READER DAN writes in response to our listing of American corporations tied to Israel: “Do you have a comparable list of corporations that remain silent when a Palestinian bomb explodes aboard an Israeli bus? The policies of the Israeli government are abhorrent, but the tactics of the Palestinians are inexcusable as well.”
When I raised a similar argument as a kid, my mother’s response was, “If Johnny were to jump off a cliff, would you jump off a cliff, too?” I never could come up with good answer to that and so eventually had to concede that somebody else’s stupidity was not a good excuse for my own.
The underlying problem is that we are funding Israel’s violence but not that of Palestine. We are not directly responsible for the bombs on Israeli busses but we are very much responsible for the wrongs that Israel does. Further, if you occupy and oppress a people long and hard enough they will do all sorts of things to fight back that don’t fit the definition of civil discourse.
The “well, what about their violence?” argument was used against the North Vietnamese and in just about every war since. Implicit in this is the idea that what we do wrong is excusable because it has been matched – or allegedly so – by the other side. Of course, the other side doesn’t see it that way so you end up with a perfect stalemate of violence.
In fact, Israel – as does America – largely faces a security threat that it has created by its own supposed remedies. Both America and Israel are far more in danger now than they were before 9/11 because an ever growing portion of the world doesn’t like the vicious cure they are offering.
During a 1999 anti-war speech in Washington’s Dupont Circle, I addressed a similar problem in the Balkans:
There is a name for this sort of medicine. It is called iatrogenic – in which the disease is caused by the physician. Doctors who cause diseases or ruin the health of the patient through arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo have large insurance policies because people sue them for something we call malpractice. In medicine this is considered a bad thing.
We have just gone through yet another iatrogenic war, in which our elites have argued falsely that their stated intentions outweigh any actual consequences. The patient is in far worse shape than before this war began, the victim of arrogance, incompetence, and mindless machismo. . .
[Latest research puts the Balkan military and civilian deaths in the range of 100,000 with 1.8 million displaced]
We, of course, have had other iatrogenic wars. This is what happened in Vietnam when we declared that it was necessary to destroy villages in order to save them. This is what happened in Iraq when in the name defeating a modern Hitler we caused the post-war death by disease and malnutrition of far more people than Hussein himself had killed. And it is what happened when NATO declared that Slobadon Milosevic’s crimes against humanity were such that they justified the brutal destruction of a country and the pain and death and the very ethnic cleansing we said we sought to avoid.
In fact, every moral act in the face of mental or physical injury carries twin responsibilities: to mend the injury and to avoid replacing it with another. This twin burden is faced every day by doctors. Every police officer faces it. Every firefighter. It was what I was taught as a Coast Guard officer. It’s well past time for our politicians do so as well.
The point of speaking of the evils of a Milosovec or a Hussein is to raise the alarm. But once that has been successfully done, this alarm may not rightfully be used as a perpetual excuse for our own misdeeds. From the moment we commence a moral intervention we become a part of the story, and part of the good and evil. We are no longer the innocent bystander but a full participant whose acts will either help or make things worse. Our intentions become irrelevant; they are overwhelmed by the character of our response to them. The morality of the disease is supplanted by the morality of the cure. Any other course amounts to reckless and negligent political malpractice.
The security threat that both America and Israel now face is, in no small part, iatrogenic. The first step towards a cure rather than continued harm is to take responsibility for our own actions and not hide behind the violence of those who oppose us.
This means doing things that are an anathema to the politicians and media in this country such as actually talking – even seemingly forever – with those with whom we disagree. It means an end to showboating and the beginning of endless tiny steps towards accommodation. It means saying you’re sorry when you have done wrong. It means finding things – like economic projects and programs – that benefit both sides and that make their former quarrels less important. It means giving dollars instead of shooting bullets. It means helping both sides choose to be survivors of their past rather than its perpetual victims. And it means putting away the guns, the threats and the bombast and looking for, in Benjamin Franklin’s phrase, “the little felicities of every day.”
Above all, it means taking constant and self-critical responsibility for our own acts and for those of our allies and not finding false moral shelter in the violent reactions they provoke. As Gandhi put it, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”