Greater Expectations

Where would we be without double standards?

We’ll never know.  We’ve always had them and we always will.  At the moment, there may be no clearer demonstration of this than in the land of the Hebrews.

On a recent episode of HBO’s Real Time, Bill Maher mused that, in its current battle with Hamas, Israel has, in the eyes of the world, become “the victim of the soft bigotry of high expectations.”

“If Hamas had the opportunity, they would kill the maximum number of Israelis,” Maher explained.  “Israel has the opportunity to kill way more [Palestinians] and they do not.”

That statement, by itself, is undeniably true.  Hamas, in its dream of dreams, wants nothing more than the eradication of the Jewish state and all the Jews in it.  Since it does not have the capability to achieve this, it has settled for the next-best thing, which is to dig tunnels and launch whatever missiles it has on hand into Israel and hope to cause as much damage as possible.

Israel, meanwhile, has the means of demolishing Gaza beyond recognition and ridding the world of Hamas once and for all.  (At least until it springs up someplace else.)  In the past month Israel has killed more than a thousand Gaza residents—most of them innocent civilians—but that’s nothing compared to the tens or hundreds of thousands it could kill if it so desired.  That is, if eliminating the threat to its security were truly all it cared about, and the hell with collateral damage.

In other words, let us not lose perspective by acting like Israel and Hamas are either morally or militarily equivalent and can be judged on the same ethical scale.

The charge by Maher—and by countless Israel supporters around the world—is that Israel is held to an unfair double standard whenever it goes to war.  Because it wields superior firepower, Israel is expected to exert a level of restraint that is neither expected of nor exercised by its enemies.  When it doesn’t—or appears not to—it is accused of violating the just war principle of proportionality, which can be roughly summarized as, “Don’t kill too many civilians.”

This critique of public opinion is legitimate insofar as it underlines the indiscriminate nature of Hamas’s bombing campaign relative to Israel’s, and the way Hamas does not seem to be adequately punished for it on the world stage—particularly at the United Nations.

The irony, as it were, is that because Hamas so proudly and blatantly disregards the basic rules of warfare—and is so clearly indifferent to the well-being of its own constituents, let alone its enemies—the world regards its abject moral decrepitude as a given.  The U.N. does not bother to formally condemn Hamas any more than it would al Qaeda:  Neither group is expected to behave well, and so the international community expends no particular time or effort trying to make it so.

Hamas gets away with being the bad guy by advertising itself as the bad guy.

Israel, as a civilized democracy, is never quite so lucky.

Israel—its government, its military and its citizens—takes great pains to grant itself the moral high ground in the face of any foe.  Amid the PR backlash that always seems to occur when it goes into battle, the Jewish state and its supporters point out that, as a point of policy, Israel does not deliberately target civilians when striking enemy territory.  Nor, they say, does it use its own citizens as so-called “human shields” as a form of moral blackmail.  It strictly goes after its declared adversaries, and while this inevitably results in the deaths of innocent people, Israel neither desires nor arranges for those deaths to occur.

On paper, Israel really does possess the moral high ground, because it presumes to value human life and to make every possible effort to avoid taking it even in the midst of war.

It would be nice just to stop there.  To throw up our hands in exasperation over the unfairness of it all.  To shake our fists at the world press, demanding it either go easier on Israel or be more critical of Hamas and its ilk, all the while wondering why everyone else can’t see something that, to us, is so painfully obvious.

We could do all those things, and I’m sure we’d all feel a bit better.  Unfortunately, we cannot, because the fact is that reality does not unfold on paper, and a country’s stated policies do not always align with the facts on the ground.

While the debate on this is still hot, it has become increasingly impossible to believe that the corpses of anything close to 1,400 men, women and children of Gaza were necessary for Israel to neutralize the threat to its people and its land.

Yes, it’s true that Hamas has deliberately planted targets of interest in densely-populated buildings and neighborhoods.  However, it does not logically follow that Israel has no choice but to drop bombs on those places without a second thought or a Plan B, or that it carries no culpability for when it does.  If Israel really did value a Palestinian life as it does an Israeli life, would it be this eager to whack every last Hamas mole without finding another way?  Isn’t it the responsibility of the world’s more enlightened countries to be more judicious than their enemies?

That leads us to a second, but by no means secondary, critique of the double standard gripe.  Namely, the possibility that a country like Israel should be held to a double (read: higher) standard in the first place.

