Is the intentional killing of civilians okay? Thursday, May 5 2011 

First, let me apologize for the long delay between posts. I’m busy in life, and I am not afforded the free time to do research and write extensively that I had as a student at university. Also, I am posting this because it is a subject that particularly touched me, though I do have several posts regarding economics and democracy that I’ve had lined up for quite some time. There have been plenty of subjects I would have loved to write about since I put my writing on hold. But this I would like to address right now.

The question I pose in the title seems like an easy one to answer. To any decent human being, the answer should be no. The conclusion seems to go unquestioned. The idea that the killing of innocent lives is morally wrong and unjust is so embedded in the mores and norms of our culture, and countless others across the globe, the questions seems nearly absurd on its face. Yet, I’ve recently found myself asking the question and defending the forgoing conclusion in a Facebook discussion. Surely, though, the only opposition would be from a militant extremist, some brainwashed fascist, or simply a troll?

Actually, the tiff was with none other than Fouzi Slisli, a human relations professor at SCSU. (This is the same professor whom, by the way, I vehemently defended on this blog and in the SCSU University Chronicle regarding a presentation he and others had gave on the attack on Gaza in 2009, which was interrupted by professor Edelheit. This is also the same professor I praised, both here and in the University Chronicle, for their trip to Palestine and their presentation of that trip.) I do not pretend to admit that Dr. Slisli does not take outspoken stances on several issues, some of which I agree with, but this one goes beyond the pale.

This started when the professor posted a link to a Telegraph article titled “Muslim group claims royal wedding is legitimate terror target.” Seemingly approving the notion, he says, “They’re not saying they are going to target the wedding; they’re just saying the wedding is a legitimate target and might be targeted by others…” I reply, saying, “No such thing as a legitimate target that has as its essence a civilian population.” The conclusion seems obvious enough. But not for Dr. Slisli.

Dr. Slisli contends that the U.S.—and the West in general—has targeted civilians and has deliberately killed civilians. This is undoubtedly true. I agree with the professor here. In fact, I wrote on this blog about the criminal bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, describing them as “One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history.” The intentional killing of civilians is a sad reality of U.S. foreign policy and is a reason why the U.S. is one of the leading terror states. However, the fact that the West attacks civilians in no way justifies the position that killing civilians is okay. It should seem obvious enough that the actions of the West do not dictate morality. A moral theory based on such a concept would be shallow, as only a few moments of thought and reflection evidences.

Certainly the West’s behavior vis-à-vis its rhetoric makes it hypocritical. But as logic might remind us, hypocrisy does not validate an argument. Tu quoque (“you too”) is a kind of fallacious argument that aims to discredit a conclusion because its arguer does not adhere to said conclusion. But the fact that the U.S. has engaged or is currently engaged in targeting civilians has no bearing on the question of its legality or its morality. As I stated to him, “The question, though, isn’t whether the West has attacked civilians. The question is what is the proper response? Is it proper to attack the civilians of the offending nation—say you or I? That is to say, is it legitimate [to] deliberately target civilians for any reason? The answer is no. And the answer doesn’t change just because Western governments have violated the rule. Sure, it tells us a lot about the moral culture of Western nations. But if it’s wrong for the West that also means its wrong for everyone else. That’s just the elementary principle of moral universality.” (Many readers know that I’ve repeatedly mentioned the principle of moral universalism on this blog, and I’ll return to it here later.) The principle of universalism dictates that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others (more stringent ones, in fact) and vice-versa. If it’s wrong for the West to kill civilians, it is wrong for you and your cohorts to do the same; if it is right for you to kill civilians, it is right for the U.S.

Dr. Slisli contends that moral universalism, “lofty as it is, does not capture the complexity of the issue.” While I believe the principle is both basic and elementary (far from lofty)—the necessary basis for any decent moral theory—the professor takes issue with it. He claims I am “making the weaker sides to a conflict uphold a morality that you know full well the stronger side does not/will not uphold.” But again, that has no bearing on the question of either its legality or its morality. In any case, Dr. Slisli says Islam offers a “contingency plan” that universalism does not in situations for those who suffer the transgressions of others: “the law of equality.” This law states, “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, Transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” Those from the Christian tradition can think of a similar idea found in the Bible (“an eye for an eye”). Thus, “if anyone transgresses this universal law against you, the Qur’an instructs, then Muslims are allowed to transgress likewise against the enemy,” posits Dr. Slisli. (Of course, “Allah prefers if Muslims have restraint.”) He therefore concludes that, while it’s preferable to have restraint, it is not necessary when “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” (emphasis his). He does claim, however, “I am not stating my own opinion here” and that he is “merely explaining the legal frameworks that the Qur’an sets for the rules of war and the legal status of civilians and civilian infrastructure.” I’ll leave the latter claim for more competent scholars.

In any case, the phrase that Muslims ought to show restraint unless “ONE HAS TO PROTECT ONESELF” in an important one because it requires the person using force to demonstrate that in fact it is for the purpose of protecting oneself. So certainly the onus is on the attacker to demonstrate that attacking innocent civilians is an act of “protecting oneself.” And quite frankly I don’t think the onus can be met. In fact, I would venture to say that it would have the opposite effect: it would endanger oneself more. The reason should be obvious, but I’ll return to it later.

At this point, the discussions turns ugly. Dr. Slisli perverts my statements, saying my act of “Preaching non-violence while the powerful is sawing through the weak is, in practical terms, nothing but a complicity by inaction.” Careful readers will note that at no point do I ever “preach non-violence,” and most certainly not to those stricken by violence. In fact, I do believe violence is legitimate, but only under very certain circumstances, and the onus is on the perpetrator to demonstrate that violence is appropriate. So, for example, the use of force for the purpose of self-defense is legitimate. You can find this precedence in article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense has always been a legitimate act. Thus, I fully support the Quaranic injunction that allows for the use force to “protect oneself.” Again, though, one has to demonstrate that the use of force is, in fact, self-defense.

