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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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