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Fair and Balanced

28 July 2008

There was a video that made the news here this week:

It’s a bit blurry, but it’s a video of a Palestinian teenager, blindfolded and handcuffed after having thrown rocks at soldiers.  It shows an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldier firing a rubber bullet at him from two feet away.  He fired it into his foot, but I have a hard time listening to the “no lasting harm, no foul” defense.  Torture is defined as the willful infliction of psychological or physical suffering on an individual who has been rendered defenseless.  Degrees within the torture field seem to me somewhat irrelevant.

These stories are hardly groundbreaking.  They’re in every newspaper, every UN Human Rights Commission Report, every Amnesty International Report.  They’re videotaped by the Red Cross and Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Invariably, there are promises of investigation, occasionally court martials and jail sentences are handed down, and life goes on in the West Bank and Gaza, perturbed only by a few bad apple soldiers.

I have my own opinions about the IDF and the policies of occupation— worth discussing at some point later—but that isn’t what troubles me the most about these episodes. It is, for one example, the comments following this editorial in the Jerusalem Post.  This one, in particular:

I can only imagine where the arab would have shot us. Like Regev and Goldwasser ,May they rest in peace,who did not get shot by a rubber bullet in the toe! (sic)

I know that the body of people who have time to prowl the comments board on online newspapers include a higher than usual concentration of, well, nutcases.  Nutcases with sub-par English skills, in this case, especially if you read the rest of the comments.  It’d be laughable, except for the fact if there’s one thing I’ve observed in the month I’ve spent here, it’s that this is not a sentiment confined to the fringes of society. I’m not talking about the graffiti throughout Jerusalem that reads “Arabs to the gas chambers”–although the sheer amount of it is staggering.  I’ve heard less rant-like versions of the same sentiment voiced by my roommate, an Israeli law student, countless students on this program (mostly Americans), and from friends and teachers back home.  The more benign versions tend to take the form of:“This is kinda bad, but I wish the media would talk instead about the Eight Yeshiva students murdered by the Palestinians” or “Yeah, but we can’t lose sight of the horror of Palestinian terrorism—why doesn’t the media ever talk about those?”.

It’s beyond self-evident that being injured is a superior outcome to being dead.  And the coverage of the Yeshiva students and the countless suicide bombings that have rocked Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at various points was immense.  They are traumas well-documented, and I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that these are stories that haven’t been talked about sufficiently—or at least, as sufficiently as possible when we’re talking about large-scale loss of life. These statements aren’t made to argue this. Rather, they’re made to say explicitly that these cases aren’t worth being talked about. They’re made to say that in light of Israeli suffering, abuse and torture is really A-O.K.  They’re made to argue for silence lest Israel’s image be damaged. They’re made to make a judgment about which is worth more: Jewish suffering or Palestinian suffering? And inherent within that judgment, which type of person is worth more: A Jew or an Arab?  

The idea of comparing sufferings is problematic, and can quite often stray into not-so-subtle racism.  But in a way, I think it’s almost as dangerous when weighing forms of violence becomes a part of the need for “balance” in talking about conflict.  I was talking with a friend here–who would by no means call himself a supporter of the occupation–recently about these cases, and he added, as an afterthought: “Of course, they don’t really talk about the suicide bombings, but it’s still just awful”.

Balance is a tricky thing.   Balance is getting perspectives on a single incident, conflict, or event.  In the case of this video, for instance balance would be including statements from soldiers and military commanders responsible for the incident.  Balance when it comes to discussing the situation in the West Bank would be including responses from Settlers, IDF personnel, and Palestinians who feel that their rights are being suppressed.  But when the issue is a documented case of abuse, balance isn’t gained from simply juxtaposing an incident that is related only in that it occurred within the context of an ongoing armed dispute.  I very much understand the spirit in which such afterthoughts are intended: as an acknowledgment of sufferings on both sides, and that pain all too often feeds directly into retaliatory instinct.  It’s not the same as the ridiculous comments after news editorials.  But by contextually justifying violence, it does reinforce a paradigm of conflict that demands retribution.

Whenever we feel the need to mention suicide bombings, or bulldozer attacks, or shooting sprees whenever we talk about the tactics of the IDF, we contribute to a paradigm that says because violence exists on both sides, all violence is the same, and we have no right to judge, or even focus on, one form over another.  Violence is universally an affront to our most basic of human rights, but it is not all the same.  It is, I think, almost exactly the opposite.  Violence isn’t a disease imposed equally upon two groups of people, it’s a choice made in different ways by each and every individual who acts to take a life.  Making sure that we’re “balanced” in our treatment of it diminishes the unique horror of each act, treating the perpetrator as just one more victim of a disease that does not discriminate.  The immediate effect is to provide a justification for nearly any abuse–that there is no such thing as war crimes because all wars are crimes, essentially; That we need to oppose the abstract, nebulous concepts of War and Violence, and not waste our time thinking about what would cause a person to fire a weapon at a blindfolded, handcuffed person at point-blank range.  

I’ll be the last to argue that war and violence shouldn’t be opposed, but they don’t deserve to be capitalized. War and violence aren’t proper nouns.  They need to be fought as manifestations of structural problems that can be attacked–working to eradicate environments of poverty, oppression, hatred, religious extremism, and poor education might be a start.  But I believe that one of those ways is to never lose sight of the humanity of violence.  It’s easy to become desensitized to the fact that it is a sentient human being choosing to wantonly inflict pain, but if we do, we lower the best guard against joining a violence cycle ourselves: the awareness that the potentially for violence is latent within almost every person.  That capacity is universal, but acting on it is unique.  By allowing the infliction of pain to recede into a monolith without faces or specific instances, we tacitly justify it under the category of Violence.  The more we look at our capacity for unthinkable acts as being something outside ourselves, the more I worry about our capacity to prevent it.  

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