Obtuseness Or Malice

11.21.12 4:45 PM ET

As I write, Israeli television is covering the Tel Aviv bus bombing. Reuters reported: “Celebratory gunfire rang out across Gaza as the news spread and the territory's Islamist rulers Hamas praised the bombing.” Such joy at targeting civilians offers one small piece of evidence in the moral differentiation necessary in explaining the Middle East, especially for “a peace advocate,” as Emily L. Hauser calls herself in her post.

Hauser calls the death of 3,034 Palestinian noncombatants from “the end of September 2000 through the end of September 2012” a moral blot on Israel. She mocks those who say “that Hamas intentionally targets civilians, and Israel does not.” And, sincerely feeling the victims’ agony, she attributes the deaths to Israeli “Incompetence or indifference, neither can be an excuse anymore.”

I too consider myself a peace advocate. I too mourn the deaths regardless of nationality. I too am a parent who cannot imagine the pain parents must endure when their children are killed—and I desperately wish to see this conflict ended.

But I do not understand how you strike a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel, between terrorists who target civilians and an army that has occasionally lost soldiers when attempting to minimize casualties (see, for example, the 13 soldiers killed in Jenin, 2002), frequently misses military opportunities to avoid killing innocents, and has repeatedly struggled over civilian deaths. Either obtuseness or malice spawns such moral neutering.

Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted that Israel views civilian deaths as a failure, while Hamas considers civilian deaths a success—and tries to maximize them. And I am struck by Hauser’s lack of context. She innocently offers the lethal time frame as if the weather simply changed in September 2000, or Israelis decided it was time to kill some Palestinians. In fact, the date marked a change in Palestinian strategy, when Palestinians turned away from the Oslo peace process and returned to terrorism.

“Words matter,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught. Ideology counts. Just as juries do not just see a dead person, they consider the context and motivation to determine whether it is murder and of what degree, historians, philosophers, voters, journalists, and peace advocates must compare the contrasting ideologies of the combatants. Let’s ignore the death cries against Jews and Israel in mosques and on the street. Let’s overlook the new pop hit in the supposedly moderate West Bank cheering “Strike a blow on Tel Aviv” and rejecting compromise. Instead, examine the Hamas charter. In the preamble, where we Americans say “we the people,” and try to form “a more perfect union,” Hamas thunders: “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” And putting aside the anti-Semitism and exterminationist anti-Zionism, consider Article 13: “[Peace] initiatives, the so-called peaceful solutions, and the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem, are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement.”

This Jihadist document reflects the totalitarian mind at work. As the great liberal writer Paul Berman teaches, Islamism is not just a perversion of Islam, it combines the worst of the East with the worst of the West. The totalitarian mind diminishes everything in service of its goal. Children, on both sides of a conflict, are sacrificed for the greater good. The totalitarian will hide munitions among civilians, then exploit the civilians’ deaths to advance its goals. The totalitarian will invest in building tunnels, procuring armaments, developing military infrastructure—but not building shelters for its citizens because the citizens’ safety doesn’t matter and casualties in today’s world advance the totalitarian’s goal. The totalitarian mind preys on the democratic heart, with its sensitivities, its guilt complex, and its susceptibility to moral equivalences.

So, let’s compare. In Kosovo 12,421 people died. In Iraq, 100,000 civilians died, an estimated 30,000 from the initial invasion. In Afghanistan, up to 20,000 Afghanis died in the first four months of the U.S. airstrikes there. At such points when I lecture, after throwing around such numbers so casually, I stop and challenge my students to resist statistical dehumanization, each human life is precious.

Once again, Israel is being held to a higher, unrealistic standard. Cliché but true: war is hell. Modern Western armies give every individual soldier tremendous firepower, an ability to kill hundreds of civilians—even without aerial bombardment. Consider the Samuel L. Jackson-Tommy Lee Jones 2000 movie “Rules of Engagement.” A marine guard misunderstands, panics, and 83 Yemeni protestors die immediately. The movie suggests just how well-trained Israeli soldiers are, just how much restraint they show, just how many tragedies are averted daily, in this incendiary conflict with a democratic regime defending its citizens against totalitarian entities like Hamas, that will sacrifice children, bomb fellow Arabs, and target anyone else in a ruthless pursuit of unrealistic goals. Given their collective restraint and discipline, Israeli soldiers should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, not accused of war crimes.