At a birthday dinner with friends last night, the Israeli assault on Gaza came up. One friend said having to helplessly watch the violence infuriated him and made him ill. Another said it made him want to cry.
I said there was something in this kind of asymmetrical bloodshed that our mainstream media and most Americans willfully avoid thinking about. That's the humanity of the suicide bomber. Our TV correspondents are so jaded by violence they report X number of human beings were blown to pieces by a suicide bomber. The term has come to represent an inhuman archetype of pure evil. The human being is lost.
I said to my friends, at least we should appreciate -- I added the word "respect" -- a man or woman willing to sacrifice his or her life for a cause. Even if we oppose that cause. We honor men who jump on grenades to save their buddies and people who pursue an action beneficial to comrades that any sane, rational person would see as suicidal. In traditional Japanese culture, suicide was an honorable act to atone for shame; kamikaze pilots were treated like royalty before they set off on their final missions. Of course, the men on the US destroyers and cruisers they sank did not share the same cause and, thus, did not share in that honoring. Israelis honor the suicide pact of 960 rebels under assault by a Roman legion atop the mesa known as Masada over 2000 years ago.
At this point, another friend spoke up in a disturbed tone. She said she knew someone killed by a suicide bomber. "And I don't appreciate what you just said." I may have made things worse by replying: "You don't understand my point. Actually, I'd be fine with shooting suicide bombers. But, of course, they're already dead."
So let's get this straight: As a military veteran peace activist for over 30 years, I condemn the delivery of bombs to kill people and destroy things by F16s, drones and suicide bombers. This is in the spirit of the famous scene from the film The Battle of Algiers in which a guerrilla leader has been captured by the French military and is presented to the French press for questioning. (This, of course, would never happen under today's rigid regimes of secrecy.) A reporter asks him how he can justify satchel charges detonated in public cafes attended by French civilians. He smiles and says, "We'll gladly trade our satchel charges for your jet bombers any day."
Those of us on the left are frustrated, angry and overwhelmed with a sense of impotence in the face of the violence in Gaza. Those who defend the grotesquely asymmetrical assault seem callous and close-minded around the idea that military might makes right. The UN says 75 to 80 percent of the 1600 dead Gazans are civilians, many of them children. Israelis say it is only 50 percent. There have been 59 Israelis killed, the majority of them IDF soldiers.
Gazan forces have apparently now captured a 22-year-old IDF lieutenant, Hadar Goldin. A New York Times writer correctly labeled such captives as the Gazan's "most powerful weapon." In fact, captured Israelis are so politically potent the official IDF policy permits shooting at a fleeing vehicle that contains a captured Israeli. Again, in pursuit of their cause, better a dead IDF soldier than a captive one. (Late note: Israel now claims Goldin is dead. Hamas elements quoted in the Times suggest he may have been killed by Israeli forces firing on his captors.)
Meanwhile, Vietnam combat veteran John Kerry and the rest of official Washington employ what my wife calls "asymmetrical diplomacy." That is, diplomacy that refuses to treat all human beings involved in the catastrophe equally. Israelis are elevated to the status of exceptional westerners and Palestinians are reduced to abject and desperate peasants seeking something they don't deserve -- and doing it in an unacceptable fashion with primitive rockets and suicide bombers. Given such asymmetrical diplomacy, one might reduce the disaster to a symbolic stand-off between the handsome, well-fed young IDF captive and the archetypal suicide bomber.
As westerners with a long history of colonial and imperial intervention around the world, Americans appreciate and admire the young IDF soldiers with their tough, middle-class upbringings as part of Israel's succeeding generations following the early Zionist settlers. We honor the young IDF soldiers' education, their military athleticism, their training and the resultant competence and skills as part of a well-oiled military machine. Meanwhile, we regard the Palestinians as historic losers, people who allowed themselves to be imprisoned by the cruel fate of history. Palestinians lack modern, western sophistication, and, their worst crime, they refuses to kowtow to Israel and the west for this shortcoming. Palestinians simply will not align themselves with the great western myth, since for Palestinians to do so would mean throwing away their dignity and becoming the losers western arrogance insists they are.
Everything Israelis and the United States has done for 66 years has reduced the Gazan citizen to a human being with nothing to offer but his or her miserable life. In this sense, the suicide bomber is a natural outcome of history in Palestine.
US and western diplomats seem unable or unwilling to stop the daily horrors of the Israeli assault on Gaza. Why? Because their mindset is rooted in the consistent and tragic decision to unilaterally support Israel no matter how arrogant it becomes and how far it strays from the once respected moral position of Jews in the world. Every tyrant in the world bases his cruel reign on some distant outrage that continuously threatens to re-occur if he's not strong. Israel is no exception.
Clearly the US and the western world owe Palestinians -- and now Gazans, especially -- a huge debt. A majority of Israelis may be self-centered and hard-headed enough never to accept this. But that does not go for citizens of the United States, who have expended lots of their hard-earned tax dollars for military weaponry used in the current assault on Gaza. If Israel chooses an apocalyptic future, US citizens do not have to go along for the ride. A good case can be made for putting the financial squeeze on Israel.
In the meantime, we must hope Israelis become morally weary enough of the current asymmetrical violence to put a stop it. But there seems little evidence that this is forthcoming. Even if Hamas is broken and all the tunnels are sealed, the degree of hatred for Israel will increase among Palestinians. (The killing of Pablo Escobar by US drug warriors was touted as a coup, but it famously only spread the menace wider and made things more intractable and violent.) People I know who have traveled the world widely say the worst poverty they've seen was in Gaza. The current assault will only exacerbate this poverty.