Expletive, Ethics, and Emetics

July 18, 2006 | By | 11 Replies More

The president of the United States uttered an unfortunate word during a (semi)private conversation with the prime minister of Britain, while a microphone was on that shouldn’t have been (we assume) and for the whole day or so afterward every news report I heard about the content of that conversation in the context of the conference obsessive, twitchingly, refered to the “S” word.  That’s cutting edge news.

It was tiresome.  The thing is, I agreed with Bush’s sentiment.  What Hamas and Hezbollah are doing is exactly what he called it, and for there to be any progress in the Middle East it must stop.

The 80s and 90s were consumed with the politics of Israel and Palestine.  The last real front left over from the Cold War, it had become something much worse–a blood feud.  It’s bad enough when rival gangs or families or individuals indulge this sport, but when populations large enough to be considered countries do it, the only possible outcome is an international mess, one that drags all who get near it down into a cesspit of impossible dimensions.  There is no solving it because the motivations are not rational.  Those in the 30s who realized what Hitler was knew he could not be dealt with diplomatically because what he wanted and was willing to do to get it was irrational–indeed, insane–and until everyone around him was willing to admit that–including his own people–there was no solution.

Never mind now that Israel followed a program of apocalyptic paranoia between 1948 and 1993 and beyond.  It is not as if they had no rationale.  When faced with several Arab nations that subscribed, tacitly, implicitly, and explicity, to the conviction that Israel had no right to exist and should be wiped out, it is difficult to maintain equanimity.  Israel’s subsequent treatment of the Palestinians, regrettable though it was and apalling in many of its parallels to other fascist regimes, was nevertheless comprehensible.

Through the efforts of several presidents, the United Nations, and other interested parties, Israel came to a point where it was prepared to compromise.  Rabin’s death at the hands of an Israeli militant was tragic, but underscores the absolute insanity of the extremist positions.  But we go on.  They went on.

Israel is not one of my favorite countries, but it is an example of the kind of modern political problem solving that attempts to recognize the past and act for the future.  We need not rehearse here the unfortunate history of the Jewish people, except to say that, even symbolically, a country needed to be created around them as a people.  Otherwise the orphan status they carried for centuries would continue to make them vulnerable as local political scapegoats wherever they ended up in sufficient numbers.  The irrationality of the rest of the world made the situation wherein this was necessary.

And even then, it seemed, many in the world hoped they would fail.  When Britain pulled out of Palestine-cum-Israel, they left much of their military materiel in the hands of Arab groups who made their displeasure over events immediately apparent.

Enter the Cold War.  Israel became the sold representative in time of Western ideals and economic policy, virtually surrounded by aglommerations of created nations (we forget often that the “countries” of the Middle east barely existed as such before WWI and only marginally after WWII, despite what maps might have said–these were spaces in which tribes coexisted, largely without national identities of any organic coherence, a circumstance we see reflected today in the constant in-fighting among groups we in the West can barely tell apart) bent on its destruction.  The Soviet Union found fertile ground in which to deploy its policy of chaos, which is what it did as it had no sound policy for nationbuilding.  (I make that claim based on the almost complete collapse of Soviet puppet states after the Wall came down–none of them possessed the internal cohesion necessary to maintain themselves as nations and in the absence of continual Soviet “support” devolved into civil strife.  In this instance, the idea of the Strong Man had its chief successes in the Middle East where the traditions of royal families retained much of its older strength–hence the House of Saud could survive intact, centering much of Arab nationalism at least in an idea of statehood.)

Which brings me to the present crisis and the problem to be faced.  Hezbollah and Hamas both are groups with mixed legacies.  It is true that within their own communities they have often been a force for constructiveness.  But they both possess this flaw, this irrational hatred of Israel, that continually subverts everything else they might try to do that the rest of the world will give a damn about.

Time for them to grow up and get over it.

Which is the problem.  They can’t.  Their entire image of themselves is built around this casus belli.  They cannot  compromise with Israel because they would have to admit that maybe they might have been wrong.

