On Killing Civilians

By Rupen Das

On Nov. 18th, just as another round of bloodletting between the Israeli’s and Palestinians got underway, twelve members of the Dalu family (seven of them children) in the Al Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City were killed by an Israeli artillery strike. While the Israeli military initially insisted that it was a targeted strike against a Hamas leader, investigations by the military themselves showed that it was not, and Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces admitted that it was an accident. Other officials speaking anonymously told the press that there was a “targeting error” and technical problems related to the strike. The next day Israeli Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz admonished division commanders to “pay attention not to just take random houses and fire at them unnecessarily”.

The horror of this incident was not that Mohammed Dalu, his wife and their four children, four other members of his family and two neighbors were caught in a crossfire, but were casually killed because of unnecessary firing on random houses.

I find it very disturbing that we have a hypocritical double standard when it comes to the rightness or wrongness of actions during war. Other than a brief mention in some press, the story disappeared. This is the reality of war and such deaths are referred to as collateral damage when inflicted by western militaries and their allies. I cannot imagine if the reverse had happened, if an Arab, African or Asian army or militia had equally casually killed twelve western civilians. It would have been deemed a war crime as per the articles of the Geneva Convention. There would have been global outrage at such a barbaric act. Yet thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistani, Libyan and Syrian civilians have died as collateral damage and our silence is deafening.

This reality is described by Chris Hedges, a writer on conflict and security issues, who uses the term total war when describing both the ancient and modern ways of battle. There is absolutely nothing sacred or noble about war, especially what we Christians refer to as just wars. The reasons for war are far more complex than merely seeking justice. Hedges writes, “The myth of war is essential to justify the horrible sacrifices required in war, the destruction and death of innocents.” So we are forced to create noble causes and narratives to hide the absolute brutality of war.

So is there a difference between a targeting error and a war crime. According to military doctrine and international law, the difference is one of intentionality. Was there an intention to kill the civilians? While there are legal methods to determine intentionality, the cold reality is that civilians are indiscriminately killed. In a murder trial where intentions are weighed, a distinction is made between homicide (intentional killing) and manslaughter (unintentional death). Regardless of which it is, there are penalties. Would not a targeting error then be considered manslaughter?

There will be no penalties for collateral damage and targeting errors. The reason the killing of innocent civilians by powerful armies is not considered evil is because we demonize all civilians and combatants on the other side as evil. This then justifies total war and it becomes easy to kill them without remorse or guilt because we are ridding the world of evil. Theologian N.T Wright reflecting on Sept 11th and the subsequent events writes, “The thousands of innocent victims whose death we mourned met, of course, a tragic, horrible and totally undeserved death. The terrorist actions of Al-Qaeda were and are unmitigatedly evil. But the astonishing naivety which decreed that the USA as a whole was a pure, innocent victim, so that the world could be neatly divided up into evil people (particularly Arabs) and good people (particularly Americans and Israelis), and that the latter had a responsibility now to punish the former…”

Therein lies the problem. We consider ourselves as being innocent, pure and having the moral high ground. This then allows us to be god and seek vengeance and through it, justice. We would be wise to pay heed to the prophetic voice of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

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