You Can’t Selectively Pay Attention To Certain Atrocities And Ignore All The Others

How is it possible to be outraged by Hamas killings of Israeli children, but ignore or rationalize the killing of Gazan children?

Let’s imagine I described World War II to you like this: it was a conflict in which the United States, Britain, and their allies unleashed horrific bombing campaigns on cities around the world. In Hamburg, Berlin, and Dresden, thousands upon thousands of civilians were massacred, their homes destroyed. In Japan, the U.S. firebombed numerous cities, creating unspeakable suffering not just for soldiers but for children and the elderly, culminating in the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities. All told, the Allies killed millions of people. 

I assume you would notice that this is not, in fact, a fair description of World War II, because it entirely leaves out the context of these actions, presenting the massacres of civilians as if they were done out of pure bloodlust that came on randomly. The above depiction leaves out German and Japanese aggression. The whole cause of the war is simply excluded from view. Even if you think that Allied bombing campaigns against German and Japanese cities were criminal and wrong (as I do), we can’t just totally exclude the fact that the U.S. was attacked by Japan, and Germany declared war on us. A description that excludes the aggression that brought about the war makes us all more ignorant. It’s just propaganda.

I invoke this comparison not to compare anyone today to particular participants in the Second World War, but rather to demonstrate a basic principle: if you want to assess the moral claims of parties in a war, you cannot just single out a particular atrocity and set aside everything else that happened before and after. We might still come to the conclusion that the particular atrocity was horrendous and unjustified. But to know which side is the aggressor requires more comprehensive analysis. “World War II was a war in which the United States bombed Germany to smithereens” is a technically true statement but entirely useless without understanding what Germany was doing at the same time.

The Israel-Palestine conflict has recently erupted in shocking, hideous violence. Hamas has crossed into Israel, where its soldiers massacred over a thousand Israelis. Now Israel is taking vengeance and has promised to wipe out Hamas entirely. The brutality of Hamas’ attack was extreme. Civilians were attacked in their homes on Israeli kibbutzim and massacred by the score in scenes that were compared with historical anti-Jewish pogroms. 

The attacks are being cited as proof that Hamas is as evil as it is possible to be. The intentional mass killing of civilians is an unthinkable crime. And indeed, it seems inhuman to ask the question “But what was the context of the attacks?” since it seems like no conceivable context could justify or explain such horrific violence. Note first, though, that in the United States we often apply different standards to ourselves, noting context  when convenient: shown the piles of bodies at Hiroshima, the first thing an American will typically do is put the attack in context, and argue that what looks like an unthinkable crime was a tragic necessity to achieve a more important objective. For Americans, the ends justified the means, even when the “means” in question involved incinerating innocent civilians by the tens of thousands, in intentional killings that dwarfed Hamas’ recent crimes.1 

If we only look at certain acts of barbarity, and ignore other related ones, we are not conducting an honest evaluation of a given situation. In Israel-Palestine, for instance, it is possible to look at Hamas’ horrific attack and say “This is disgusting. Nobody should ever wipe out a civilian population to achieve a political end.” There are confirmed reports that Hamas murdered children and the elderly alike, which are cited as proof that Hamas reached the very depths of human evil. 

But those who wish to frame the conflict as morally uncomplicated should be careful about citing the killing of childrens their proof. Israel’s air strikes against Gaza regularly kill children, and I can assure you that you do not want to see what a child’s body looks like after a bomb hits it. Those outraged by Hamas’ brutality should remember that if “deadly violence against children” is our standard for depravity, it indicts Israel as well.

Consider this news story about internal conflicts at MSNBC, which has been reportedly been sidelining Muslim American hosts:

After an NBC editorial employee asked about whether the network should discuss the historical context of the conflict, a colleague from the company’s tech team jumped into the comments. “Context? For burning babies in their beds? This is just about evil acts done by evil people for evil reasons,” the NBCU tech employee said. “Moral clarity.” 

And yet: if we cited examples of Gazan children who have been burned in their beds after bombs were dropped on their homes, or who were blown to bits on a beach, and we said that “moral clarity” meant describing this as “evil,” would this person accept that verdict? Would they sympathize with those who thirsted for revenge after witnessing the carnage? I suspect that, instead, they would be quick to demand the very “context” that supposedly muddies the “moral clarity” of condemning the killing of children. 

