Omission vs. Repitition


“Israel didn’t start this war.  Hezbollah did.”
  – New Mexico Governor and former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson

This is the stark framing of the current war between Israel and Lebanon that remains unquestioned.  The US speeds up bomb shipments to Israel, who continues to drop them haphazardly, but Hezbollah started it, so Israel’s “response,” no matter how “disproportionate,” is slightly more justifiable.

Cause and effect allows us to lay blame and take sides in conflicts.  With Pearl Harbor as a cause, the dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan is acceptable to the popular mind.  In the same vein, the war in Afghanistan, undertaken without any evidence as to Afghanistan’s complicity or guilt, was justified by the conventional wisdom that September 11th was the cause.  The long history of American intervention in other countries includes a long history of CIA provocation that has disguised US intervention as a reaction, a defensive operation.

The public is all-too-willing to see the causes of US violence as defensive and justified.  A recent psychological study helps explain why.  Researchers at the University of Texas conducted a study in which volunteers were asked to give a mock debate on whether to initiate a nuclear strike.  The volunteers made opening statements, then began responding to each others’ statements.  After the debate, the volunteers were shown various statements made during the course of the debate. 

Describing the results in the New York Times, Daniel Gilbert notes an “intriguing asymmetry: When volunteers were shown one of their own statements, they naturally remembered what had led them to say it. But when they were shown one of their conversation partner’s statements, they naturally remembered how they had responded to it.”  In other words, we notice and remember the causes of our own actions and the effects of others’ actions.  But we fail to equally sympathize with the causes of others’ actions and the effects of our own behavior.

“In virtually every human society,” writes Gilbert, “’He hit me first’ provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.”

So, acknowledging that murder is wrong whether in the form of instigation or retaliation, it is nonetheless important to understand who started it if we’re going to take sides and bestow ourselves with moral superiority.

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We all know the conventional wisdom about the current battle between Israel and Lebanon.  The mainstream news media, across the spectrum, have presented the story in succinct similarity:  Hamas militants kidnapped an Israeli soldier on June 25th and Hezbollah followed with more kidnappings, prompting a debatably “disproportionate” response from Israel to punish Hezbollah and retrieve the soldiers.  On the BBC website’s Q&A about the topic, the question “How did the current crisis start?” is answered in accordance with conventional wisdom: “The Hezbollah raid into Israel, in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two were captured, was a stunning and provocative attack” which was “clearly a gesture of solidarity towards the Palestinian militants in Gaza who have been holding an Israeli soldier since 25 June.”  There have been debates — Is Israel’s use of force “disproportionate?”  Have war crimes been committed? — but the debates have all been within the framework of this simple, widely-accepted timeline — June 25th to the present.  Virtually every timeline of the current conflict begins on June 25th, with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.  But what about the “day before?”

On June 24th, one day prior to the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier by “Palestinian militants”, Reuters reported that “elite [Israeli] commandos mounted Israel’s first arrest raid into the Gaza Strip . . . since the Jewish state withdrew a year ago,” detaining medical student Osama Muamar and his brother Mustafa, a university student.  Israel said the two men were Hamas militants, though Hamas denies this and no evidence was presented.  All that is firmly known is that Israel invaded sovereign territory and seized two civilians. 

The next day, June 25th, Hamas “militants” seized an Israeli soldier, and Hezbollah followed with its raid into Israel.  As violence escalated, the story from June 24th disappeared, for whatever reasons.  The conventional storyline holds June 25th as the starting point of the current fighting.

Does this matter?  Well, not necessarily.  In terms of the war itself, it’s more of an academic question.  But in terms of the media coverage in the war and the shaping of public opinion, this is vital.  Beginning the story on June 25th offers an unspoken sympathy for Israel and a subtle justification for their ensuing acts.  When two children get caught fighting on the playground, they immediately yell, “He started it!” because, as an 8-year-old can intuit and as the University of Texas researchers have explained, the initial cause of violence is instrumental in understanding conflict and determining right and wrong.  Instigation and retaliation, while both violent, are naturally judged differently.  Violence is wrong, but motives are relevant.  This is not “moral equivalence,” as many like to claim without elaborating on what this term means, but rather a simple quality that infects all moral considerations, from courtroom sentencings to parental groundings.  If we can state that Hezbollah started it, then we can do away with overtly stated moral judgments in favor of the implication that Israel is acting defensively, and conventional wisdom is, thus, born.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan “condemned Hezbollah for sparking the latest violence in the country,” according to BBC news.  Condoleeza Rice reiterated conventional wisdom.  “We fully understand the need of Israel to defend itself,” she said, after lamenting “all of the carnage that Hezbollah launched by its illegal activities, abducting the soldiers and then launching rocket attacks.”

