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Military power no way to uphold human dignity

  • 24 December 2006

When 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