To attack innocent civilian populations under the guise of self-defense is an act reserved only for the most morally depraved. And I do not pretend that this is an uncommon excuse for violence and terror. Take, say, Hitler when he invaded Poland and began his slaughter of Jews and millions of others; he did so under the pretense of self-defense. That’s always the pretense. We could go through a long list, but I doubt that would be necessary.

So let’s summarize. According international law, Quaranic injunctions, and elementary morality, self-defense is legitimate. The use of force, violence, etc. is legitimate insofar as it can be demonstrated to be legitimate, for example for the purpose of self-defense. Attacking those who have not attacked you does not qualify as self-defense. Ergo, the killing of innocent civilian lives is illegitimate and is deeply immoral. It is for this reason that such acts are outlawed, condemned (nearly) universally, is considered terrorism, and is a grave abuse against human rights.

Yet, the professor is having none of it. He clings to the claim that, because the U.S. does it, it’s okay for everyone else to do it. He ponders, “If the West refuses to apply the universal laws of common decency with people A, B and C, why should people A and B and C apply the laws of common decency with the West?” He gives two reason why A, B, and C might. He says either they would because “the balance of power OBLIGES THEM to uphold the laws of common decency” while the other side does not—i.e., they are too weak to retaliate. The second is because “People A, B and C are ‘better people’ and although the West doesn’t deal with them decently, they CHOOSE to act and be better.” He admits the latter case demonstrates “admirable strength because it produces moral rectitude.” Yet, he says this is not the path to follow, because it is a deceit by the West to prevent its victims from retaliating. He wonders, “Is it a coincidence you think that intellectuals in colonial societies have always advised the colonized to use non-violence?” He claims the idea that we ought not attack innocent civilians has “sinister uses as a weapon to disarm populations …”

Therefore, Dr. Slisli concludes, the proper order of things is for A, B, and C to “apply common decency with People D, E and F and EVERY OTHER people who submit to the universal laws of common decency.” But should someone not adhere to the “universal laws,” then A, B, and C “also HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECLARE THAT COMMITMENT VOID IF THE OTHER SIDE FLAGRANTLY VIOLATES IT.” There’s a problem with this argument, though. A law is not “universal” if it is not applied universally. Of course, what the professor really meant to say, if he were being a little more honest, is, “it’s wrong for them to do it to me, but it’s okay for me to do it to them.” And it’s a demonstration of the sheer hypocrisy found in those defending the attacks on innocent lives. And that’s a vile maxim that operates nearly everywhere: it’s a crime if they do it, but not when I do it. If you think about it, that’s the exact opposite of what one might call a “universal law.”

Finally, an argument made by others (and hinted at by Dr. Slisli when he accuses me of “a complicity by inaction”) is that innocent civilians really aren’t innocent at all. (In a separate posting, Dr. Slisli contends the innocents being targeted by al-Qaeda, including Muslims, are “the Crusader-Zionist alliance and those who collaborate with them,” thus fair game. But, “At any rate, this is an inter-Muslim debate in which Americans have no business sticking their nose.” When innocent American lives are at stake, I believe this to be an issue in which we might have the right to stick our nose, so I’ll continue.) One commenter notes, “We are all party to what our government/military does until it stops,” as if it’s a valid argument for attacks on civilians. But if they commenter, whom I’ve also defended elsewhere, agrees with me that the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were wrong, as I suspect they do, then it is wrong for terrorists to bomb us here. Just because these were citizens of Imperial Japan make them no more a legitimate target than you or I simply because we are U.S. citizens. So in the same vein, the attack on the World Trade Center was no more legitimate than the U.S. and Israel’s punishment of Gazan citizens for voting the wrong way in a free election. They both represent an illegitimate and immoral use of force.

So back to the original topic of the royal wedding, just because the spectators of the royal wedding are citizens of the country, or merely residents, or merely tourists, or merely bystanders does not make them a legitimate target. And, as it was hinted in the previous sentence, attacks on civilian populations do not even assure one that those targeted are only nationals of that country, as there could very easily be non-associated agents within the same population. But even if we could assume it was only nationals within the civilian population being targeted, is nationality ever a legitimate basis for attack? I suspect the commenter who says we are all party to our government’s crimes also believes that other discriminations based on nationality are wrong. So if I asked her if it’s okay for us to make certain nationalities pay more in taxes or if it’s okay for us to put certain nationalities in internment camps or maybe even okay for us to toss certain nationalities into furnaces (because of the crimes their nations committed, of course), I’m confident she’d say no. Yet there is such a disconnect to the point that she see nothing wrong in the idea that it’s okay for innocent civilians to be subjected to terror attacks because of what their government has done. And that brings me to the final point, which I’ve discussed throughout this blog, which is that, even to the extent that I do live in a “democracy,” my influence on policy is basically near zero. Democracy is mostly nominal and is defined in procedural terms: I pull a lever every four years and keep quiet and to myself in the time in between. Does that make me responsible to some extent? Maybe one could argue so. But it certainly does not make me a legitimate target for attacks, nor does it make Dr. Slisli, nor the aforementioned commenter—neither of whom, I’m sure, are ready to admit they are vile war criminals deserving death.

