The Agues of Empire
If there are three things that militaries worldwide love to do, it’s spend huge amounts of money, kill people for no good reason, and tell the civilian leadership to shut up and mind its own business. But if there are four things that militaries worldwide love to do, the next one is give their latest massacre-in-the-making a hilariously juvenile G.I.-Joe-style nickname. When Israel announced that the latest phase in its program of punishing the Palestinian people for their continued existence would be called “Operation Pillar of Defense”, I was as delighted as a man can be while simultaneously being suicidally depressed.
For one thing, characterizing any violent action by a country that spends a larger percentage of its budget on the military than any other nation in the world against a demoralized aggregation of impoverished minorities who don’t even have any internationally recognized legal status as “defense” is pretty hilarious right off the bat. Even the stingiest NFL defenses lack a go-to play that involves murdering their opponents’ offensive coordinator, and there is a reason that a game whose final score is 168-6 is referred to as a ‘slaughter’. The two teams aren’t playing in the same league; they aren’t playing on the same field; they aren’t even playing the same game.
But this, really, is part of the problem. I am the first to admit the phenomenal power of the metaphor to encourage thought and understanding; obviously, for this issue in particular, plenty of people agree with me, as the vast and largely pointless history of public editorializing on the rights and wrongs of the Israel/Palestine conflict is rife with metaphor. The land is a garden, thriving and blooming but rife with pests; the land is a neighborhood, where one house is full of rowdies; the land is a living room, and the kids need a swift lesson in discipline from a kind but forceful dad. Even one of the foundational statements of the nation of Israel — that it was a “land without a people for a people without a land” — is a metaphor, albeit one so poorly chosen that it has caused no end of trouble.
We have had more than enough trouble. We are tired of metaphor; we are exhausted with conflict; we are weary of making excuses. Very well then: at a certain point, metaphors — being as they are merely carefully constructed mental narratives, or, if you prefer, lies — no longer serve an argument. They can too easily be derailed, added to, subtracted from, rerouted, and decorated with irrelevancies. So we must turn to something less subject to the fripperies of interpretation and the vagaries of opinion. We must abandon metaphor; we must forsake irony; we must leave behind even the flat presentation of facts (in what other context is it acceptable to solve a problem by killing dozens of times as many people as were killed by the problem itself?), and turn instead to the cold and pitiless lessons of history.
The only thing that makes the issue unique among contemporary political issues is that so many American liberals are willing to forsake the dedication and passion they show to victims of civil rights abuses elsewhere when it comes to the occupied territories. Courtesies extended to every other oppressed other are denied the non-people of non-Palestine. Sometimes, this is attributable to Jewish heritage, or at least to an appreciation of the legitimate suffering of the Jewish people that has been allowed to fester into overcompensation; in other cases, it has to to with the game of realpolitik that the U.S. government has played with Israel since its founding, and a wish to not seem hypocritical by condemning conservative support of Israel’s terrible abuses of the civilian populace while defending it when a Democrat is in the White House. Just as five different right-wingers support Israel for five different reasons, so too do five different left-wingers have five different excuses for why what Israel does to its captive population isn’t really worthy of condemnation. But what they all have in common is that they are helping an expansionist colonial power make excuses for its behavior. They are all playing the same old game of exceptionalism, and it is a game that will always and forever lay on the wrong side of history.
