The Ethics of Attacking Civilians

David L. Hoffman, 10/14/2003

Dear friends,

Sometimes, in discussing the Holy Land conflict, I have the following kind of exchange:

I make a statement condemning both Israeli government violence toward Palestinian noncombattants and Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli noncombatants.

A thoughtful and intelligent, peace loving person, writing in defense of the Palestinian cause, responds with a torrent of outrage, listing a searing account of U.S. and Israeli abuses.

I think this response contains several components:

One: A valid explanation of the underlying grievances and pressures which cause deep desperation among Palestinians, and which create a climate which fosters suicide attacks, and leads other Palestinians and sympathizers to condone those attacks.

Two: The charge - stated or implied - that westerners (especially in the U.S.) have an invalid moral compass, because we are so deeply propagandized, and because we have not experienced the kind of violation and abuse which is the daily fare of the Arab peoples (and other colonized peoples). The charge or implication is that a "westerner" lacks a sufficiently informed moral and experiential base to comprehend Palestinian suicide attacks on Israeli noncombattants - let alone to reach a valid moral assessment of those actions.

Three: The stated or implied judgment that the abuses suffered by Palestinians are so great, that the suicide attacks are morally justified. In many cases the writier will stop short of this, and I sense a moral quandary — that the writer is hovering on the brink of this conclusion: reluctant to embrace it, because of its fearful implications, but unable to completely repudiate it because of their horror and indignation at the plight of Palestinian people. Some writers come right out and say it. I believe this view is often stated and repeated in the popular Arab press.

I also encounter a parallel but opposite reaction in many ardent supporters of Israel and zionism, when confronted with official Israeli abuses toward Palestinians: An impassioned, deeply felt outpouring of indignation, an incandescent list of unthinkable historical outrages, and an accusation of cultural and experiential distortion - or even of outright bigotry - in the critic of Israel. And I believe statements condoning Israeli abuses toward Palestinians, are often stated in the Israeli and pro-zionist Jewish press.

I would like to reprint (with a few edits) what I wrote to a friend in one of these discussions. In this case I am speaking to those who challenge my criticism of Palestinian suicide attacks. I could compose a "mirror image" of this letter, addressed to those who challenge my criticism of Israeli government abuses of Palestinians, or my criticism of ultrazionist settlements which displace Palestinian communities.

This is my sense of the moral implications of certain violent actions taken in the name of the Palestinian cause:

Dear friend,

Thank you for your very powerful and honest letter.

[ ... ]

I want to comment on your statements about who is to blame for Holy Land violence (as between Palestinian, Israeli and U.S. actors).

Everything you say about Sharon is true.

Everything you say about U.S. imperialism is true.

I agree with you about the hypocrisy of those who condemn acts of desperation by drowning people (Palestinians trapped in a hopeless situation) while ignoring the vast, monstrous, war crimes which provoke those desperate responses.

Here is how I see the ultimate morality of all this:

There is a list of things which is never tolerable, even if in some cases we understand what brings those horrific things to pass. One of those things is direct physical harm, including murder, of children. Another is the creating of conditions which trap children in Hell on Earth. The same is true of violence toward mothers, including the unspeakable emotional anguish which mens' violence inflicts on mothers. And on fathers, if we allow ourselves to feel. (There are other things I would add to this list, such as the spiritual or moral violation of others through torture or brainwashing or manipulation or economic coercion. But today we are discussing overt physical violence, so let me confine myself to the murdering or maiming of children or the trapping of children in Hell on Earth, and the secondary torment this inflicts on their parents.)

These crimes don't become "clean" in an ultimate, moral sense, because of "numbers."

It is not ultimately true, for example, that if Sharon ordered the murder of 1000 Palestinians, that there is no longer a moral evil when the Martyrs Brigade kills 5 Jews.

We may empathize with a person who, in rage and horror, lashes out desperately in a suicide attack. We may find that person's act more comprehensible and in some sense more "honorable" than Sharon's cold, wholesale genocidal crimes, or Bush's cynical exploitation of public hysteria to launch murderous air strikes that slaughter Afghani peasants. Yes, we may well see and feel differently about these various violent acts. But the ultimate moral dimension is: If I murder one person, it is as if I murdered all of Humanity. When I stand before the judgment throne, God is not going to accept: "I had to bomb those five civillians God! Sharon bombed thousands of our people!"

No, God is going to weep at the fact that we all slaughtered each other.

Yes, if a murder is running toward a victim with knife in hand, and a policeman shoots the murderer because he can see no other way to stop the attack, that may be morally justifiable.

And if I hold off a gang of bandits which is chasing by family, by shooting at them, or even killing them - that may be morally justifiable. I think I should have the courage to do that, and the clarity to determine whether it was necessary.

But to leverage that logic out into the larger picture, and use it to justify war of all kinds - by equating ourselves (always) with the policeman - the "hero," and equating our "enemy" (always) with the "murderer" - the "bandit" and the "villain" — I am sick to death of that lie. I don't allow it in myself, and I don't accept it from anyone else. It is the oldest lie in history, it is always the same, and the consequences are always the same. More death. Hope destroyed. Peace ridiculed as "naive" and pushed beyond the boundaries of possibility, so that deranged males can act out their psychic propensities for animal competition. Typically propelled and enabled by some deranged clique of manipulators working behind the scenes.

That is war.

I hate it, and everything about it.

And I am just as susceptible to violent fantasies of righteous triumph as the next male. I don't pretend to be superior, or "pure". It is because I see the underlying tragedy and stupidity of my own and everyone else's violent impulses, that I condemn war. Not because I think I am superior to anyone else.

I, just like you, am inclined to sympathize with the violence of the underdog. On a gut level I feel this way. A sense of justice and defiance rises in my throat when I read of the struggles of the poor and oppressed throughout the World. My first reaction is "give the oppressors Hell! They deserve it!" I don't know if this will ever disappear from my psyche. I don't consider it a "valid" attitude, but it is a deeply embedded one, which is directly linked to actual, valid, moral perspectives about justice and the evil of poverty, bigotry and exploitation. But does that make it morally valid? I believe not. It is human. God may forgive it or comprehend it (Insha'allah) - but I do NOT believe God wishes it or approves it.

And others will make a different calculation, with equal certainty:

They will be incapable of comprehending a Palestinian suicide attack as anything but abhorrent evil, yet they will imagine that somehow, an Israeli squad of armed thugs, kicking in the doors of a family in Ramallah, or harassing and humiliating some old woman at a check point, is necessary to reach peace.

This is how violence operates. Everyone comprehends the acts of those whose cause they consider just. Everyone abhors and reviles the acts of those whose cause they consider unjust.

This doesn't mean that if you grasp this invalid aspect of violence, that you are "throwing in" with the unjust side, or that you are abandoning the cause you consider to be just.

We are simply rising to a more complete understanding. We are admitting honestly that the violence is just as bloody when those we support commit it, as when those we oppose commit it. The baby mangled by the bomb is just as dead. The person who delivered the bomb is deluded, for imaginining the bomb could "bring peace." Whether they blow themselves up with their victim, or watch via spy satellite from a well-guarded palace. Whether their cause is just or unjust. Whether they act from understandable desperation, or from outrageous, calculated greed, or from insane megalomania.

We don't have to abandon this realization about the evil of violence, in order to work for justice, or in order to be true to the particular cause which we consider just.

This is my understanding.

Al Salaam Alaikum. Shalom. Namaste. Peace.

David L. Hoffman
Humanity Check interfaith peace and reconciliation project
No. 357, 122 Calistoga Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95409
(707) 538-8495
web site:

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