I understand the importance of criticizing one’s own crimes. Again, to the extent that I do live in a democracy and free society, I can make some effort to address them. I take seriously Dr. Slisli’s argument that, “If you want to talk universalism, then you should make the aggressor stop aggression FIRST …” Those who have read my blog know well my critique of state crimes, particularly those of the U.S. That has always been my focus. A dishonest person is one who criticizes the crimes of others but does not reflect on his own. But that does not make the crimes of others any less of a crime. This is a moral truism we should not easily let escape from our minds.

Israeli speaker to come to SCSU Thursday, Mar 11 2010 

There have been plenty of good events going on around campus lately. The latest is going to be an Israeli speaker who was in the Israeli Air Force but who later refused to participate in aerial attacks on Palestine. He is now a nonviolence and human rights activist. Here is an e-mail regarding the event that I got from Amber Michel, creator of the newly-formed SCSU Students for a Free Palestine student group on campus:

On March 26, Yonatan Shapira, former Israeli Air Force Captain,
Refusenik and human rights activist, will speak at SCSU to share his
experience in the Israeli military and how he came to work for
nonviolence and Palestinian human rights.

This is a tremendous honor and opportunity for our campus and
surrounding communities.

Don’t miss this chance to hear a first-hand account from someone who
was inside the Occupying force.

I’ll send along a flier soon with more information, but for now:

Yonatan Shapira
March 26, 2010
4:00 – 6:00 pm
Atwood Theater, Atwood Student Center
St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud, MN


In Solidarity,
Amber – Students for a Free Palestine

How long? Tuesday, Oct 13 2009 

How long must we, American taxpayers, continue to support Israeli war crimes? Israel is the largest recipient of American foreign aid (ignoring, at the moment, Iraq and our war there). We support Israeli publicly, materially, diplomatically, and monetarily. What we do directly contributes to Israeli war crimes. And there is no longer any doubt about it: Israel is an occupying force in Palestine. That makes just about everything we and Israel do there war crimes. There is no international support to speak of in discussing U.S.-Israeli crimes in Palestine.

A recent and glaringly blatant example was Israel’s offensive against Gaza almost a year ago. The U.S.-Israeli attack (“U.S.-Israeli” because nothing Israel does is possible without the U.S.’s support) was recognized as contrary to international law and the actions committed by Israeli forces as constituting egregious war crimes. Just recently, a four-judge commission led by the distinguished Richard Goldstone (a Jew and supporter of Israel) released a report for the UN Human Rights Council condemning both Israel and Hamas for their war crimes, noting that Israel was responsible for an overwhelming majority of them, “indicating serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law were committed by Israel during the Gaza conflict.”

What was Israel’s response? Yesterday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Israel would never allow its leaders or its soldiers to be tried for their crimes (following in the footsteps of the U.S.). Netanyahu defended this assertion by stating Israel has the right to defend itself. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct, it’s not true that Israel has the right to defend itself with force. It had no right to attack and invade Gaza. Israel is recognized as an occupier, and occupiers have no rights; but they do have obligations. So if Israel wanted to defend itself from rocket attacks, it had the obligation to withdraw from Palestine.

But what Israel (and the U.S.) is doing when it declares that it won’t prosecute war crimes is that it is declaring the Nuremberg trials a farce. U.S. Justice Robert Jackson made a point of this at the Nuremberg trials, at which he was the chief of counsel for the prosecution. He stated: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” The U.S. and Israel have sipped from the “poisoned chalice” but have refused to allow their crimes to be prosecuted. So we’re saying the work of Justice Jackson and the Nuremberg trials were mere legal farce. If you don’t think the proceedings were just a farce and merely for show, then you must advocate for prosecuting those who have sipped from the “poisoned chalice.”

Finally, notes Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Whitson, “The Obama administration cannot demand accountability for serious violations in places like Sudan and Congo but let allies like Israel go free.”

Eyewitness reports from Palestine Thursday, Oct 1 2009 

Notice and update: this is a longer version of a letter I wrote to the University Chronicle. You can read the shorter letter that was published in the University Chronicle here. Also see an update I’ve posted below.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of hearing the personal testimonies of SCSU student Amber Michel, SCSU professor Fouzi Slisli, and St. Catherine University professor Nasrin Jewell regarding their trip to Palestine this summer. SCSU professor Tamrat Tademe was also there to introduce the speakers and to give responses to some questions posed.

You’ll remember that it was these two professors, Drs. Tademe and Slisli, who were rudely interrupted last year by professor Joseph Edelheit during their panel discussion on the Gaza offensive. Dr. Edelheit, a professor of philosophy and the director of Religious and Jewish Studies at SCSU, was criticized by myself and other students in the University Chronicle’s opinion page, though some people did also defend him. I also wrote on this blog regarding the blatant bias the University Chronicle displayed in covering these incidents.

Thankfully, last night’s presentation went without incident. The speakers spoke eloquently of the plight of Palestinians and the audience had very engaging and intelligent questions to ask, allowing for a very informative discussion of the Israel-Palestine issue.

I’m very grateful for their very eye-opening reports regarding the massive oppression going on in Palestine. I praise their courage for telling the stories of Palestinians and their plight, for standing up against the predominating view in American society that supports Israeli aggression, and for explaining the perspective that is too often ignored and little understood.

However, I must respectfully disagree with two arguments they made in their presentation. The first is their advocacy for a one-state solution as opposed to the two-state solution. The second is their support for “boycott, divestment, and sanction” against Israel.

I strongly feel the two-state solution is the only way forward on this issue. I can concede that perhaps, in some philosophical utopia, the one-state solution might be a desirable outcome; but it’s completely unrealistic. So I do not pretend that the two-state solution is ideal, but it is realistic and it will improve the lives of Palestinians and Israelis quite drastically.