Of course, one anticipated response is that while Hamas killed civilians intentionally, Israel only ever does so by accident. Consider, however, what this argument sounds like to Gazans. They see bombs being dropped on apartment buildings, they recover children’s corpses from the rubble. Some may thirst for revenge and celebrate the killing of Israeli civilians. Who wants to explain to a grieving Gazan mother that Israel’s killing of her child was not the same as Hamas’ killing of an Israeli child, because Israel was aiming at a different objective when bombing her apartment? 

Gaza is being pummeled now by Israeli bombs that are turning buildings to ashes. Israel’s own photos of the destruction are disturbing. Five hundred children are reported to have died in the bombings already. More will die soon, and countless will be seriously injured and psychologically traumatized. It is not the first time this has happened. Israel’s violence against Gaza has been a constant feature of life there. When Gazans tried to protest their condition in 2018, Israeli snipers shot them dead in cold blood. Was the shooting of medics and journalists not “barbaric”? Was it not “terroristic”? (Note that Hamas is said to deploy “terrorists,” not “soldiers,” while Israel has “soldiers” even when they kill equal or greater numbers of civilians.) 

Moreover, Israel is the aggressor in the underlying conflict, because it maintains an occupation and siege against Palestine that violates basic international law. While international law does not permit violations in response to violations (meaning that Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights and sovereignty does not confer on Hamas the right to ignore the civilian/combatant distinction), Israel is not exactly “defending itself.” If I enter and occupy your house by force, and you attack me using force in response, I cannot justly claim to be engaged in mere “self-defense,” even if your own violence is grotesquely disproportionate to what the situation requires. 

A morally serious person does not just look at individual horrors perpetrated by only one party in a conflict. They look at the full facts of the conflict. Hamas’ crimes are great indeed (as a pacifist, I have zero love for Hamas and think they do terrible harm to the Palestinian cause), but here is the latest news out of Gaza:

Crowds of frantic people, some barefoot, rushed toward them, fleeing their just-destroyed homes. The ground shook with each strike from an Israeli fighter jet. “People were crying for the children they had to leave behind under the rubble,” Mr. Ahmed, 32, said. “They were begging us to go in and pull their children from the rubble — this was all they wanted, for us to go and pull their children out.”

Yesterday, 45 people were reported to have been killed after an Israeli strike on a Gaza apartment building. Eyewitness accounts from Gaza are harrowing, as people wait without water or electricity in fear of their impending deaths. 

It’s also harder than ever to argue that Israel’s killings of civilians are a mere “tragic necessity.” The country has been quite open about abandoning “precision” bombing in favor of “destruction,” with its soldiers thirsty for “revenge.” Already, more Palestianians are reported to have died in Gaza than the number of Israelis that died in Hamas’ attacks.

In the aftermath of a particular horrific act, as that thirst for vengeance takes over, it can be difficult to think straight. I remember the period after 9/11. People were angry and wanted to blow stuff up (to “put a boot in their ass” as a song of the time put it). Many Americans didn’t particularly care whether the Muslims their country ended up killing had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. And as the U.S. unleashed absolute hell on Afghanistan and Iraq, our media paid little attention to the lives taken, even when the atrocities were just as disturbing as what Al Qaeda had done to us (see, e.g., our bombing of an Afghan hospital, where patients were burned alive in their beds). In the U.S., a defining characteristic of public discourse is extreme hypocrisy, righteously condemning the terror perpetrated by other countries while either ignoring or rationalizing the terror inflicted by our own mighty military machine. Defenders of Israel are quite similar, rightly being enraged by Hamas’ killing of Israel’s children but quick to justify the equally gruesome killing of Palestinian children as a mere tragic necessity. (Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once grotesquely claimed that while Israel might “forgive the Arabs for killing our sons…it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” To which many a grieving Palestinian parent would surely answer: Who the hell forced you?) 

As an egalitarian socialist, I begin from the principle that every child counts equally. And I recognize that if you care only when certain children die, the idea that you are motivated by sympathy for children is called into question. Israel is currently carrying out acts in Gaza that are just as repellent as those committed by Hamas. It does so in the context of being the aggressor power in its conflict with Palestine. Nobody should be taken seriously who is not equally appalled by the violence rained down on Gaza as they are by the crimes recently carried out against Israel. 

  1. Note that the Allied killing of civilians in Japan and Germany was intentional, not “collateral damage.” The U.S. actually mapped Tokyo neighborhoods by their flammability to maximize the destruction. Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the chief of RAF Bomber Command, said explicitly that “The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.” 

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