In the film Schindler’s List, there’s a scene where Nazi soldiers are coming to take the Jews out of the ghetto in which they’ve been forced to live as refugees in their own country. The soldiers look anxious and extremely "pumped up," as would be necessary for any human being ordered to carry out such an odious task. They were to round up hundreds of Jews from their homes and take them to concentration camps.
Like a SWAT team, the soldiers raid the apartment buildings without warning, to prevent the inhabitants from thinking of any way to escape. The screaming of orders and frightened voices overwhelms the senses. Chaos and noise make it almost impossible to figure out what’s happening. The men in uniform storm the apartment building in an organized fashion, banging on doors and ordering the families out. Those who resist or don’t understand what they’re supposed to do are shot.
Out in the street, two troops drag a slender young woman back toward the trucks – she had tried to run away – but before they can get her to the truck, another soldier shoots her to death. She collapses, each soldier still holding a now-limp arm. One of them runs up screaming at the young man who’d killed their unarmed prisoner: He’d gone too far. He’d been trigger-happy.
But there’s no time to worry about that, no time to consider whether or not this was murder. The soldiers return to herding the people toward the trucks. Inside the building, a few troops simply dissociate, blocking out the shots and screams right down the hall by playing Bach on an old piano, smiling in a crazy way – crazy, but somehow fitting for the insane circumstances into which they’ve been thrust.
At that advanced stage of Hitler’s remodeling of nation and psyche, there was no need for any announcement that the military would launch an investigation. There was no need to announce, weeks or months later, that "no wrongdoing was found" and that the soldier was simply "stressed out." There would be no press conference to allay public fears that something was profoundly wrong with the moral values of their nation’s military leaders, or that their youth had been born again in the image of their leader – that their troops had become "natural born" killers.
"The Israeli captain on duty alerted his troops to reports of a suspicious figure about 100 yards from the outpost. Soldiers fired into the air, according to radio transmissions, military court documents and witnesses.
“‘It’s a little girl,’ a soldier watching from a nearby Israeli observation post cautioned over the military radio. ‘She’s running defensively eastward. … A girl of about 10, she’s behind the embankment, scared to death.’
"Four minutes later, Israeli troops opened fire on the girl with machine guns and rifles, the radio transmissions indicated. The captain walked to the spot where the girl ‘was lying down’ and fired two bullets from his M-16 assault rifle into her head, according to an indictment against the officer. He started to walk away, but pivoted, set his rifle on automatic and emptied his magazine into the girl’s prone body, the indictment alleged.
“‘This is Commander,’ the captain said into the radio when he was finished. ‘Whoever dares to move in the area, even if it’s a 3-year-old – you have to kill him. Over.'”
The Israeli military, like the U.S. military, seems to know no limits. Or if it does, those limits are not publicized, and are unimaginable to most people. Their remarkably similar "rules of engagement" may conjure up images of engagement parties or rules for good behavior. But "rules of engagement" are a set of guidelines for murder – which murder is okay, which is not. Which bullets fired are okay, which are not. Which bombs dropped are okay, which are not. When it’s okay to machine-gun a car full of people, when it’s not. How many civilians are okay to kill, and the number that’s one digit too many.
Volumes have been spoken and written about the immorality of terrorism and our rights to protect ourselves as individuals and nations. Self-defense can be real, but it can also be a camouflage for murder. Real self-defense – when someone is, right this very minute, clearly attacking you – is a natural instinct.
But the moment you go even one inch further, things get dodgy. When preemptive killings and wars are carried out in the name of self-defense, they’re lynchings or assassinations or massacres. Whether or not you feel threatened, when you kill others because they might one day attack you, you’ve lost the high moral ground. Now you’re the threat.
Was It Justifiable? We Must Begin to Think for Ourselves
Are these actions justifiable as reasonable self-defense? And if not, who’s really to blame? Increasingly, we’re asked to wink at the kinds of torture and killing that civilized nations used to consider illegal, genocidal, or, well, uncivilized. The explanations our military and political leaders offer are uncritically passed along to us by news anchors, talking heads, and newspapers, so we’re going to have to start thinking for ourselves.
Question what you’ve been told. Following are three questions that won’t be raised in your newspaper, on radio talk shows, or on the evening news. In fact, if you live in militaristic cultures like the U.S. and Israel, you’re not supposed to think about them at all:
1. If someone isn’t currently trying to kill you but you feel threatened, are you morally justified in killing them (rather than monitoring their behavior, taking cover, or arresting them, etc.) just to be on the safe side?
The line between "trying to kill you" and "looking like maybe they’re trying to kill you" – and the line between the latter and "looking like other people who might want to kill you" or even "looking like somebody who probably couldn’t kill you, but who is a child of people who could maybe pack a bomb into their lunch bag" – can be so thin as to disappear altogether.