I am not alone in this because this is the international consensus. It is favored by the Arab nations, the Palestinians, the Israeli people, the EU, and so on. The only rejectionists have been the U.S. and Israeli governments. The closet Israel and Palestine have come to a settlement was at the Taba Summit (before Israel pulled out), which led to the Geneva Accord that provides for solutions that, though not ideal, both sides can agree on. Again, that’s the longstanding international consensus.

Second, I disagree with their calls for divestment. We should support an end to arm sales to Israel, but we should not support divestment. One, it’s ineffective; two, it’s the wrong way to think about it; and three, it hurts our cause for promoting peace in the region. Namely, it distracts from the important issues of occupation, war crimes, and continued oppression. Supporters of Israeli expansion know this, and they use divestments to distract us from the primary issues at stake to focus instead on other irrelevancies.

There is no longer any doubt that Israel continues to commit flagrant war crimes, ignore international law, and terrorize the Palestinian population. We must continue to focus and speak out on these issues, stop the boycotts against Israel, and support the international consensus for a two-state solution.

Update: Just so it’s absolutely clear: despite my disagreement over these issues, I am very appreciative of the work these people have done and continue to do to support Palestine and ending oppression. The work they do is important and noble; they do a great service to the SCSU community and help the cause of solidarity with those who suffer injustice. As Amber points out to me, even those who support the freedom of Palestine have differing opinions on how best to accomplish it. I continue to stand by these professors and students who seek to raise awareness on this important issue.

On the Iraq War Monday, Sep 28 2009 

It seems I haven’t written thing about the Iraq War on this blog. I always thought I had, since it seems like an obvious topic. (I have, however, discussed the use of torture by President Bush as a result of this war.) I even have a post on the Afghanistan War. (Many consider the case for the Afghanistan War much stronger than the Iraq War. Indeed it is, but only marginally; both wars are fundamentally wrong.)

I could approach the Iraq War in the same way I approached the Afghanistan War. Namely, if something is wrong for others, then it is equally wrong for us. That is the idea of moral universalism, which every respectable moral theory has at its core. See my post on the Afghanistan War for more on moral universalism and its application to U.S. foreign policy. The justification for the Iraq War fails in the same regard. I can speak more on this if anyone is interested.

There is clearly a lot to say about the Iraq War and a lot can be said about why it was wrong. I cannot possibly cover all of these but I will try to cover some of what I feel are important points.

Let’s look at some of those justifications, a lot of which were provided in in a discussion at the SCSU Scholars blog (updated link) regarding President Obama’s foreign policy. The first justification is that most of Congress and some of the international “coalition” (mainly the West) supported President Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq. But this is trivial to the question of whether it is right or wrong. If 51% of Congress supported the genocide of a population, would that make it justifiable? Certainly not. The rightness of response is not dictated by Congress (or a coalition, for that matter). Conservative critics often lambast Congress and the President for the laws they pass, but when it comes to war they automatically get it right? No, because, again, rightness is independent of Congressional mandates.

Second, it should also be considered that the American public and the rest of the world was blatantly lied to by Bush and his administration. “Lie” implies the knowledge of truth and stating a deliberate falsehood contrary to that truth, and indeed this is what occurred in order to sell the war in Iraq. That’s virtually without doubt. The Downing Street memo, “the smoking gun,” clearly demonstrated that Bush wanted to dispose of Saddam Hussein on the grounds of WMDs and terrorist links but had to knowingly lie to the American public to do so (it should be clear to everyone that both of these are patent falsehoods). Add to that the Manning Memo, the 2004 document leaks in the UK, the Bush-Aznar memo, the Niger uranium forgeries, or Ron Suskind’s pile of evidence that Bush and his administration orchestrated the war in Iraq long before 2003 and had fabricated evidence or misled the public to do so. What you have is a clear case that the justification, the primary rationale given by Bush’s administration, was contrived and deliberately used to mislead the American public and the rest of the world to get them on board the hawkish agenda. So even when a majority of people agree with you, that’s a void point when those people have been duped.

Another point used to justify the war is that the fact that Bush and no one from his administration has been indicted or tried for any of their actions shows that their actions were right. This is another nonsense argument. Even if we look at the more generous example of O.J. Simpson, who was in fact tried, we do not say his murdering of his wife is justified (and it’s clear he did). (Also, morality is not dictated by law. I can do something morally wrong even if it’s not against the law.) But the fact that Bush has not been tried says nothing about the rightness of response (again). In fact, what it does show is how hypocritical we are. This goes back to the idea of moral universalism. If war of aggression is the “supreme crime” for one, then it also is for Bush. That Bush has not been tried says a lot about who we are as a people, but little about the justification for war in Iraq.

Perhaps the strongest justification the hawks have in defense of the Iraq War is that it resulted in the disposal of Saddam Hussein, who we all agree was a dictator who committed terrible atrocities. (It should, however, be noted that he did so with full support from the U.S.) This is the argument that Bush and his administration switched to when it became glaringly obvious to the world that the primary justifications given for the war were completely invalid. This is the utilitarianism argument, which says the Iraq War was right because it saved more lives than it ended, got rid of a dictator, etc. I personally believe utilitarianism is a shoddy moral theory for reasons I’ve laid out in other posts on this blog, but it should be mentioned that even some utilitarians would disagree with this assessment. They may argue that overall utility has decreased because of the war (or at least was not maximized), and I feel they would be correct in saying so. Rule utilitarians might also claim that invasions and occupations such as these, as a general rule, do not maximize utility, and I feel they would also be correct in saying so.

