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                                       politics + culture

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Fallujah, Gaza, Tyre

My thoughts circle back to certain moments: waking before dawn in California on successive days and hearing Ivan Watson's reporting on civilian deaths in Tyre (here and here), the missile hole burned through the top of a Red Cross ambulance in a newspaper photo glanced at my cafe, the bitter debate and rift at that same cafe between a Polish / Israeli / Jewish-American friend of mine and a progressive Pacifica-listening / Znet-reading friend of mine...

and NPR Baghdad reporter Jamie Tarabay's unforgettable and ghastly reporting last weekend about the retrieval of bodies from the Tigris in Iraq.

These are potent stories and images and discussions. And before one's thoughts coalesce, before one's convictions harden impressions into conclusions, it seems to me that there's a responsibility simply to witness, on a human level, the bloodshed, the destruction, the loss of life, the disruption that has been visited in the Middle East on all sides these last weeks and months and years.

I inscribe the title of this essay with the names of Fallujah, Gaza and Tyre, however, to make three points.

First, it's clear that the prevailing mindset of a group whose set can only be described as the governments, citizenry and the media of Israel, the United States and Great Britain have come to see "collective responsibility" in response to terrorism as a justifiable reason to visit wholesale destruction upon a civilian population and infrastructure, whether in Palestine, Lebanon or Iraq. These three nations all possess the means, the "joint arms" of air power, artillery, and armor, that allow them (and by that I mean "us" really) to destroy a city at will. Confronted with enemies as disparate as Iraqi insurgents, Gaza militias or the more organized, and multi-national Hezbollah, it is indisputable that the militaries of our three nations are still disproportionately powerful. We are capable of a response many times greater in magnitude that what we have suffered. And such responses have become the signature of what is known as the "war on terror."

What's more, and more significant to this point, the citizens of the democracies of Israel, the United States and Great Britain have not held their leaders and militaries accountable for actually engaging in this disproportionate response. By and large, we have not demanded accountability even as these responses bear a heavy cost in civilian life and impose "collective responsibility" on a city or region. Simply put, there really has been no domestic political cost when a military says, as Israel did with Tyre, and the United States did with Fallujah: all civilians must leave this city now, and then proceed to bomb that city's infrastructure to the ground at great cost of civilian life, including those fleeing the destruction.

It goes without saying that civilians are guilty only of being residents of where they live; women and children are "guilty" of nothing. International law has very specific things to say about this matter, but this hardly seems to merit mention in the press. The "collective punishment" of civilians seems to have become an acceptable response to terror...or, more accurately, the perceived and misperceived "threat" of terror. One wonders how those who really know all the facts can even look in the mirror. The United States does not even officially track civilian deaths in Iraq. In all this, there is the violation of a basic principle that has both moral and common sense. As in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, it pays to remember that no nation should visit on others what they could never countenance done to themselves.

Take Fallujah. Operation Phantom Fury, the U.S./Iraqi assault in November of 2004, resulted in 90% of that city's 300,000 residents fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced persons. One year after the assault, this assessment made clear how the entire citizenry of Fallujah paid an enormous ongoing price for the actions of a very few. Residents are permitted to return only if they submit to biometric scanning. Think about that. How many civilians died in Fallujah? How many more have died as a result of displacement and the destruction of infrastructure? Why was Operation Phantom Fury undertaken with nary a question about its methods raised in the United States Congress or press? Given that the United States, in partnership with the nascent government of Iraq and Great Britain, has only stood idly by as thousands are murdered in ethnic bloodletting in Baghdad every month, what was the motive, the justification, for levelling Fallujah? What was gained?

Second, there is an enormous gulf in support with the rest of the world faced with these disproportionate military actions. Is it any wonder that other European nations are unwilling to send UN peacekeeping forces to Lebanon? (Something, nevertheless, that I think would be a good idea for many reasons.) Is it any surprise that the United States is mired in Iraq with almost zero support from nations other than Great Britain?

When an Apache attack helicopter (U.S.-made and supplied) launches a laser-guided missile (U.S.-made and supplied) that rips into a vanload of civilians fleeing Tyre in Lebanon or rifles down a crowded street in Gaza, how is it that the citizens of Israel and the United States cannot seem to understand the perception that image creates around the world?

There's been much talk about this gulf...especially the blindness and counter-productiveness on the part of Israel and the United States. But what strikes me in the current conflict in Lebanon is how much the United States and Israel have tactically and philosophically become one. How is Tyre different from Fallujah? How could the United States hold Israel accountable to standards that it does not follow itself? And why should Israel, in direct defense of its borders, not engage in tactics already embraced by the United States? How do the citizens of these two nations not see that they have played into a cycle of violence which they cannot ever win? Do we not realize our harshness and lack of regard play right into the hands of those who seek to recruit others to a philosophy of terror?

Something deeper and more fundamental is at the core of this: an emerging mindset.

My third and final point is the conclusion that human life is not valued nor respected equally by these three nations, not in the Middle East, and not in the rest of the world. And, at the dawn of the 21st century, it is clear that this mindset must not be allowed to prevail, especially on the part of these democracies, or we will all go down in flames.

Israel, the United States and Great Britain have all been the victims of violence against their citizens. Those who perpertrated these acts had very specific ideologies and motivations; but these perpetrators were not the whole of the Middle East or the Muslim World. Not even close.

As it stands, however, the net sum of the actions in Gaza and Lebanon and Iraq send one clear message to the world as a whole. The United States, Great Britain and Israel in acting out military strikes that coldly inflict "collective punishment" on civilians in the Middle East do not value the lives of those civilians. That is the message we send to the world.

So, my final question is this. What if we started from the opposite point of view? What if we looked at the world as a whole...including Fallujah, Gaza and Tyre...as made up of our equals? What if our actions and reactions...even reactions to the very real evils visited upon our citizens...were based upon that philosophy?

More to the point, what if we treated others, especially the citizens of nations where we are in a very real battle for hearts and minds, in the way we would want to be treated ourselves?


  • Our behavior in this is not exactly explained by, but certainly, shall I say, colored by, our history of racism -- this country was founded on the principle that some humans were more human than other humans. We have more power and more reach with which to enforce that point today. The problem of the 21st Century is still, in part, the problem of the color line.

    By Blogger janinsanfran, at 8:43 PM  

  • Wow - you just said what I have not been able to articulate this entire week.

    By Anonymous Archana, at 9:22 PM  

  • I often feel so hopeless and useless about these violent disasters that the only thing I can do is be a witness, and do research, and find out everything I can about why this is happening.

    By Anonymous Blissing, at 12:17 AM  

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