Why so little moral outrage at the destruction of Lebanon?


Chris Johnston - House of CardsOut of the passion of Lebanon, one hopeful image remains. It is the barely restrained rage of Jan Egeland, the United Nations Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid, at such unnecessary devastation. It put into proper context the other images of dead and maimed civilians, ruined homes, destroyed industries, ambulances rocketed precisely at the centre of the Red Cross, and the hypocrisy of the call by the United States Government to Arab nations to stop supporting the conflict.

Egeland’s response also made evident the general absence of moral passion, or even reflection, on the destruction in Palestine and Lebanon. Commentators have rightly condemned the Hezbollah attacks on Israeli civilians and their homes. But the general silence from some quarters on Israel’s unmeasured response implies that it is a moral necessity.

What arguments underlie this presumption? The first is the unspoken claim that a unique identity guarantees moral integrity. On the United States side, it is summed up in the catchcry, ‘Hey, we are the good guys’. Because we are good guys, all the adventures we engage in and support are by definition good. Because we are good, too, you can rely on our judgment of what is necessary. When something goes wrong, like Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, a gap-toothed smile and an 'aw shucks' will be enough to have our naughtiness forgiven and our goodness vindicated. If you criticise the morality of what we do and support, you are no longer one of the good guys, and so can no longer claim moral standing or insight.

A unique identity can also be claimed by victims of wrongdoing. From the Israeli side, we hear, ‘We are victims, we are deprived of due security. When we are redressing wrong done to us, everything that we do will be right. In our response there may be mistakes, but our status as innocent victims guarantees our moral virtue and insight.'

These claims to a uniquely privileged moral insight and moral purity have a spiritual core. The religious roots of United States identity and its sense of a unique calling in the world have often been pointed out. It is easy to move from believing that the United States is called to act for the good of the world, to believe that whatever the United States chooses to do in the world will in fact be virtuous.

The Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians speak of the unique status of the people of Israel. That uniqueness is heightened by the terrible sufferings of the Jews under Christian regimes, and particularly by the Holocaust. It is natural to assume that Israel has both the right and the duty to survive at whatever cost. Secular forms of the doctrine of national election, however, forget that its Scriptural correlative is not the assumption of national virtue but the regular conviction, confession and repentance of sin. When you are chosen as a people, you expect that your moral blindness and vicious behaviour will be revealed.

Why so little moral outrage at the destructon of Lebanon?Those who justify the violent Israeli attack on the conditions for civilian life as necessary, and so as morally right, claim that it is necessary for peace in the region. They argue this case by analysing the complex factors involved in the Middle East: the ancient hatreds, the interests of governments of surrounding nations, the tension between Shiite and Suni Muslims, the relative power of the different forces, and the likely effect of military action. They conclude that for lasting peace, the destruction of much of Palestine and Lebanon is necessary. Stripped of its analytical and political cover, this is a relatively simple moral argument based on consequences. Provided you pursue a good goal, namely peace, whatever you do will be justifiable if the good consequences outweigh the harm done.

This line of argument can also be deployed to justify torture, selective assassination and any kind of war. The mystery is that it is found persuasive. Part of the reason may be that in military operations, moral argument is set within the drama of power. When moral conclusions come accompanied by the panoply of arms, bombs, generals and suits, shock and awe make them seem respectable. Australian political commentators seem to be particularly susceptible to seduction by power. Once we are brought into the counsels of the great and privileged, whose furrowed brows and serious mien we see as they go about their military business, we readily believe that they are morally clothed.

Why so little moral outrage at the destructon of Lebanon?The clothing that emperors and their courtiers assume is the language of abstraction. It allows people and their predicaments to be put out of the way behind nations, nations behind regional blocks, and regional blocks behind global policy imperatives. When we analyse human realities in these terms, and elaborate a science to relate our abstractions to one another, we can distance ourselves from the reality of people being bombed in Lebanon, sent mad on Nauru, and left to starve in Palestine. At such a distance, the human barbarities we endorse can be consigned to public relations, and humanitarian protest will be seen as a perverse obstacle to intelligent policy. We can even reassure ourselves that our insensitivity to abused human dignity is the mark of a strong mind.

To base a political morality on power and to develop it through abstractions is like building a house of cards, with only the faces of kings, queens and knaves showing. It has colour, but it collapses because it lacks in solidarity. The invasion of Iraq has poisoned much in our public life. Perhaps its saddest corruption is that such a threadbare morality is now taken for granted.



submit a comment

Existing comments

brilliant, poetic, and compassionate.

beth doherty | 08 August 2006  

I am grateful for this article as I too have been stunned at the indifference to Lebanese suffering apparent in pronouncements from US and Australian leaders and much of the mass media. THe statement by Condoleezza Rice that we are seeing the 'birth pangs of a new Middle East' sum up the callous response of many.
It is arrogant and short-sighted to claim the moral high ground while perpetrating barbaric acts as we see both Israel and the USA doing in recent times. There is a dangerous message in the justifications being offered for the destruction in Lebanon and the palestinian territory. The position that whatever Israel is justified, that its 'mistakes' must be overlooked because its real targets are 'terrorists' and so on can only evoke rage and alienation in those who are effectively being told that their lives are less valuable than Israelis'.
Self-identification as the 'good' guys is not enough to bestow moral authority or protection from retaliation by those whose humanity is repeatedly discounted.

Myrna Tonkinson | 09 August 2006  

I congratulate Andrew Hamilton for his analysis of the the terrible conflict and lack of moral outrage it has provoked. In his analysis he does not identify thoes societies who have no moral outrage, I suggest he look further into the response of various societies throughout the world to this conflict. My observations are that the whole of the muslim world is deeply outraged, as is the Chineese response and Indian, and so. The only people who seem to be not morally outraged are the Christian west, and Andrew correctly identifies the Christian west response as barbaric. I believe we must now see ourselves as the Western, Christians Barbarians, or to put it another way, we are the barbarians from the christian west.
What a terrible scandall this is, no wonder people are leaving the Christian churches in droves and want nothing to do with Christianity.

Kevin Vaughan | 09 August 2006  

For me, this article provides a necessary examination of morality in contemporary politics. Most significant was Andrew Hamilton's analysis of the Israeli mindset or 'victim status' which has been distorted, and belittles the memory of the horrific sufferings of the Jews during the Holocaust. It is obvious that Israel has taken on the role of oppressor, partucularly on the Gaza Strip. They would do well to remember their own trials and suffering and to act to prevent such occurences in their own region. Israel, as a modern democratic and stable nation, has (or had) the ability to provide long lasting stability in its immediate region. Sadly, the extreme and self righteous position adopted by the Israeli government under Ehud Olmert is creating a cauldron of hate, simmering, ready to overflow. The Israeli people must learn to live with others again but most importantly, take courage, drop the victim status and take a responsible role in the global community.

Ben Coleridge | 10 August 2006  

Excellent article. Morality and power are often mistaken for oneanother and the powerful will be vindicated at any cost. To quote another: "you can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb the world into peace" It seems to talk about compassion and peace building in during these times is to question the behaviour of some of the worlds most powerful countries. Keep up the good work Mr. Hamilton.

Daisy Gardener | 11 August 2006  

A penetrating revelation of what passes for morality. Reminds you of the quote from Plato's Republic that "Justice is the interest of the stronger". Whatever the stronger say is right, is right. Not forgetting the argument of victimhood, which is quite an effective one when abused.

Harry Mace | 09 February 2011  

Similar Articles

Angels dance before our eyes

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 07 August 2006

Theologians have taken fire for asking how many angels can dance on the point of a needle. The image of angels on needles may take us closer to reality than it appears.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up