But does the ousting of Saddam really make this war justifiable and does it make legal? The answer is no. The UN is actually very specific in their charter: “The Security Council shall determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, and shall make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42” where “measures not involving the use of armed force” are preferred. The exception is Article 51, which allows for self-defense until the Security Council can respond. So that’s what the international community agrees with. It’s clear the U.S. war in Iraq fails to meet this requirement. In 2004, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General at that time, declared, “From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, [the war] was illegal.” Not only is this war blatantly illegal, it is considered the supreme war crime because it encompasses all the evil that follows from it: “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Richard Perle, the former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee under Bush (and about as conservative as you can get), even admits the war is illegal, but he says it was justified. The argument now is that the war is illegal but justified. Indeed, it’s possible for morally right actions to exist even if they are contrary to written law. But was the war justified? If it is not even justified from the utilitarian perspective, then it’s certainly going to be hard to justify! (By the way, if it was right to invade and occupy Iraq, it could certainly be said it is equally right for a country to invade and occupy the U.S.) Deontologically, people often use “just war theory” to determine whether a war is just or not (both the criteria to enter into war and how the war is conducted once it is entered into). I think just war theory is a bit dubious, but even this theory makes it clear that the Iraq War is not just. Just war theory states that nations have the right to defend against aggression, but in this case that would apply to Iraq, not the U.S. The war in Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with self-defense (Iraq could not even defend itself).

The question to answer now is, “Where do we go from here?” I think it’s fairly clear. The U.S. has the obligation to withdraw from the nation and pay massive reparations to the Iraqi people. That’s what it ought to do. Second, we also have the obligation to hold the guilty responsible for their crimes. Will that ever happen? I seriously doubt it because we fail to rise to even a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for others is wrong for us too.

One of the worst terrorist attacks in human history Monday, Sep 14 2009 

In a world politics course I have with professor Aref Hassan, we were discussing some aspects of World War II today. In discussing the evilness of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime, Dr. Hassan also made the point that deliberately creating a weapon for the sole purpose of maximizing human death (i.e. the atomic bomb) is also evil. I’m glad he raised the point. One student, a bit older and seemingly knowledgeable of WWII events and military history in general (I believe he served in military), replied by stating that, because it may have led to fewer American casualties, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 was justifiable. Was it?

As I pointed out in my last post on moral universalism, namely as it applies to U.S. foreign policy, there’s an easy way to judge this. And that’s to ask yourself whether what is right or wrong for is us also right or wrong for others. That is, do we apply to ourselves, at a minimum, the same standards we apply to others? Well, let’s do a thought experiment. Suppose Nazi Germany, which was also attempting to develop a nuclear weapon, decided to drop atomic bombs on, say, Minneapolis and Boston. Despite murdering hundreds of thousands and leaving many more to succumb to the brutal effects of nuclear fallout, the Nazis defend it, saying it ended the war and prevented many Nazi casualties. Would anyone accept this?

No one accepts that argument. Okay, so we do not even rise to a minimal level of morality and, as I quoted Chomsky in my earlier post, “those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” But let’s try to talk about the appropriateness of the response anyway.

Would it be right for anyone to massacre, through the deliberate targeting of civilian cities, hundreds of thousands of civilians and innocent people with the justification of it saving more lives than it ended? (This is a more generous argument since the original one only states that combat deaths were reduced through the bombing; we can be even more generous and simply ask if it is right under any circumstance.) This is the utilitarian approach for justifying terrorism. (But this accepts the conclusion that it saved more lives and ended the war. One should not accept this conclusion so easily, as we know the war was already in its last throes and was militarily unnecessary according to numerous authorities. This was more about showing might and instilling terror than it was about military objectives.) As I pointed out in my discussion of President Bush’s use of torture against human beings, there have been attempts by some to justify evil and human rights abuses with the utilitarian argument that it’s right because it ultimately saves lives. As I said, accepting this principle also means we must accept the “repugnant conclusions” that come with it, including accepting the most heinous and monstrous crimes against humanity if doing so saves more lives than it ends. Murdering one innocent human being, for example, is right if it possibly saves two more. That’s not something most people are willing to do. Most people, instead, accept that some things are simply always wrong to do, no matter what, including the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.

This idea is manifested in the numerous international laws and treaties, not the least of which include the Geneva Conventions or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that outlaw the deliberate targeting of civilians during war or killing of innocent human beings (i.e. murder). So, yes, President Truman committed a grave war crime and it being “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.” Was it terrorism? In fact, it’s one the clearest examples of state terrorism. How do we define terrorism? There are a lot of definitions; the U.S. defines it as “to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…” The U.N. also has multiple definitions, one of which include “criminal acts, including against civilians, committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages, with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act.” So, yes, the U.S., under the auspices of President Truman, committed a heinous act of terrorism, and one of the worst in human history.

Howard Zinn, a historian, champion of liberty and author of A People’s History of the United States, writes, “if the word ‘terrorism’ has a useful meaning (and I believe it does, because it marks off an act as intolerable, since it involves the indiscriminate use of violence against human beings for some political purpose), then it applies exactly to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” This becomes plainly obvious when we consider the masterminds of this attack did so in order to instill the maximum amount of terror in the civilians of Japan and not for combat or military purposes. What’s more, writes Mark Seldon, the bombings “broke the fragile remaining taboos on civilian bombing. This deployment of air power against civilians would become the centerpiece of all subsequent U.S. wars, a practice in direct contravention of the Geneva principles, and cumulatively the single most important example of the use of terror in twentieth century warfare. As we mourn the 2,800 victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks, including Americans and citizens of more than twenty countries, we should simultaneously recall the millions of civilians who have been victims of American bombing and other acts of terror during and after World War II.”

The double standard in foreign policy Thursday, Sep 3 2009 

In light of my recent post on the economic liberalization policies during the 1980s and onwards, I was hoping to discuss what is today being referred to “globalization.” Something else has been on the top of my mind lately, however, so that post will wait. What I wish to discuss instead is something that I have referred to numerous times on blog, which is the idea of moral universalism and specifically as it relates to U.S. foreign policy.