Such comments can only make sense within the framework of the tidy story that begins on June 25th.  Within this framework, we can then debate Iran’s devious support for Lebanon while barely flinching when the front page headline in the New York Times blares “US Speeds up Bomb Delivery for the Israelis.”  The story continues, “[This] threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.” 

“Could be” compared, but apparently won’t be, at least not at length.

The University of Texas study can be broadened to shine a light of clarity on this conflict:  We only see the causes of our actions and the actions of our allies, overlooking the causes of Iraqi insurgents and Hezbollah fighters.  And, brushing aside the effects of our bombs, we cringe and take notice when their bombs kill our fighters.  And accordingly, our enemies perceive in the same way, albeit from the opposite point of view.  The only solution to the several violent crises dotting the globe, then, is for each side to try to understand the other’s point of view.  Otherwise, those who view themselves as right and supremely justified will never stop fighting.
 
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In “The War Prayer” by Mark Twain, a messenger from God enters a church and gives voice to the “unspoken” part of the prayers for victory in the Spanish-American War.

“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells,” he says to the quieted congregation.  “Help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief . . . with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst . . . for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives . . . water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!”

“It was believed afterward,” writes Twain, “that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

“The War Prayer” is less an indictment of war than an indictment of the segmenting of truth into two factions: the spoken and the unspoken.  His words ring relevant a century later, as the spoken half of the truth takes the form of “conventional wisdom” while the unspoken half is denounced as “conspiracy theory” or “anti-Americanism,” only spoken by “lunatics” whose arguments make “no sense.”

Conventional wisdom gives us all a simplified story — presented in soundbites between cable-news commercials, in magnified headlines and lead paragraphs, and in repetitive press conferences — that give us the false security of understanding.  But conventional wisdom is usually at best misleading and at worst flat wrong.  The months leading up to the Iraq War are a prime example — virtually every mainstream news source reported the conventional wisdom about Iraq’s WMDs and impending danger, and a few apologized when this storyline was revealed as erroneous.  Only the “lunatics” dared to utter the otherwise unspoken truth, and their views have since been silently vindicated.

But the truth remains segmented in two camps, the spoken and the unspoken.

The spoken truth is loud, pervasive, and consistent.  During the Bush-Blair press conference, President Bush insisted this is an “interesting period because . . . we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability. “  Addresses the causes of our violence, that is.  Unspoken are the root causes of their violence.  He continued, “The notion of democracy beginning to emerge scares the ideologues, the totalitarians, those who want to impose their vision. It just frightens them.”  Those who elected Hamas and Hezbollah could just as easily make the same statement, aimed in the other direction, but this remains unspoken.

Tony Blair then chimed in.  “Terrorism brings the reprisal; the reprisal brings the additional hatred; the additional hatred breeds the additional terrorism, and so on.”  The spoken truth insists that terrorism is the root cause.  Remaining unspoken is the Israeli kidnapping of civilians, the cause of their  “terrorism.”

In the New York Times’ coverage of the press conference, they noted that “both reiterated their position that any cease-fire resolution must include a long-term plan to disarm Hezbollah and evict it from southern Lebanon.”  Unspoken is any plan to disarm Israel and evict it from southern Lebanon.

“[Israel] has serious doubts that an international force would be strong enough to contain Hezbollah,” notes the New York Times.  Whether or not anyone can contain Israel is apparently irrelevant, and remains unspoken.  Hezbollah “built its reputation on its willingness to fight Israel [but] has always rejected calls to disarm, and seems to have a flow of military and financial support from Syria and Iran.”  Israel’s willingness to fight Hezbollah is unspoken, as is Israel’s military and financial support from the US.

There is indeed an “intriguing asymmetry” between the spoken and unspoken truth. 

The bias of the mainstream media is not one of left vs. right, but one of omission vs. repetition.  No matter how many times this story is repeated, it is wrong.   This is not a matter of opinion, of left vs. right; it’s a matter of fact — the current conflict between Israel and Lebanon began on June 24th.  And the omission of the cause from the multitude of violent effects allows us to haphazardly and self-servingly apply titles of good and bad, instigation and retaliation.  The only way the US can give Israel the “green light” to continue bombing Lebanon for another week or so without screams of outrage is because the story begins with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier on June 25th, not a Palestinian civilian on June 24th.

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