The irony is that until very recently, our own leaders, the Bush administration, have been largely incapable of admitting the very same thing.

But it would be a mistake to harp on that now, in the face of what is shaping up to be one of the chief international problems of the 21st Century–which is the Islamicist Movement.  Moderate Muslims take pains to point out that many of these extremists are misinterpretting (a kind word in this context) Islam.  The problem is, many of those very same moderate Muslims, in seeking to find byways and alternate routes around the chokepoints of diplomacy, will not, en masse, repudiate the radical Ayatollahs and Imams.  The reason Israel finds it necessary (in their reasoning) to hit at civilian populations, is that those civilian populations protect, nurture, and support those radical elements which, one can only assume, they must implicitly agree with.

The rule of law requires that when the neighbor you grew up with and have known all our life suddenly decides to go nuts and joins a criminal group–even if you might in some sense agree with the larger political message of that group–you call the police, you turn him in, you stepo away and say “No, I’m not part of that, and you need to be in jail.”  The failure to do this leads to things like the rise of the Mafia, the “successes” of the IRA (and the UDL), and the impossibility of snuffing out terrorism before it becomes an international movement.

Until this begins to happen in a large way across the Middle East, we will have what Mr Bush labeled very accurately as “this shit.”

End of rant.


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Category: Current Events, Politics

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (11)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    To refer to the Hamas/ Hezbollah problems as "this shit" insinuates a lot. It suggests that the behavior of both Israel and Lebanon defies logic, that the deep-rooted hatred of Israel and Israel's similar distaste for the rest of the middle east seems backward, old fashioned, and ignorant. However, to look over an intricate hotbed of cultural conflict and to simply wave it away as "this shit" also implies a vast ignorance and lack of compassion for the problems of the region on Bush's part. Though I don't see why people find it surprising at this point that Bush looks at foreign policy in a simplified, self-centered way.

    Regardless of whether or not the Jewish people needed a country of their own as you said, the solution that came at the time could not have harmed more people, and set the ground for more future conflict than it did. We can certainly understand why both sides of the conflict felt raw in the first place, but now that the intolerance continues decades later, it just looks senseless. Think of this: most muslims in the middle east don't even recognize israel's existence- the palestinians still begrudging call the country "That Zionist Entity" and do not think of it as a nation-state. That demonstrates just one side of the stubborness, however. Israel commits the same crimes of illogic. It comes as no surprise, then, that such a social setup produces nothing but like-minded future generations.

  2. Jason Rayl says:

    I think very specifically it refers to opportunistically lobbing missiles across borders to protest anything. Palestinians dug a tunnel under Israeli territory, attacked an Israeli outpost, kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Perhaps Israel's method of getting that soldier back is questionable, but the response…

    This isn't about fifty years' of grievance, this is about blood feud that has gotten out of hand. Israel, too little perhaps and way late, has begun to pull back and address the issues more like a state of laws, and with each concession some faction–not the whole of Palestinians, nor the whole of anyone else, but some faction–decides on its own "that's not good enough" and muddies everything up all over again with these attacks.

    That is what I think Bush referred to. That is certainly what I mean.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason- thank you for these valuable historical observations, combined with empathy for the predicament of each side. How refreshing, to read an article about the middle east that doesn't jump to make caricatures of the diverse players.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I agree with everything Jason has said, with just one exception that I wish to explore further. That point is: "We need not rehearse here the unfortunate history of the Jewish people, except to say that, even symbolically, a country needed to be created around them as a people. Otherwise the orphan status they carried for centuries would continue to make them vulnerable as local political scapegoats wherever they ended up in sufficient numbers. The irrationality of the rest of the world made the situation wherein this was necessary."

    I think I understand this argument, but I am unable to agree with it. To me, the unfortunate history of the Jewish people does not support the argument that a country needed to be created for them. I have several reasons for this belief.

    First, history has shown that isolating a particular minority or religious group from its neighbors will generally increase, not decrease, social ills such as animosity, xenophobia, bigotry, etc. America's own 20th century history of race relations shows that the strategy of "separate but equal" is a long-term failure. Notwithstanding the contrary examples of insular groups such as the Quakers and Shakers (who avoid conflict with the outside world by other means), the one thing that has proven to decrease the aforementioned social ills is cultural integration.

