Military power no way to uphold human dignity


Chris Johnston - Brothers in ArmsWhen we look from a distance at events in Israel, Lebanon and Palestine, it is natural to feel great pity and helplessness. It is also easy to be so paralysed by the complex historical and cultural roots of this conflict, and by the fierce debate about who should be held responsible, that we abstain from judgment.

But it is important to develop a moral perspective on the conflict that goes beyond marking down praise and blame. A properly based moral response leads us beyond the immediate horror to reflect on what will contribute to a longer term resolution of conflict. It offers directions by which we can evaluate the tragedy we now see.

Of course, moral perspectives differ. Mine is influenced by Christian faith, but the central insight on which it is based is more generally shared: that human beings are precious, and that the exploration of what is involved in human dignity is central to any moral discussion.

If we are to live with dignity, we need food, shelter, security from fear for our lives, education, the space in which we can build cooperative relationships in our work and families, and freedom to express our religious and political views. This is the basis for human development.

When set against these standards, the conditions even of ordinary daily life in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon habitually put human dignity at risk. In Israel, suicide bombings, kidnapping and rocket attacks not only kill; they also create fear, and impede the flourishing of working and personal relationships necessary for a humane society. Palestinians in Gaza also live under constant fear of retaliatory attack and in a daily dependence that is humiliating and destructive of hope. There, as in Lebanon, the lack of strong central government prevents the society from addressing lawlessness. Sectarian divisions, too, erode the trust on which civil society builds.

The challenge to the authorities in these societies, and to the world community, is to protect the security of their citizens in a way that respects the human dignity of all those affected. This is necessary to foster the conditions under which peace can have a chance.

Set against these criteria, suicide bombing, kidnapping and rocket attacks are morally indefensible. They commonly demean the humanity of those who indulge in them and those who suffer them.

The response to acts of violence is morally more complex. It is important first to name the response correctly. It is not appropriate to describe it as a war against terrorism, and so to claim the license that goes with war. This conflict is not between states, but between a state and groups that operate from within other states. The response should essentially be defensive. It includes protecting one’s own society against attack, and also policing the violations by holding to account groups that plan violence.

Policing, too, has moral boundaries. Actions done in its name must be properly authorised, set defined goals, and offer good hope of success. The harm that they inflict must also be proportionate to the harm that they address. When these conditions are breached, the price is the diminishment of the humanity both of those who are the agents and the victims of the policy.

Judged by these standards, the response of Israel to kidnapping by Hezbollah and Hamas cannot be justified. Because it extends beyond its own boundaries it is not properly authorised. That is why, in the absence of effective government in Lebanon and in Palestine, the United Nations has properly called for a multinational force. The goals of the Israeli action seem to go beyond policing wrongdoing to punish the societies in which wrongdoers operate. And the harm inflicted in Palestine and Lebanon, both in killing and in the destruction of social infrastructure, is growlly disproportionate to the harm that is redressed. The military operations have diminished the human life of great numbers of people.

Finally, it further erodes the authority of the administrations in Lebanon and in Palestine, whose weakness is a critical element in the current violence. Weak government will make more likely further violations.

Where policy is not ethically based, it usually fails to achieve its own goals. Disregard for human dignity engenders its like. That has been evident in the invasion of Iraq. It is similarly difficult to see any good result coming from the assault on Palestine and Lebanon. In the longer term, the victim may be Israel itself. A small nation that relies on the local use of overwhelmingly superior military power, made possible by the patronage of a powerful nation, is inherently vulnerable to changes in its environment. For all nations, there come times when they must ask, and not command, respect for the human dignity of their citizens.



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Existing comments

I wanna know more about US and Isreal news.
With regards.
Thank you.
daniel | 25 July 2006

Andrew Hamilton believes that the multinational force called for by the UN would have been the proper way to resolve the conflict. However, he forgets that the UN had a body in place in Southern Lebanon called UNIFIL whose task it was, among other things, to monitor the activities on the border. However, Hezbollah's militarization grew under UNIFIL's watchful gaze. Further, the 55 members of the Islamic bloc in the UN regularly spew resolution after resolution against Israel, using their numbers like bullies, which is one of the reasons that the USA exercises its veto.
Which is why Israel is unlikely to trust, or even countenance the UN as a peacekeeper or mediator in this existential engagement. Why should it, when a quarter of the UN's member states are dedicated to Israel's destruction?
Alan Gold | 25 July 2006

As a new subscriber I cannot find a "Print this Issue" button to click, to enable me to printout the magazine. Please adsvise what I must do to print the complete issue.
Thank you....Kevin Duffy.
Kevin Duffy | 27 July 2006

Andrew's piece fails to engage with the obvious question at hand: If Israel is under attack or immediate threat by terrorists imbedded in civilian areas across its borders, how should it respond to establish its security? Their current response, at least in the short term, seems pretty counter-productive. (In the long-term, maybe it'll prove to be a "final solution." Whoa, sorry guys! BAD JOKE!) But then, what is the correct moral response according to us truly moral and right-thinking "good guys" (as opposed to the self-proclaimed "good guys" referred to)? Diplomacy? The UN? Hahaha. No, seriously. It is notable that, like most liberal commentators, Andrew gets this out of the way first: "Commentators have rightly condemned the Hezbollah attacks on Israeli civilians and their homes. But..." So, the "commentators" were right to condemn, yet nowhere in his piece does he condemn anyone but Israel and the U.S. This seems disingenous.Hey, how about that Hezbollah, folks?

And in a broader sense, the same question can be applied to the US "war on terror." Who do we whack? Obviously, not Countries Who Had Nothing to Do with 9/11 But Whose Dictators Were Enemies of Our President's Daddy. (Oops, too late.) And what role does sentiment play? The dead Lebanese, coming from a more developed, urbane and culturally proximate society, are clearly pulling our heartstrings more than the remote and incomprehensible Afghans, the blood-feuding Iraqis, or even the tiresome Palestinians, whose sole media-reported activity would seem to be rock-hurling. We've blown up plenty of Afghan and Iraqi kids as collateral damage and it's gone largely unprotested except on Al Jazeera. Is our current outrage stoked by the fact that we associate Lebanese with coastal Mediterranean resorts, pastries, and Danny Thomas instead of goats, rocket launchers, burkas and spite? (Understandable, frankly, but a shaky basis for policy.)

As for me, I haven't a clue. I am comforted that no one else seems to, either. It is why I have become increasingly apolitical in recent years. I guess you could describe me as a burned-out paleoconservative; I watched the movement descend from the rigorous, civil discourse of Bill Buckley and James Burnham in my youth to the rantings of Rush and that Coulter creature in my cranky middle age. People hurl stupidities at one another. Meanwhile, the notion that protest politics (signs, rallies, buttons, the whole teenaged schtick) could accomplish anything on a global scale seems pretty naive. I will bet even Bono is stumped by this one. Which leaves prayer. I know this sounds cynical and fatalistic, but it was Mother Teresa who said, "You cannot do great things. You can only do small things with great love."
Brenda | 07 August 2006

I heartily aggree with this article; the situation has been made irreparibly worse by western retaliation. I fear what Bush/Howard dream up next !
Margot Kerby | 25 August 2006

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