For all those who like to pretend otherwise, there is literally nothing new under the sun on the baked concrete slabs of Gaza, in the crowded slums of the West Bank, in the miserable refugee camps dotting the landscape of Lebanon. Every single objection that has been made to justify the behavior of Israel’s government towards those living in its areas of military occupation, and every single objection that will be made in the future, has been made before for every other settler state. It has been made by Americans about the indigenous population they shifted into ever smaller ‘reservations’ as the needs of the white population grew, about their black slave population, and about the Filipinos they ‘liberated’ from Spain only to slaughter in vast quantities to establish a foothold in the East; it has been made by the white majorities in South Africa and Rhodesia, the colonial powers in Africa and Asia, the French in Vietnam, the British in India and Ireland, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Russians in Eastern Europe, the Japanese in China, the Christians in the Middle East and the Muslims in the Maghreb, the Romans nearly everywhere, and in every other land occupied by force, where the humanity of the native population was considered secondary to the convenience of the invader. It is so well-established a historical pattern that citing chapter and verse hardly seems necessary, but if this will not serve to convince anyone on the Israel-is-justified side (or its mealy-mouthed cousin, the both-sides-are-equally-bad side), it may at least preserve my sanity to remember.
The Palestinians say they want peace, but they violate the treaties again and again — just like the Sioux violated their treaties with Washington, forcing violent reprisals. (The government itself is blameless in all this, of course.) The government merely wants peace; it has no ulterior motive — just like the colonies were meant to spread order, prosperity and civilization, not to loot foreign lands of resources and labor. Israel means only to defend itself against an entrenched and bitter enemy — just as American soldiers ‘defended’ our sovereignty against the threat of Filipino tribesmen armed with knives. Palestine does not recognize the right of Israel to exist (never mind the reciprocity) — just as those foolish blacks would not accept the legitimate authority of their white masters in South Africa. If Israel and Palestine are at war, then the Arabs started it — just as “intolerable aggression” on the part of the occupied is always a just cassus belli throughout history, everywhere from Gleiwitz to Baghdad. The Palestinians are vile terrorists, and occupation or no, they must stop their attacks before there can be peace — just as the Irish were savage hooligans, and the IRA needed to lay down its arms before the British would stop their abuses of human rights. Palestine was an empty and unproductive desert before the Israelis arrived, and its people should be grateful for what was done for them by their conquerers — just as the Africans were little more than animals before the blessings of colonialism, which they have ungratefully flushed down the toilet, thus becoming responsible for their own miseries.
Honestly, for anyone not ignorant or deliberately blind to history, the argument becomes tiresome as soon as it is begun. Do you support the collective punishment of Palestinians by Israel for the activities of radicals? Then you must have been all right with similar collective punishment in South Africa. Do you believe that it is in the nature of Arabs to be treacherous, criminal and weak, and to respond only to force? Then you must have agreed with the Japanese Empire when it said the same thing about China. Do you think the terrorists of Hamas and the PLO deliberately hide among civilians, forcing Israel to harm women and children despite their best intentions? Then you must have been fine with Dutch bombers unleashed on Indonesia when the rebels there allegedly did the same thing. Do you feel Palestinian terrorists are a special breed of evil because they kill innocent civilians? Imperialists have said the same about every force that ever stood in their way, from the American terror of Indians and blacks and Chinese to the brute beasts the British coincidentally encountered everywhere they settled. (Women and children killed by a native resistance are always innocents cruelly targeted, and the fault of the rebels; women and children killed by the occupying forces are always regrettable but inescapable ‘collateral damage’, and also the fault of the rebels.) Do you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a special and unique one, created by political elements irreproducible in any other time and place? So, too, did the colonial powers in every other century, on every other continent.
What is happening to the Palestinians under Israel — and it is happening to them — is not unique. It is not special. And most of all, it is not historically defensible. It is inevitable. It is the necessary progression of colonial logic, a historical phenomenon as predictable as sunset as as destructive as a hurricane. Its excuses have always been the same, and they will always be viewed with shame when civilization progresses to the point at which it can no longer be tolerated. The only differences are the demographics and politics of the people who have been roped into special pleading for the imperialist aggressor. Defend the actions of a bullying settler state all you like; you will find increasing numbers to keep you company. But in the end, you are standing over the butchered victims of the Nat Turner rebellion and asking your fellow landowners what is wrong with the Negro, that he can do such awful things; and contemplating what further punishment you can inflict on him, so that he does not do them again.