    Second, if people of every other major religion on our planet can manage to get along without their own country, then why should Jewish people be any different? They are not genetically incapable of socializing or cooperating with other people. Yes, the rest of the world is irrational, but it is irrational about many things and people still manage to get along with each other; this does not lead to separate countries for every religion. To the contrary, I suspect that if there were separate countries for every religion, the human race would have exterminated itself by now. If Jews have a history of being scapegoated wherever they go, then maybe the problem is their own behavior and maybe the solution is for them to change their behavior.

    Third, if the rest of the world does have an irrational hatred of Jews, then in what way can this be reversed by locating Israel in a spot that *amplifies* the animosity against them? If the goal is to reduce worldwide anti-Semitism, and if the solution is to create a separate Jewish nation (a solution that, by itself, seems doomed to failure for the reasons I mentioned above), then wouldn't it make a whole lot more sense to at least put their country in a place with friendly neighbors? In what way does it make sense to shove their country (both literally and figuratively) directly into the faces of the people who both hate Jews the most and who have a long history of aggressive religious intolerance? Is there a worse place on the planet to put Israel, other than where it is? Imagine a hypothetical country with the extremist attitudes of Nazi German, but with a very weak military; now imagine Britain and America using their military strength to create a nation for, say, homosexuals inside that hypothetical country: would it take long for violence to occur? Would there be much hope for long-term peace? What would we say about Britain and America for putting that nation in such a location rather than someplace else (say, for instance, inside one of their own countries)?

    Bottom line: history shows both that (a) *all* religious states (i.e., theocracies) are magnets for violence and terrorism, and that (b) putting Israel in the Levant was an idiotic idea from the beginning. Sadly, everyone is paying the price for this idiotic idea: the Israelis are attacked and killed by their Arab neighbors who hate them; the Arab neighbors are attacked and killed by retaliating Israelis who are understandably sick and tired of being slaughtered; and the Allies (Brits and Americans) who put Israel there are attacked and killed by anti-Semitic terrorists around the world for doing such a stupid thing. The mess could, and should, have been easily foreseen and avoided.

    The one thing I have yet to understand is why the Isrealis (and their British and American allies) haven't done more to try to make *proactive* peace with their Arab neighbors. I'm no expert in Mid-East politics, but it seems to me that the Israelis have known from the start that their nation would be a powderbox, so why have they not put lots and lots of resources into being a good neighbor? Instead of building walls to shut the Arabs out, why have they not built schools, hospitals, food pantries, etc., for their Arab neighbors and basically done everything within their power to help share their Western prosperity with the entire region? If they had fashioned themselves as a gravy train for their neighbors, instead of…well, whatever they have fashioned themselves as…their lives today might have been a lot better. Again, I'm no expert, but it seems to me they have done more than their share of violence to create and perpetuate their blood feud with their neighbors. Things like bombing Lebanese civilians — killing 300+ and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless — simply because Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. With behavior like that, maybe the "unfortunate history" that Jason talks about is not so "irrational" after all. Again, maybe it is the Israelis who need to change their behavior, because clearly what they've been doing for the past fifty years hasn't been working.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    For more information about the devastation that Israel has inflicted on Lebanon, read how Israel's bombing of an electrical power plant has created the worst environmental disaster in Lebanon's history:

    It remains unclear to me why this level of damage was a justified response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. More to the point, it remains unclear to me how obliterating Lebanon's economy will reduce anti-Semitism, or the long-term threat of military or terrorist attacks against Israel. To the contrary, fifty years of Israeli history suggests that it will merely worsen their blood feud.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Shame on humanity for not working harder to find a better way to resolve differences without resorting to violence! Shame on us all for not publicizing unvarnished graphic images of civilians that could make so many more of us detest the thought of war and even the word “war.” Americans spend 100 times the energy shopping and amusing themselves than they do informing themselves of the ongoing tragedy, much less actively trying to prevent such horrors.