I promised someone a while ago I would discuss the Afghanistan War, and unfortunately I have been putting that off (along with most other issues dealing with foreign policy). The issue, in fact, is fairly complex but is one that can be simplified in terms of discussing the morality of it. The simple question we ought to ask ourselves, at all times, is whether what is right or wrong for us also right or wrong for others?

This is a very simple moral question and deals with what’s called moral universality. Namely, we should apply to ourselves the standards we place on others. I think Noam Chomsky, a leading and influential public intellectual, offers a good description of this moral principle: “… the principle of universality: if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others — more stringent ones, in fact — plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.” He explains, “Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its core somehow.” So, back to the question, do we follow this basic moral principle?

The answer to the question is a resounding no. This is plainly evident from my discussion of Israeli and U.S. war crimes in Palestine. It’s merely assumed, by virtue, that U.S. is allowed if not obligated to violate international law and human rights. I referenced something U.S. Justice Robert Jackson said during the Nuremberg Trials that also deals with the idea of moral universalism: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

But this is something that cannot even be comprehended in the United States, even among intellectuals. Saying we should apply some basic standards to ourselves (minimally, those we apply to others) would be considered absurd in some circles, if comprehended at all. For example, some people use the September 11, 2001, attacks as the justification for criminal wars and occupations of two destitute countries. Is that the correct response to terrorism? Well, let’s ask what standards we place on others. How should the myriad countries, usually poor and defenseless, across the globe react to Western state terrorism? Let’s take the extreme yet uncontroversial example of the United States’ terror campaign that President Reagan launched against Nicaragua, which left tens of thousands dead and its economy in ruins even to this day. Who of those advocating the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq also advocate the bombing of Washington by Nicaragua? Who in the 1980s was saying Nicaragua should declare war against the U.S.? Would Nicaragua have the right to targeted assassinations of our terrorist leaders and those who support them? The answers lead us, invariably, to the conclusion that what’s right for us is wrong for them. We cannot even rise to a minimal moral standard in which we can say what’s wrong for them is wrong for us too.

A President who tortured Thursday, May 14 2009 

No longer can we say torture is a practice reserved for the most brutal and callous regimes of human history; the practitioners of this grotesque and macabre technique now include the likes of a constitutional liberal democracy. I am, of course, referring to the Bush administration’s use of torture on detainees being held in the Guantanamo Bay internment camp in Cuba. There is no longer any doubt that torture was an interrogation technique—or perhaps just a sadistic pastime activity—used against so-called “enemy combatants,” some as young as 15, under the auspices and approval of the highest echelons of the Bush administration. A technique most commonly practiced by tyrants and despots, the use of torture has left an indelible mark on America’s global and moral standing.

Memos released by the Obama administration have showed us the extent to which these interrogation techniques were used—one suspect was waterboarded some 183 times within a month. One favorite argument of the contrarians, though, is that waterboarding does not constitute torture. However, if we take the definition of torture provided by the United Nations’ 1984 Convention Against Torture, then we easily see that waterboarding constitutes torture under international law. Just about every expert and authority who has spoken on the matter has confirmed this. (The reason is because waterboarding simulates death by drowning, can cause sever physical pain, and can result in death.) Furthermore, if we take the definition provided by U.S. law (18 United States Code Title 18, §2340), we again see that waterboarding is categorically impermissible under U.S. law. Likewise, this has been confirmed by several American government institutions, including the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Defense, the Supreme Court, the Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, and the military. One notable exemption to this list was the Bush White House.

After admitting waterboarding is torture, another argument used by the contrarians is that “you cannot play fair with an unfair enemy.” This is a rubbish argument based on the fallacy that two wrongs make a right. It is the idea that you can somehow justify a reprehensible action by pointing to another wrong action. Of course, this goes against our idea of moral universalism, which says that what is wrong for others must also be wrong for us. “Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil,” asserts Noam Chomsky. So, I ask, since when has it been OK to mimic the despots of Nazi Germany under Hitler, communist Russia under Stalin, communist Cambodia under Pol Pot, military-ruled Chile under Pinochet, or secular Iraq under Saddam? Do they represent the ideals we strive for, or were these people not the very enemies of America we sought to destroy? I wonder how these contrarians reconcile with the idea that they justify going to war under the pretense these people’s inhumanity but support their own government in doing the same.

The final argument the contrarians pose after they realize that waterboarding is both inherently wrong and illegal is that it produces life-saving results. The facts say otherwise. Not only does the vast academic, medical, and legal literature on the subject dispel the myth that “torture works,” but we also know now that even in these specific instances it did not work. Some of them might to point to a foiled plot to attack the Library Tower in L.A., despite the fact the plot was thwarted long before any interrogation even took place. Moreover, Ali Soufan, the FBI interrogator who interrogated Abu Zubaydah, stated recently that all the useful information was extracted from him prior to his torture. The contrarians, naturally, ignore this fact because it evinces the point that experts and research have been making for a long time now. Not only does it not work, it undermines our efforts to combat terrorism. But we should ask ourselves, even if we do assume their argument that torture works, would their decidedly utilitarian approach be justified? Surprisingly, Hollywood was able to produce a profoundly true dialog on torture that remains relevant even today. What we can be sure of is that if we accept the utilitarian approach, we would also have to accept the most heinous and monstrous crimes against humanity if doing so saves more lives than it ends. Most people simply are not ready to accept that burden, and rightly so.