By way of analogy:  In the middle of the previous decade, the United States government took enormous flak for its habit of torturing alleged enemy combatants during the so-called “war on terror,” not terribly unlike the way the Japanese government tortured Allied soldiers during World War II.  When defenders of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation” practices argued that America’s current enemies would surely not treat American prisoners any better—al Qaeda has certainly never signed the Geneva Conventions—it only raised the question of why the Greatest Country in the History of the World would want to lower itself to the level of petty, fanatical gangsters.  Isn’t it kind of the point of being the good guy that there are certain things you will not do?

If Israel intends to remain one of the good guys, it might just have to accept that the world expects nothing less than perfection (or something very close to it).  Israel has to behave better than its nemeses, because that’s what great countries do.  It might not be fair or just, but then there is very little in that corner of the Middle East that is.

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Get On With It

Well, somebody had to test whether it was too soon to ask if the “Boston Strong” movement had run its course and was becoming just a little bit silly.

As it turned out, that somebody was Bill Maher and the answer was, “Yes, it is too soon.”

On the November 8 episode of his HBO program Real Time, Maher noted how the Red Sox championship parade observed a moment of reflection when the procession reached the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the site of the April 15 bombings.  Said Maher:

It was a bad day.  Three people died, that’s terrible.  More were maimed, that’s horrible.  But unfortunately that happens every day, in car accidents and everything else.  I mean, your city was not leveled by Godzilla.

In response, Thomas Menino, the outgoing mayor of Boston, called the comments “very irresponsible” and said that Maher “should be taken to task” for making them.

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Menino added.  “Come to Boston, visit Boston and see what a strong city we are.”

Views of many other Bostonians followed in the same spirit, and can be roughly summed up as, “What a jerk.”

Maher’s broader point can be gleaned from what he said moments earlier on his show about the New York metro area regarding Hurricane Sandy, whose one-year anniversary led, among other things, to a postponement of that city’s final mayoral debate:

It was a storm, it was a bad storm.  But it was an act of nature.  Do we always need to wallow and re-grieve over every bad thing that’s ever happened in this country?

Well, how ‘bout it, folks?  Conceding, as we might, that the person who asks such questions is an insensitive brute, let us soldier on and consider whether the insensitive brute has a point.

To wit:  What is the appropriate amount of time an entire city is allowed to publicly mourn a tragedy?  Is the length of the former determined by the scale of the latter?

Had the marathon attack killed three hundred people, rather than three, would and/or should shows of citywide solidarity, like those at the Red Sox parade, endure for a hundred times longer than they already have?

Conversely, had something like the 9/11 attacks inflicted far less damage than they did—suppose the buildings hadn’t collapsed—would the city of New York be justified in holding the sorts of massive annual commemorations it has held on every September 11 since?

In publicly grappling with acts of man-made and natural horror, should we not discriminate between truly seismic events and (relatively) small-scale traumas?  Or does every high-profile calamity necessitate an equal—and equally open-ended—outpouring of public concern?

I wish to stress the use of the word “public” in all of these queries, since no one—including Bill Maher—would presume to tell a stricken individual that the time has come to “move on.”  In one’s private life, there is no right or wrong way to grieve; everyone reacts to death and suffering differently.

But taking an assault on individuals to also be an assault on an entire city is a wholly separate matter and is fair game for scrutiny.

The essence of “Boston Strong”—the phrase itself and the attitude it represents—is that the people of Boston, like the people of New York before them, will not allow punks with bombs to bring the city to its knees.  That we will carry on—proud and undaunted—and prove to evildoers everywhere that our values are not easily abandoned or destroyed.

Is this not, in so many words, exactly what the mean old man on HBO was suggesting?  That we not abandon all sense of perspective and completely lose our marbles whenever something terrible happens?  That the effects of what occurred on Boylston Street were challenging, but by no means insurmountable?

A central precept of all fiction writing intones, “Show, don’t tell.”  If the city of Boston genuinely insists upon the doctrine of carrying on, might we demonstrate it by actually carrying on?  By returning to our normal lives and not throwing a hissy fit whenever our pride is questioned?

If you want to prove that you’re strong, be strong.  Don’t say it—just do it.  Acknowledge your loss, comfort those who need comforting, and then resume business as usual.

For heaven’s sake, our city was not leveled by Godzilla.