    Warning: these images from Lebanon are graphic and revolting. There’s no one who can see such images, though, and not be even more disgusted at those other recent images: those of Ms. Rice playing the piano and Mr. Bush hobnobbing with American Idol celebrities.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    NBC's "Meet the Press" program this morning featured the Israeli Ambassador to the UN. He put the *entire* blame for Lebanese civilian casualties on Hezbollah. In his mind, Israel is completely innocent, no matter how many Lebanese civilians it kills. He then said that instead of protesting against Israel and the U.S., the Lebanese people should be protesting against Hezbollah. Too bad for him that several million Lebanese see things differently: they don't need to be told who is bombing them and slaughtering their women and children.

    The Israeli Ambassador even went so far as to suggest that perhaps the scores of civilians killed when Isreal bombed an apartment building yesterday were killed because Hezbollah had "forced the people to take shelter there" — a suggestion not one of the survivors of that attack has even hinted at being true. He also suggested Hezbollah is responsible for all other civilian deaths, "because who else but Hezbollah benefits from this killing." According to this argument, if Isreal screws up a bombing raid, kills scores of innocent Lebanese civilians, and creates a gigantic public relations disaster for itself, then Hezbollah must be at fault — because Hezbollah benefits while Israel suffers global scorn and condemnation.

    The Ambassador also said that "at least Israel has *apoligized* for the deaths we have caused to innocent people in Lebanon, but Hezbollah has never apologized for the deaths it has caused to innocent Israelis." According to this argument, Israel is justified to bomb and kill however many people it wants, as long as it simply apologizes afterward.

    With arguments like these, is it any surprise that Israel has been unable to make peace with its neighbors? Each time it uses the killing of an Israeli soldier as an excuse to slaugher scores of innocent civilians, it alienates itself farther from its neighbors, farther from the truth, and farther from the moral high ground.

    This will apparently be the legacy of the Bush Administration: if terrorists attack you, then you can retaliate by killing hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent civilians. When your retaliation is called excessive, claim you are "defending" your country and blame the terrorists for the carnage you have caused. Take no blame whatsoever for your behavior, but comfort yourself by apologizing for the innocent people you have slaughtered. Convince yourself that it is reprehensible for terrrosts to kill your soldiers, but necessary for you to kill ten innocent people for each one of your soldiers killed…just as the Nazis did in WWII whenever their soldiers were killed by local saboteurs.

    And we wonder why they hate us (http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=338).

  8. Jason Rayl says:

    To grumpypilgrim, two points.

    A separate state for certain groups is not merely a Jewish problem. Change the Jews for, say, the Kurds or the Tamils or the Armenians….one could go on. The attempt to mix these groups in with the larger, so-called Dominant cultures in which they find themselves have led to their abuse at the hands of those cultures. History is rife with examples that minorities not permitted to "integrate" become targets for all the ugliness in the cultures where they find themselves. The Jews became the poster people for this. (And where else were they going to be located? The Levant, being under British and French control, with, at the time, poorly-defined indigenous borders–i.e. no real Arab nations to speak of–was probably the least difficult thing to do, the history of the region notwithstanding.)

    As to Hezbollah…let's assume for the sake of argument that the KKK had rockets and decided to provoke a fight with Mexico. Mexico responds by invading Texas, and the KKK starts lobbing rockets at Mexico. The rockets are being fired from within neighborhoods in various border towns, from next to houses, schools, etc. The KKK is not the United States, yet they are acting as a state unto themselves. In this country, of course, it would never get that far because we have a strong government that would essentially squash the KKK. Lebanon has no such strength in their government.

    Who do you blame?

    Plus, the Hamas move in Palestine to kidnap the first Israeli soldier came under instruction from the Hamas military wing, which is headquartered in Damascus. The "civil" wing in Palestine has no direct control over the military wing in its own back yard. Hezbollah decided to "help out" by grabbing two more Israeli soldiers.

