Monday, August 07, 2006

A conspiracy of moral equivalence
Over the last week and a half, I've been writing about a conspiracy theory making the rounds on the far right and slowly creeping into bigger trafficked, semi-mainstream news venues (see here, here, here, and here). The theory is that Hezbollah somehow "staged" the massacre of civilians at Qana in order to make Israel look bad. The variations on this narrative range from Hezbollah simply manipulating a genuine tragedy for maximum press effect, to them "improving" a minor event by planting bodies in a collapsed building (they apparently keep a stash of dead bodies just for this purpose), to Hezbollah actually killing their own people because a child is more valuable as a dead martyr than as a live hungry mouth.

The underlying theme of these theories is that the other side is made up of inhuman monsters. Ironically, the purpose of such dehumanization and demonization of the enemy always is to make it easier for our side to cast aside or our humanity and commit genocide. Demonization narratives are never the exclusive property of just one side in a conflict.

Howard Kurtz, among other things is the anchor for the CNN show "Reliable Sources." This exchange is from yesterday's edition.
HOWARD KURTZ: And joining us now... Thomas Ricks, Pentagon reporter for "The Washington Post" and author of the new book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."

Tom Ricks, you've covered a number of military conflicts, including Iraq, as I just mentioned. Is civilian casualties increasingly going to be a major media issue? In conflicts where you don't have two standing armies shooting at each other?

THOMAS RICKS, REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think it will be. But I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.

KURTZ: Hold on, you're suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it's fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?

RICKS: Yes, that's what military analysts have told me.

KURTZ: That's an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here.

RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.

As with the Qana massacre, I have no idea what the truth is in this case. I'm not familiar with Ricks, so I don't know how dependable he is or if he has stake in supporting one side or the other in Lebanon. Since he doesn't tell us who his sources are for this information, we can't know if they are dependable or if Ricks is being spun.

However, this is a devastating charge to bring against a country and Kurtz is guilty of the grossest journalistic negligence for not following up on this. Now that the accusation has been allowed to air unchallenged, it will be repeated around the internet and embellished. It's just too useful for too many causes. Some will use it to defend Hezbollah from criticism. Some will use it to demonize Israel or "the Jews." Some will use it to defend US inaction because "all of those people are crazy." Whatever the real story eventually emerges to be (if anything), the story that is out there right now is that the Israeli military let Hezbollah kill Israelis in order to gain sympathy. This is the exact equivalent of the Qana conspiracy and will be just as corrosive to intelligent consideration of the vast problems of the region.

No doubt someone will try to defend Israel by bringing up Churchill's allowing the Luftwaffe to bomb Coventry, even though he had intelligence that would have enabled him to stop them or, at least, to evacuate the population of Coventry. There is considerable question as to whether the Churchill story is even true. Supposing it is, the two cases are not equivalent. The story, as it now stands, is that the Israeli military is allowing Hezbollah to keep long range weapons for the soul purpose of keeping up national support for the war through a constant stream of random civilian casualties. Churchill allowed one set of casualties to happen in order to protect an intelligence secret that was regularly saving far more lives.

If the Coventry story is not true and the Israeli story is, the current events will amount to one of the most callous acts of betrayal in modern history. If the Israeli story is false, then Howard Kurtz will bear a great part of the blame for allowing it to gain a foothold on the internet and to spread. Thanks, Howie.

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