Podcast Transcript

The Sin of Moral Equivalence

October 12, 2023

This is a transcript of a recorded podcast

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I want to say a few things about recent events in Israel. I’m sure I will do future podcasts about this and speak with a wide range of relevant experts. But, for the moment, I would like to say something brief that stands a chance of being useful, as we watch the initial expressions of support for Israel begin to decay, as it wages war in Gaza and perhaps beyond.

As many of you know, I spent years talking about the clash, as I see it, between Western civilization and Islam. Specifically, I’ve spoken and written about the connection between the actual doctrines of Islam and jihadist violence. Of course, this violence has fallen out of the news in recent years, especially since the collapse of the Islamic State. Even I have stopped thinking much about it, but I’ve been under no illusion that the problem has gone away. Those of you who have been following my work for 20 years know that I’ve said everything I have to say on this topic, ad nauseam. And I’m sure I’ll periodically just repeat myself for the rest of my life—because eruptions of jihadist violence, and the attendant secular moral confusion about it, will be with us for generations.

However, I don’t want to rehash any of my criticism of Islam here. I’ll just briefly remind you of what I believe, which is that there is no possibility of living in peace with jihadists. So, whether we want to admit it or not, we are perpetually at war with them. And we must win a war of ideas with everyone, both within the Muslim world and outside it, who is confused about that—and there are legions of the confused. And there is no place on Earth where the truth about jihadism is more obvious or excruciating, and moral confusion about it more reprehensible, than Israel today.

But leaving all of that to one side, for the moment I’d like to make a very simple point, that really shouldn’t be at all controversial—because it doesn’t prejudge any of the questions that people might disagree about. You don’t have to agree with me about Islam, or about the role it plays in inspiring conflict. The point I’m making now says nothing about the causes of the recent violence in Israel—and yet it cuts through all the arguments and pseudo-arguments that attempt to paint some moral equivalence between Israel and its enemies, or to justify the actions of Hamas as though they were a response to Israeli provocations—to the growth of settlements, or the daily humiliation of living under occupation. Incidentally, there has been no occupation of Gaza since 2005, when Israel withdrew from the territory unilaterally, forcibly removing 9000 of its own citizens, and literally digging up Jewish graves. The Israelis have been out of Gaza for nearly 20 years. And yet they have been attacked from Gaza ever since.

But even a statement like that wades too far in controversy. I want you to step back… Whatever you think about the origins of this conflict, whatever you believe about the role that religion plays here (or doesn’t play), whatever you think about colonialism, or globalism, or any other ‘ism, whether you’re a fan of Noam Chomsky or Samuel Huntington, you should be able to acknowledge the following claims to be both descriptively true and ethically important.

At this moment in history, there are people and cultures that harbor very different attitudes about violence and the value of human life. There are people and cultures that rejoice, positively rejoice—dancing in the streets rejoicing—over the massacre of innocent civilians; conversely there are people and cultures that seek to avoid killing innocent civilians, and deeply regret it when they do—and they occasionally prosecute and imprison their own soldiers when they violate this modern norm of combat.

There are people and cultures who revel in the anguish of hostages and prisoners of war—who will parade them before cheering mobs, and often allow them to be assaulted, or raped, or even murdered. They will desecrate their bodies in public, and all of this carnage is a cause for jubilation. Conversely, there are people and cultures who find such barbarism revolting—and, again, would be inclined to prosecute anyone on their own side who took part in it.

In short, there are people and cultures who revel in war crimes—and who do not hide these crimes or their celebration of them but, rather, proudly broadcast their savagery for all the world to see. Conversely, there are people and cultures who have given us the concept of a war crime as a sacred prohibition—and as a safeguard in the ongoing project of maintaining the moral progress of civilization.

One point to concede, and this will absorb all the nuance and nonsense that is now percolating in the brains of many listeners: It is, of course, true that we in the West have been on the wrong side of these dichotomies in the past. Most Western armies, including Israel’s, have at one time or another been guilty of war crimes. And if you go back far enough, all of human conflict was just a litany of war crimes. And you don’t have to go back all that far, in fact, to find large pockets of Western culture that were morally indistinguishable from what we now see in much of the Muslim world. If you have any doubt about this, study the photos of white mobs celebrating the lynchings that occurred in the American South in the first half of the 20th century: where seemingly whole towns—thousands of men, women and children—turned out as though for a carnival to watch some young man or woman be tortured to death and then strung up on a tree or lamppost for all to see.

Seeing the pictures of these people in their Sunday best, having arranged themselves for a postcard photo under a dangling, and lacerated, and often partially cremated person, is one thing, but realize that these genteel people—who considered themselves good Christians—often took souvenirs of the body home to show their friends—teeth, ears, fingers, knee caps, internal organs—and sometimes displayed them in their places of business.