    So the question is: if you know the dog will bite, why goad it? Unless you want it to bite you and thereby give you an excuse to call the pound and have it put down. In my opinion, the Israeli over-repsonse, horrible as it is, does not diminish the initial question of Hamas and Hezbollah seeking actively to sabotage ANY peace or normalization process ANY Arab entity might engage with Israel. All they did was take a bad situation and make it worse.

    And they're still lobbing rockets at Israel, using Lebanese civilian population centers as shields.

  9. grumpypilgrim says:

    As regards Jason's first point, I completely agree that this problem is not unique to the Israelis; in fact, that was my point: that "separate but equal" is notoriously doomed to failure, so why would anyone want to do it and expect it to bring peace? Moreover, given that it has a doomed history, should the Israelis behave differently to try to make it work, or is their only option to continue their blood feud? It seems to me axiomatic that if the killing is ever going to stop, then one side or the other must be the first to change its behavior. Why can't it be the Israelis? Maybe the solution is for them to respond with less hostility instead of more, given that the latter approach doesn't seem to have gotten them very far toward peace.

    I like the example about the KKK. Continuing that analogy, one solution would be for the US and Mexico to cooperate to bring the KKK folks to justice. Likewise, once the shelling began from Lebanon, why didn't Israel try to work with the Lebanese to end it, rather than merely retaliating with disproportionate force, and why didn't the Lebanese help the Israelis do so, such as by helping them identify Hezbollah strongholds? It seems to me that each conflict offers an opportunity for both sides to work better together, yet time after time they choose the opposite.

    I keep thinking of Ghandi, and how less violence actually brought about meaningful change that might have been impossible if violence had been used. What if Israel were to take those shells and respond with diplomacy? Maybe, just maybe, some people of the region would begin to see the Israelis as the innocent victims rather than as the hated enemy. And what if Israel were to invest serious time and money at building cooperative relations with their neighbors — i.e., give their neighbors a vested interest in protecting Israel instead of destroying it?

    Here's another comparison: in poor countries that have endangered wild animals, people are finding that the best way to save the endangered species is by giving the locals a vested interest in protecting them, such as by making opportunities for the locals to profit from tourism. Why couldn't a similar approach work for Israel — pumping so much money and resources into the Palestinian economy that they'd be fools to want Israel destroyed? In politics, as in business, it is folly to expect "A" while rewarding "B." If you want "A," then you must reward "A," and it seems to me the Israelis are still using their same old, ineffective strategy: if you want "A," then you merely punish "B."

  10. Jason Rayl says:

    The answer to grumpypilgrim's question as to why Israel and the Lebanese government do not try to negotiate goes directly to one of the things we here in the U.S. take for granted.

    They can't. The Lebanese government does not have the authority or the strength to deal with Hezbollah. If they did, Hezbollah would not have the rockets they're launching at Israel. The power relationships in the Middle East are often conditional upon the government towing a particular line in a way that we here would find utterly ridiculous.

    The Lebanese government can't send its army to deal with Hezbollah because sympathy within the army for Hezbollah is so high there would be a mutiny.

    Israel knows this, so they don't even bother. And if Israel offered to partner with Lebanon as a kind of co-governmental supporter, Syria would be right back in Lebanon.

    This is why democracy in the Middle East is so fragile and difficult–in my opinion nearly impossible–because allegiance is based on family and religion, not state, not an idea of a state, not principle. It is frustrating in the extreme for the West, which in any of its manifestations would not tolerate something like Hezbollah operating as it does under any circumstances, nor would Western peoples expect their governments to tolerate it. Yet there, it has more cachet than any government, and the government's credibility exists only as long as it does not oppose these affiliations.

    So Hezbollah and Hamas can conduct foreign policy regardless what the various governments of their "host" states want, because no one will sit on them. It leads to the likelihood of tragedies like the present one being far greater than any "rational" policy.

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Thank you, Jason. In a few short paragraphs, you've helped me understand a lot about Middle-East tensions. I wish the mainstream media could communicate with your clarity, rather than just giving us body counts and politician's doubletalk, and exploiting the shock value of screaming, grieving victims.

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