Now, however, we’ve been hearing that the Obama administration won’t be prosecuting those responsible for carrying out and approving the torture. This is a grave mistake. We must hold those responsible accountable for their actions, as with any crime. That is the role of the Executive. After all, we have prosecuted those responsible for waterboarding in the past (Yukio Asano and Edwin Glenn, e.g.). Teddy Roosevelt, typically considered an American icon, took a decidedly opposite approach in dealing with those who waterboarded insurgents in the Philippines: “The president desires to know in the fullest and most circumstantial manner all the facts, nothing being concealed and no man for any reason favored or shielded. For the very reason that the president intends to back up the Army in the heartiest fashion in every lawful and legitimate method of doing its work; he also intends to see that the most vigorous care is exercised to detect and prevent any cruelty or brutality and that men who are guilty thereof are punished. Great as the provocation has been in dealing with foes who habitually resort to treachery, murder and torture against our men, nothing can justify or will be held to justify the use of torture or inhuman conduct of any kind on the part of the American Army.”

As I’ve stated earlier, here and elsewhere, universality is a critically important principle. U.S. Justice Robert Jackson made a point of this at the Nuremberg Trials, at which he was the chief of counsel for the prosecution. He stated: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them. And we are not prepared to lay down the rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us. We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.” Though people would like to think otherwise and like to claim saying so is shockingly anti-American and unpatriotic, we too have drank from that poisoned chalice. War crimes of this magnitude simply cannot go unpunished. Justice Jackson correctly pointed out that not prosecuting future crimes against humanity would render the Nuremberg Trials farcical. We cannot let that happen.

Gaza 2009 casualties Friday, Feb 20 2009 

In an unfortunate post to his blog, King Banaian, a professor of economics at SCSU, describe the Gazan casualties in the 2009 U.S.-Israeli offensive not as victims but rather as terrorists deserving to die.

Currently, there are two or three conflicting accounts of causalities for this latest attack.

The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), a nongovernmental organization, places the death toll at 1,284. The PCHR says that 894 (70%) of the dead were civilians (280 of which were children and minors under the age of 17, and 111 were women). So what about the other 390 dead? PCHR says 167 (43%) of them were civil police. This means 233 (17%) of all the dead were Hamas militant combatants. (Hamas claims this number is only 158.) The PCHR also claims 4,336 were wounded, most of whom were civilians.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health (PMoH) has slightly different numbers. They claim 1,324 people died during the attack, with most being civilians, and a total of 5,400 were injured. (Source.)

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), Israel’s military, however have come up with different numbers. The IDF claims it has been able to identify 1,200 of the 1,338 (?) claimed to have been killed. Of 1,200 that they’ve identified, the IDF claims 580 (48%) “had been conclusively ‘incriminated’ as members of Hamas and other terrorist groups.” The IDF also claim 300 (25%) of these 1,200 dead were “women, children aged 15 and younger and men over the age of 65.” (Note the difference in the definitions of “minor.”) The IDF says, though, that some of these women were actually terrorist fighters. This leaves 320 unaccounted for. The IDF says these are all men. (Source.) Of course, we know not all men are combatants. The IDF seems to disagree. I also assume this means they have not been able to identify the additional 124 the PMoH claim were killed. Unfortunately, the IDF does not discriminate between a civilian police force and military combatants. Police are meant to keep the peace and enforce laws–they are a branch of civilian emergency services, like paramedics and firemen. There is no more justification for counting police forces as non-collateral damage than there is for a businessman, a nurse, a teacher, or any other ordinary civilian.

The Israeli casualties don’t seem to be in dispute. It’s been reported that 13 Israelis have died, 3 (23%) of whom were civilians; the other 10 were soldiers (four of these soldiers were killed by friendly fire). However, Hamas claims they killed at least 80 Israeli soldiers. It was also reported that 518 Israelis were wounded, 336 (65%) of whom were soldiers and 182 (35%) who were civilians.

So whose numbers do we go with? Well, we could go with the IDF, which is generally recognized as a component of the Israeli propaganda system, but usually quoted by the U.S. media nonetheless. Or we could go with the group that is affiliated with the International Commission of Jurists and has won two European human rights awards (1996 French Republic Award on Human Rights and the 2002 Bruno Kreisky Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Area of Human Rights). In fact, it is the Palestinian’s numbers that are used by the UN and the Red Cross; an Under-Secretary General of the UN says the Palestinian numbers are not even seriously disputed.

But the numbers simply act to reinforce what we already know, which is that Israel does not abide by the principle of distinction or proportionality, not to mention the illegality in launching their attacks in the first place. In fact, we always find very high rates of civilian casualties wherever the IDF goes. Gaza is just the latest example. There are plenty more, which are even more agreed upon. The IDF always attacks civilians targets. Naturally, this causes tremendous amounts of damage to the infrastructure, which usually goes unreported.

SCSU University Chronicle & Israel Thursday, Feb 19 2009 

It appears the University Chronicle, the student-run newspaper for St. Cloud State University, has abandoned all journalistic integrity.

First, some background information: On February 11, 2009, two SCSU HURL (human relations) professors, Drs. Slisli and Tademe, led a panel along with some students to discuss the plight of Palestine from a decidedly pro-Palestinian viewpoint. Their objective, as far as I could tell, was to discuss some of the issues that most Americans don’t get to hear about from their own media. Within the first few minutes of their program, Dr. Edelheit, a professor of philosophy and the director of Religious and Jewish Studies, interrupted them in an outburst, demanding that the panel explain the juxtaposition of Gaza images and Warsaw images on a promotional poster for the event. The panel rebuffed the shouting professor and refused to continue until the professor calmed himself or left the room. After realizing his efforts were fruitless, Dr. Edelheit left the room and the panel went on with their discussion. (It should be noted that the panel did respond to questioners after they finished the presentation, regarding the poster and the images they chose to use.)

