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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Morality and Expediency in Israel 

There is no moral equivalence between Hamas’s actions and Israel’s.

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Credit: StockPhotosLV

It is not hard to tell right from wrong or morality from expediency, especially at the extremes of human existence in war.

It is impossible to see as right—or moral—attackers who intentionally targeted and killed over 1,400 civilians, babies and the elderly, along with laborers from Thailand who could not be responsible for the decades of Gazan violence, as if that could be justification anyway. Those same gunmen took hostages to use as human shields and will probably murder many of them, too.

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It is moral to condemn barbarism. It cannot be brushed aside by phrases such as “ethics is rarely black and white” when in many cases—the massacres in Israel—black is indeed black and white is white. No one can justify killing babies. Morality is not “that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”

It speaks poorly of American education that right and wrong are so muddled, that the expediency of horrendous acts is confused with independence. A coalition of 34 student organizations at Harvard say they “hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” A club in Brooklyn staged an “Intifada Fundraver” using images of militants to advertise a night of pre-Halloween dancing on the graves of more than 1,400 murder victims.

A poll conducted after the Hamas attacks in Israel found that only 32 percent of Americans aged 18–29 think Hamas deliberately targeted civilian areas in Israel. In a roundup of atrocities, one outlet found at UPenn students chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in response to the killings. Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Virginia cheered the “events of yesterday” as a “step toward a free Palestine.” Student groups at the California State University in Long Beach advertised a “Day of Resistance” rally with a poster featuring an image of a paraglider, used to kill the ravers in Israel. A Columbia professor called the attacks “awesome” while another at Cornell described them as “exhilarating.” Thousands rallied in Times Square and across America to support Palestine even as they stepped aside morally for the massacres to occur.

An example, adapted from my first book.

Soldiers in Iraq who would joke about anything would become quiet on a checkpoint. Within the limits of available electricity, they tried to light up the ’point as best they could so drivers could see it. Iraq at night was a dark and dangerous place, and as in inner city America, the drivers were not going to slow down, or God forbid, stop, without a very good reason.

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Step One was to brighten up your checkpoint so the drivers had that good reason to admit they saw it. Drivers knew if they then tried to run a checkpoint they’d be shot at, a bad way to make time. After the lights were on as best they could be (you could only run so many watts if all you had was a Chinese-made portable generator), the next step was to communicate to the often uninformed drivers that they needed to stop. There was no such thing as licensed drivers in Iraq; someone showed you how to drive and then you were a driver. Driving trucks, either as a suicide bomber or as a delivery man, was highly sought-after employment, so fibbing about actually knowing how to drive was popular. It was possible the guy coming at you had not, like you, done this before.

Standing at a checkpoint in a dense area was easier, as the jammed up traffic meant cars approached you at a crawl and everyone had some time to signal their intentions across cultures and languages. 

In lower-traffic areas, things got stickier. You might post signs in Arabic and English telling folks to slow down, but there was that light problem again. Also, many Iraqis were illiterate. You could set up all manner of flashers and twirling things, a good start, but ambiguous. It could be a wedding party (plenty of guns there as well).

Car bombs were the big fear. In most cases, the explosives were intended for some other target, and just had to pass through your ’point. But, if the driver thought you were on to him, he’d blow the car right there, never mind the real target. Checkpoints also made everyone nervous; nervous people and guns mix poorly. Iraqi drivers hit the gas too often, maybe worried, maybe angry, maybe needing to show the Army who had guts in a real dumb way.

You hitched up your pants and started thinking about the ROE as cars approached. ROE meant “rules of engagement,” basically a set of orders on when you were allowed to kill someone legally without consequence. Even wars have rules, and nobody went outside the wire without knowing exactly what the rules were. ROEs changed all the time, but at a checkpoint they might have gone like this: try and stop the car with lights, sounds, and hand gestures. If he kept coming, shine a laser or bright light at the driver (a practice called “beaming”). If that did not work, fire a warning shot, or a non-lethal round. Still coming? Fire into the engine block to disable the car. Not enough? Kill someone. This all seemed logical, but let’s play the game together for real.

You are 23 years old and at a checkpoint, in your 19th hour awake, standing on the strength of Rip It energy drinks, dip, and instant coffee crystals crunched between bites of candy. Last night one of your buddies was almost killed by a driver at a checkpoint who got scared and hit the gas.

You are sweating despite the cool weather because standing still attracts snipers, and you do not want to die. The truck approaching has only one headlight; it looks like there are several people in the front seat where you’d expect only one or two. In the span of three seconds you need to try to wave down the driver, beam him with the laser if he doesn’t slow down, fire a non-lethal round if he hits the gas, then switch weapons and be ready to take a life. You’re Zeus throwing lightning bolts—make the decision now, shoot or don’t shoot the guy. You’re the judge of your own cause.

Shooting is always expedient. It is not always right—not always moral. The choice is yours.

And that’s the difference between what Israel has done in the past through mistakes and as a consequence of war, and what the Palestinians did earlier this month, taking 1,400 lives and killing babies by choice. Choice. There is no equivalency.

Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War is a seminal work in the field of military history. It offers a deep exploration of the intersection between morality and expediency in the context of a long conflict between Athens and Sparta more than 2,000 years ago. Thucydides presents the moral dilemmas and strategic considerations people face during times of war, offering insight into the timeless tension between what is right and what is expedient. In the end, however, everyone gets to decide for themselves.

You don’t shoot. You get to decide many times every night at the checkpoint. It takes a lot of guts to not shoot someone.