"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Friday, July 28, 2006

Bystanders? Only In a Sense


They were innocent bystanders. Now, you just think about that term. Innocent. Bystanders. Because that's exactly what they were. We know they were bystanders, nobody's disputing that. So how can a bystander be guilty? No such thing. Have you ever heard of a guilty bystander? No, because you cannot be a bystander and be guilty. Bystanders are by definition, innocent. That is the nature of bystanding. But no, they want to change nature here. They want to create a whole new animal - the guilty bystander. Don't you let them do it. Only you can stop them.

- Jackie Chiles


The bystander, of course, has little to fear by way of public opinion. In fact, they have never had it so good. No one blames them for events that are unforeseen and beyond their ability to control. The bystander is incontrovertibly innocent.

Now these days, such blamelessness is a hot commodity, and the lack of available moral certainties has turned bystanding into a growth industry. The demand for innocence is so strong that it has evolved from something beyond one’s control to something that can be willed into existence. One need only withdraw from the events around them - call it the pursuit of active indifference - to qualify.

Some may object, thinking that only the Relativists are involved here. But the innocent civilian is a universal truth. Think for a moment of the civilians currently caught up in the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. All of us instinctively question the morality of any invasion that will involve collateral damage deaths. (At least, we do when it’s the Israelis who are attacking.) And we don’t just question, we seriously constrain our military options in large part because of this concern.

But for all of our questioning, the one thing we never do is question the legitimacy of the innocence of those civilians. (Interestingly, this is not true of our opposition.) I bring all of this up because I’m just not satisfied with the reaction to Tom Van Dyke’s wonderfully challenging post “The Moral Mathematics of Murder”. In the comments section, he throws out the following:

I'm peeking in the door that Ward Churchill opened, that in this day and age, the possibility exists that there are no civilians.

I suppose we could debate the infinite levels of complicity to be found among the populations of the Lebanese, Japanese, Germans, etc. But I can’t fight off the notion that any moral right to protection that might be claimed by these people is done so on the cheap. When the stakes are low, you are welcome to your indifference. If you’re Alec Baldwin, you’re not required to move to France just because the wrong guy wins the election.

But there are times when life forces you to make a call. While it may be unfair to equate the Lebanese civilians who have allowed themselves to become de facto human shields with Hizbollah operatives, it is not a stretch to say that they are aiding and abetting criminals. And it is here, in the knowledge of who and what one is allowing to happen on their turf, that the pretense of the innocence falls by the wayside.

So here’s the question again. If it is agreed that the removal of Hizbollah is good, on what grounds are the Lebanese civilians owed special protection vis a vis the Israeli military forces that will make this removal happen?

7 comments:

James Elliott said...

"I'm peeking in the door that Ward Churchill opened, that in this day and age, the possibility exists that there are no civilians."

It's actually not surprising that you both repeatedly fail to grasp the fundamental nature of the critique you so backhandedly dismiss. It's not about them; it's about us. We should accept Hezbollah's paradigm? Because..?

It's not about them. It's about us. It's about not losing ourselves.

S. T. Karnick said...

Matt, welcome to the blog. I'm delighted to have you on board.

As to the substance of your post, I agree that this is a basic principle that must be considered. If a society is actively and by choice acting to shield an army, the members of that society have no moral standing by which to claim innocence, collectively speaking. Individual members, however, could indeed by quite innocent, and therefore minimizing civilian casualties should always be the goal.

In the case of Lebanon, moreover, I do not see the population as willingly shielding Hizbollah. The country was entirely overrun by Syria and has yet to throw off the shackles fully. Certainly Lebanon cannot push Hizbollah out by itself. Hence, I cannot see the Lebanese population as at all responsible for their current situation, and I therefore believe the right choice is for Israel and her few allies to take the battle to its true source: Syria and Iran. It is there that the real war lies.

Francis W. Porretto said...

The problem of the human shield is tractable morally, but more difficult practically. The practical conundrum is this: how do you determine whether, once his death has been blamed on you, as it surely will be by those who side with your enemy, the aggregate result will be "worth it?"

We've seen quite a number of instances where peaceable Israeli civilians were slaughtered by Palestinian terrorists, by design. Now, those deaths were deliberate murders; the victims weren't being used as shields. But morally, the death of, say, a UN observer being used by Hezbollah to discourage Israeli counterfire would surely be the same -- yet the media, the Muslim Middle East, our domestic leftists, and many other voices would be raised in condemnation of Israel, and would disturb the equanimity of some number of otherwise sensible persons.

The practical problem, in other words, is a utilitarian calculation of the coldest sort: Will the sacrifice of that "human shield," whose death cannot justly be blamed on me whether he's there willingly or not, yield a net gain for justice after all is said and done?

I am profoundly glad I've never been faced with that problem, and I pity the Israelis and others in similar positions who must.

Hunter Baker said...

Mr. Huisman, I am thrilled to see you in the posting chair. What a superb decision from the new boss!!!

Matt Huisman said...

Thanks, HB and ST, it’s good to be here. I’m not sure how it happened, but I consider it an honor to be included by such company – the two of you in particular.

Glad to see that your both still on the (TR) Club scene.

Matt Huisman said...

It's not about them; it's about us. We should accept Hezbollah's paradigm? Because..?…It’s about not losing ourselves.

It’s not about accepting Hizbollah’s paradigm. It’s about coming to terms with who they really are, and realizing that they have a fundamental conflict with our notion of what is good. They have shown that there is no middle position to be found, and so we find that our first risk of losing ourselves (in one sense, literally) comes by not matching their level of conviction.

I would suggest that your very appropriate concern for losing our humanity, our compassion, is secondary to this. The tactics of Hizbollah are designed to exploit the confusion between these two concerns – and they are the lowest of the low for doing so. But we cannot excuse ourselves from our responsibilities (and neither can the Lebanese), and we should not be surprised at the price* to be paid by not dealing with Hizbollah sooner.

* Israeli Cabinet Minister Avi Dichter said on Israel radio Saturday that it was unacceptable for Lebanon's government "to hide behind the claim that a terror organization is operating on their ground and they cannot stop it." He said Israel holds the government fully accountable for what Hezbollah is doing there and that "Lebanon is paying the full price these days."

Tlaloc said...

"So here’s the question again. If it is agreed that the removal of Hizbollah is good, on what grounds are the Lebanese civilians owed special protection vis a vis the Israeli military forces that will make this removal happen?"

First off I don;t accept that removing Hezbollah is an inherent good. Stopping their rocket attacks on civilians would be good but that is a different thing.

Second of all even if we do accept it then the civilains of Lebanon deserve every protection that Israel demands for it's own citizens.

Had any country on earth bombed a civilian structure in Israel killing 30 some children, and blatantly lying about the presence of weapons there, there is no doubt one of Israel's illegal and undocumented nuclear weapons would be well on it's way. Overreaction is their raison d'etre.