On February 18, Dr. Edelheit hosted his own forum on Gaza in order to present his side of the Gaza conflict, but mostly to explain his anger over the images used in the aforementioned poster. He stated that he invited the two HURL professors, who did not respond to his invitation; they were not present at his forum.

(On February 12, the University Chronicle published a letter I wrote regarding Israel’s war crimes in Palestine, that was completely separate of and written before the February 11 panel’s discussion. It can be read here.) (Link fixed.)

In the February 16 publication of the University Chronicle, the editorial board–consisting of Ali Tweten, Joey LeMay, Paul Crawford, and Andy Downs–wrote a diatribe on the panel’s discussion of massive human rights violations taking place in Palestine. “An environment that actively suppresses opposing viewpoints is misleading to its audience, creates polarizing results, and causes problems rather debates possible solutions [sic],” they wrote.

Sure, I think we can all agree to that. But it does not apply to the panel’s discussion of U.S.-Israel and Palestine. If anyone, it would apply to Dr. Edelheit who very purposefully disrupted the program so that they could not present their discussion to the audience that was all too eager to get a new perspective on the very important issue. It was Dr. Edelheit who was showing his contempt for the audience by prohibiting the panel from discussing and presenting their case. In his own presentation on the topic, Dr. Edelheit admitted he knew full well what he was doing and that he acted very deliberately (“I did disrupt, quite willfully”). As I already wrote in a letter I sent to the Chronicle, published in the February 19 edition, the professor’s actions were completely unbecoming for a professor of this institution. Excuses for Dr. Edelheit’s actions and behavior have no merit and have been repeatedly dismissed by a majority of people who have spoken on the issue.

Nonetheless, the editorial board continued: “The United States’ role as peace negotiator is crucial, as it is utterly impossible to envision lasting peace between Israel and Palestine without the U.S. endorsing, helping implement, and standing by a proposed agreement. But coming up with an agreement for long-lasting peace has proven difficult, especially when we give our attention to only one side.”

Let me first address the first sentence. It actually shows, quite clearly, the contempt the editorial board has for Palestinians and their right to self-determination. They basically parrot the U.S. government’s stance on the issue, which is that the U.S. owns the world and anything that goes on in a region that interests us has to go through us first. This is unimaginable to most sane and rational human beings, as it flies completely in the face of self-determination, which states that nations and peoples should have the freedom to make choices and determine their future without external pressure and demands. However, as a world superpower, the U.S. and, apparently, the University Chronicle editorial board believe we have the right to dictate the existence of other people.

(I should note that it was in the very rare exception to U.S. rejectionism that Israel and Palestine got the closest they’ve ever been to resolving the long-standing conflict. I am, of course, referring to Taba, 2001–before Israel pulled out and abandoned the negotiations, that is. It is actually very easy to envision a peaceful Israel and Palestine without the interference of the U.S. In fact, that is the only possible way to move forward on this issue. For those who see the U.S. as needing to impose its will on others, this is not an option.)

But the editorial board brings up a good point in that second sentence I quoted. When we give our attention to only one side, it is very difficult to come up with rational and pragmatic solutions. But this is exactly all the U.S. media, including the University Chronicle, do. They present one side, which is unconditionally favorable to Israel and the United States. They mimic longstanding American beliefs that we, or Israel, can do no wrong; that what is right for Israel is right for the United States; and that Israel and the United States are unjustly criticized. I made a point about this, actually, in my letter to the newspaper that was published in the February 12 edition. I quoted Noam Chomsky, who wrote the following: “The basic doctrine is that Israel has been a hapless victim of terrorism, of military attack, of implacable and irrational hatred. . . . Israel is sometimes chided for its response to terrorist attack, a reaction that is deemed wrong though understandable. The belief that Israel may have had a substantial role in initiating and perpetuating violence and conflict is expressed only far from the mainstream, as a general rule.” This, though written nearly 30 years ago, is still the predominant view that is expressed by the media and the U.S. government. And, as the editorial board pointed out, this “is misleading to its audience, creates polarizing results, and causes problems rather [than] debates [on] possible solutions.”

Okay, so the editorial board has merely expressed its opinion, however ignorant it may be. I agree, this is perfectly acceptable in a free and just society that is supposed to pride itself on free speech. However, when the Chronicle to decided to publish a story on the Gaza issue and Dr. Edelheit’s presentation in the February 19 edition, they chose no other than Joey LeMay, the same student who espoused quite clearly his contempt of Palestinians and ignorance on the issue just a few days earlier. In fact, the Chronicle deliberately decided not to publish an article on the first panel discussion that spelled out the atrocities taking place in Palestine; but they chose to publish, very prominently as the lead story, only Dr. Edelheit’s position on the issue. But what should we have expected from the author who just days earlier attacked said panel? This is a pretty good vindication of Chomsky’s point and shows quite clearly the overwhelming bias there is in favor of U.S.-Israeli war crimes in Palestine.

The type of ignorance the editorial board and others display is the exact reason I, along with others, have called for a more reasoned debate on the issue. All too often one side is presented, which is the U.S.-Israeli side, naturally. I would be more than willing to sit vis-à-vis Dr. Edelheit and debate the real issues that affect Palestinians and Israelis and anyone else who believes Israel is justified in committing grave war crimes against the Palestinian people. If the HURL professors who led first panel are unwilling to engage in open discourse with their dissenters, then I think there should be a student-led dialog on the issue, as there are clearly very vocal proponents of both sides, and this should include Dr. Edelheit and any other professor if they so choose.

Update: Joey LeMay wrote a defense for his and the Chronicle’s actions in an April 30 editorial. I wrote a response to his defense on this blog, here.

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