So I’m not claiming that there are permanent differences between groups of people. I’m talking about the power of ideas that happen to be ascendant at any given time and place. I’m talking about beliefs and whole worldviews that come into being in one culture and have yet to come into being in others. The point, of course, is that if we recognize the monstrosities of the past, we should recognize the monstrosities of the present, and acknowledge that at this moment in human history not every group has the same ethical norms governing its use of violence. For whatever reason. Perhaps religion has nothing to do with it.

Consider just one of these norms: Whenever an armed conflict breaks out, some groups will use human shields, and others will be deterred, to one degree or another, by their use. To be clear, I’m not talking about the taking of hostages from the opposing side for the purpose of using them as human shields. That is appalling, and it is now happening in Gaza, but it is separate crime. I’m talking about something far more inscrutable—it’s astounding, really, that it happens at all—I’m talking about people who will strategically put their own noncombatants, their own women and children, into the line of fire so that they can inflict further violence upon their enemies, knowing that their enemies have a more civilized moral code that will render them reluctant to shoot back, for fear of killing or maiming innocent noncombatants. If anywhere in this universe cynicism and nihilism can be found together in their most perfect forms, it is here.

Jihadists use their own people as human shields routinely. Hamas fires rockets from hospitals and mosques and schools and other sites calculated to create carnage if the Israelis return fire. There were cases in the war in Iraq where jihadists literally rested the barrels of their guns on the shoulders of children. They blew up crowds of their own children in order to kill US soldiers who were passing out candy to them. Conversely, the Israeli army routinely warns people to evacuate buildings before it bombs them.

Of course, during times of war, it common to dehumanize one’s enemy, to describe them as barbarous and evil. And it is natural for ethical and educated people to distrust such politically-charged language. But pay attention: I’m describing concrete behaviors—behaviors that occur on only one side of this conflict.

Just consider how absurd it would be to reverse the logic of human shields in this case: Imagine the Israelis using their own women and children as human shields against Hamas. Recognize how unthinkable this would be, not just for the Israelis to treat their own civilians in this way, but for them to expect that their enemies could be deterred by such a tactic, given who their enemies actually are.

Again, it is easy to lose sight of the moral distance here—which is strange. It’s like losing sight of the Grand Canyon when you are standing right on the edge of it. Take a moment to actually do the cognitive work: Imagine the Jews of Israel using their own women and children as human shields. And then imagine how Hamas, or Hezbollah, or al-Qaeda, or ISIS, or any other jihadist group would respond. The image you should now have in your mind is a masterpiece of moral surrealism. It is preposterous. It is a Monty Python sketch where all the Jews die.

Do you see what this asymmetry means? Can you see how deep it runs? Do you see what it tells you about the ethical difference between these two cultures?

There are not many bright lines that divide good and evil in our world, but this is one of them.

Of course, there is much more to talk about when considering the ethics of war and violence. And there’s much more to be confused about. For instance, as this war proceeds, many people will consider the deaths of noncombatants on the Palestinian side to be morally equivalent to the kids who were tortured and murdered at the peace concert by Hamas, or to the hostages who may yet be murdered and their murders broadcast on social media. But they’re not. There is a difference between collateral damage—which is, of course, a euphemism for innocent people killed in war—and the intentional massacre of civilians for the purpose of maximizing horror.

Simply counting the number of dead bodies is not a way of judging the moral balance here. Intentions matter. It matters what kind of world people are attempting to build. If Israel wanted to perpetrate a genocide of the Palestinians, it could do that easily, tomorrow. But that isn’t what it wants. And the truth is the Jews of Israel would live in peace with their neighbors if their neighbors weren’t in thrall to genocidal fanatics.

In the West, we have advanced to a point where the killing of noncombatants, however unavoidable it becomes once wars start, is inadvertent and unwanted and regrettable and even scandalous. Yes, there are still war crimes. And I won’t be surprised if some Israelis commit war crimes in Gaza now. But, if they do, these will be exceptions that prove the rule—which is that Israel remains a lonely outpost of civilized ethics in the absolute moral wasteland that is the Middle East.

To deny that the government of Israel (with all of its flaws) is better than Hamas, to deny that Israeli culture (with all of its flaws) is better than Palestinian culture­ in its attitude toward violence, is to deny that moral progress itself is possible. If most Americans are better than their slaveholding ancestors, if most Germans today are better than the people who herded Jews into gas chambers, if the students protesting this war on your college campus—who are so conscientious that they lose sleep over crimes like “cultural appropriation” or using the wrong pronouns—if they are better than the racists and religious lunatics that inevitably lurk somewhere in their family trees—then we have to recognize that there is no moral equivalence now, between Israel and her enemies.