of five decades of armed conflict. The Palestinians have neither had such nor attempted such. That the Israeli's have on occasion fell below their own very high standards on occasion simply cannot justify your attitude of equivalence. You should find your own opinions shameful.

"There are people here in t... (Below threshold)

"There are people here in the U.S. who would justify suicide bombings because Palestinians don't have tanks and planes while insisting that the Palestinians want peace. Well, if they are only using suicide bombers because they don't have tanks and planes, logic suggests that if they had tanks and planes they would use them. In other words, they're at war with Israel, they're just poorly equipped. If a career armed robber doesn't have a gun and uses a crowbar instead, that doesn't change the fact that he's a robber. If he told the judge "I don't have guns and squad cars like the police, I have to use a crowbar," we wouldn't nod with appreciation at the impeccable logic. But if you make this point about Palestinians, eyes roll at your simplistic view of such a complicated situation." -- Jonah Goldberg

And as Jay Tea discusses... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

And as Jay Tea discusses above, that is just flat out despicable because the two sets of acts are not equivalent.

A bombing of civilians by Hamas is reprehensible, just as Israelis who raze the homes and lives of Palestinians is reprehensible. A Palestinian suicide bomber is a criminal, just as is an Israeli soldier who fires upon Palestinian civilians.

Why should such acts be judged with different criteria?

It's not about trying to make two sets of acts equivalent, as you say, but about taking a critical look at the history of the conflicts and realizing that the two sides have made their fair share of terrible acts. To condemn a terrorist act from one side, and a military murder on another, is not to make the two equivalent--it's to recognize the fact that each is morally wrong.

How do you explain this away? Do you only read one side of history? Just stating that they are "not equivalent" proves nothing. Please explain to me how each side is not in some way culpable for their past actions? Are you suggesting that the Israelis have done no wrong? Are you suggesting that they have been justified in everything they have done?

I argue that both sides have committed injustices, and that each case should be looked at in context in order to understand it. There is little use in explaining away the complexities by relying upon terms like "moral equivalence," without describing what you really mean by it.

The Palestinians have engaged in a long series of terrorist acts that intentionally target innocent non-combatants.

Yes, some Palestinians have done this, and such acts are completely wrong and inexcusable.

The Israelis have - as Jay Tea addressed in part - a long history of working hard to focus on combatants despite the intentional shielding of combatants with non-combatants as practiced by PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah etc.

Sure, the Israelis--or some Israelis--have made these kinds of efforts, and they should be recognized. But this does not excuse other things that they have done. One act does not erase or cancel out another.

Just as the terrorist acts of SOME Palestinians should not be used to condemn ALL Palestinians. It's just not so simple.

Israel has a long history of open, democratic government of Western values that they have had to work hard upon to maintain in the face of five decades of armed conflict.

Yes they do. But this does not mean that those democratic ideals apply to everyone equally. And if you have read your history you would know that. The Palestinian citizens of Israel have been treated, for decades, as little more than second class citizens. Democratic rhetoric does not always match what is really happening.

That the Israeli's have on occasion fell below their own very high standards on occasion simply cannot justify your attitude of equivalence. You should find your own opinions shameful.

What kind of reply is that? Just because they have 'high standards' does not mean that their transgressions can be dismissed. That makes no sense at all. Of course, if the Israelis raze a Palestinian neighborhood, or participate in the killing of some civilians, they should be held accountable. Just as Palestinians who do the same should be held accountable.

Are you arguing that one side gets a free ride while the other should be held accountable? I disagree, completely.

ryan a It is a fac... (Below threshold)
Maggie:

ryan a

It is a fact that the terrorists who call
themselves "palestinians" always use
their citizenry as shields, bodily and their
homes, therefore according to your condemnations,
the israelis should never fight back against
any attacks regardless if they're rocket
attacks or suicide bombers. That is your
brand of moral equivalence to say they are
both just as bad.

Maggie:That is ... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

Maggie:

That is your brand of moral equivalence to say they are both just as bad.

What I am arguing is that both sides should be held accountable for the wrongs they have committed. And pretending that ONE SIDE is the source of the problem here is a dismissal of the actual history of the conflict. It's a war, and both sides have been responsible for the breakdown of negotiation and resolution.

You disagree?

And what exactly do you mean when you use the term "moral equivalence"? How do you define it?

SPQR:Ryan, I'm ... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

SPQR:

Ryan, I'm very familiar with the history of Israel having read literally scores of works on the subject.

Oh ya, I meant to ask you about the 'works' that you have read about this history. I always appreciate it when people are well read on a subject, and it sounds like you are. Which ones would you say were the strongest? Which ones would you highly recommend? Any favorite authors? Are these books, articles, news reports?

moralOne ... (Below threshold)
Maggie:
moral One entry found.

moral[adjective]

Entry Word:
moral
Function:
adjective

Text: 1 conforming to a high standard of morality or virtue -- see good 2 2 guided by or in accordance with one's sense of right and wrong -- see conscientious 1


equivalence
One entry found.

equivalence[noun]

Entry Word:
equivalence
Function:
noun

Text: the state or fact of being exactly the same in number, amount, status, or quality Synonymsequality, equivalency, par, parity, sameness Related Wordscompatibility, correlation, correspondence; likeness, similarity; exchangeability, interchangeability Near Antonymsdifference, discrepancy, disparity, divergence; incompatibility; dissimilarity, unlikeness Antonyms inequality


Found at: http://www.merriam-webster.com

The current strife began after the Oslo Accords, when the flood gates were opened
by the israelis allowing the 'palestinians'
back into any of the conquered territories.
So I guess retrospectively it's all
the jews fault.
The fact you do not specify the fact the
israelis go out of their way to not harm
or kill civilians (which does happen)is
blatant bias on your part.
If they were to defend themselves according
to your perspective, they would not defend
themselves at all. Maybe you would be one
of those who would celebrate them being
driven into the Red Sea.

Palestinians are... (Below threshold)
Maggie:
Palestinians are not primitives. They are human beings with a long cultural and political history that deserves respect. And they should be held accountable for their actions, period.

Where are your sources to back up this statement?
What archeology links do you have showing
historical evidence as their money, libraries,
schools, and ancient homes?
The original muslims who were living in the
area now known as Israel, were not
forced from their homes. They were warned by
the surrounding arab countries there was going
to be an invasion and destruction of the newly
founded country (originally the British Mandate) and they should leave temporarily
from their homes until the over run was finished, and all the jews were dead
or run out of the middle east.
The new state of Israel ask these people to
not leave, to stay and work on the building
of the new nation of Israel.

The residents of Gaza are l... (Below threshold)
steve miller:

The residents of Gaza are learning a valuable lesson: actions have consequences.

They are also learning the valuable lesson that the Jews don't intend - ever - to leave Israel.

At some point, the residents of Gaza _may_ decide that, having learned a valuable lesson, they must change their behavior. (A crazy man is one who having learned that an action doesn't produce the desired results, tries again, hoping for different results.)

In the meantime, the residents of Gaza will continue to receive the consequences of their actions.

Here's how to stop having defensive actions by the Israelis: stop firing missiles into Israel.

I can understand ... (Below threshold)
Maggie:
I can understand someone not wanting to "take sides" out of ignorance of the issue (and I don't mean that derogatorily). But I can't understand why someone would continue to argue a point they simply can't justify.

Moby




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