"Five days after the October incident, Yaalon told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet that the girl likely had been used as a lure to draw soldiers from the outpost and into the range of Palestinian sniper fire. Yaalon told the cabinet that his investigation showed that the soldiers fired into the air, but when the girl continued walking and tossed her backpack aside, they shot at her, fearful that she might have a bomb."
2. If you’ve been brainwashed by your leaders to believe that the people you’re fighting are "Satan" or "a bunch of cold-blooded killers, and that’s the way we’re going to treat them," or "better to make their mothers cry than ours," or that you should "go massive sweep it all up. Things related and not," is it you who should be punished if you go too far (intentionally or not), or the leaders who taught you, by word and example, to do so?
When a system is set up for the killing of people under the heading "war" or its offspring, "occupation," the deck is stacked for murder. This fact is camouflaged by constant references to "a few bad apples" who are to blame whenever word of a particularly savage killing gets out. "Bad apples," so the argument goes, are found in any organization, so we should overlook these things.
But what makes such extreme "bad apples" out of good men and women in the military is a system that knowingly places them in "truly insane circumstances."
This system replaces their clothing – their original selves – with a uniform that subconsciously pledges their allegiance to the values of the men in charge of that system. One’s true morality must now be exchanged for the morals of one’s president, prime minister, and commanders, because only then does a soldier receive immunity from accountability – for a price.
"If and only if you purge your soul of your own moral values, the ones your mother raised you with, you can count on us to excuse you from whatever you do." This Faustian bargain is at the root of U.S. and Israeli leaders’ slimy refusal to be held accountable, as other nations’ leaders and militaries are, to international courts that prosecute war crimes: If they did, they couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
"Under questioning from a cabinet member, Yaalon denied press reports that the commander and other soldiers left the outpost to make sure the girl was dead. At the next cabinet meeting a week later, he went further, saying he believed the captain’s account that he was responding to ‘gunfire aimed at him by firing a burst into the ground’ and said the captain offered ‘a reasonable explanation considering the conditions of the location and the events.'”
As Phillip Zimbardo’s experiments have illustrated, even labeling a person as a "prisoner" or a "guard" changes their identity and their inclinations to act accordingly. Trading their own clothes for uniforms that represent authority is an especially quick and easy way to help people exchange their normal ways of thinking about good and bad, right and wrong, for that of their leaders, their co-workers, and their organization. It requires a huge violation to activate the suppressed personality and conscience under the uniform, and in those who view the uniform as equivalent with goodness itself.
3. Why does society condemn you more for shooting or desecrating a dead body, or for torturing and humiliating someone, than for actually killing people, even civilians?
If you pay close attention, you’ll find that it’s not the killing itself that arouses opposition in militaristic cultures like the U.S. and Israel, it’s the way it’s performed and what is done afterward. I was glad to see that soldiers are speaking out against this murder. But the stamp of militarism is visible in this man’s protest – it’s as if he realizes, at some level, that to rouse the comatose morality of his military leaders and his society, he must condemn not the killing itself (for they won’t care too much about that), but the unusual part:
“‘There is no logical reason for what he did,’ a soldier, who declined to be identified, told the daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth a few days after the incident. ‘Not for shooting the two bullets at her, and certainly not the burst afterward. This is the most sickening thing I have ever seen during my army service. It was desecration of a body. That is not what we are taught to do in the army. … The 13-year-old girl was already dead. Why did he fire that burst into her?'”
Indeed, the only thing that can break through our numbed, military-worshipping psyches is something really unusual: beheadings, desecrations of dead bodies, or shooting somebody who’s already dead. Murder and massacres are no big deal – we’ve seen it all before. And if we ever do get upset, well there’s always a soothing TV or radio commentator to help us feel better about it. To get a little perspective. To understand that this is how they do things in the military. To tuck away our moral values and repeat to ourselves, "It’s for a good cause."
Even when a Marine was caught, on film, in the act of shooting an injured, unarmed Iraqi prisoner, this was quickly explained away as a "kill-check," yet another heinously cute term for an inhuman policy. It seemed awful, yes, at first – until we understood it better, until the authorities explained why it was necessary to kill a man lying on the floor and begging for mercy. You know, "rules of engagement."
Thank Heaven for Little Girls
A little girl running in fear from armed men is killed in cold blood. A wounded man is killed at point-blank range. Families who panic at roadblocks or don’t understand they’re supposed to stop are pumped full of bullets – babies, grannies, and all. The world is left gasping, unable to speak, because it is clear to us now: No level of killing will ever qualify as a war crime in cultures where military values override our moral values.
The authorities are trying their best to come up with a reason why this schoolgirl was shot so many times after she was dead – because that’s the unusual part. But in no way will the Israeli government, or the U.S. government, decry the fact that Palestinian civilians like her are being shot on a regular basis. Instead, they will decry Palestinian terrorism again (which is unnecessary because we despise terrorism already, but is a good tactic for diverting our attention) and remind us that soldiers have a right to protect themselves.
If that doesn’t do the trick, they’ll bring out the ultimate weapon: "There are always a few bad apples, and they will be punished."
"Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit."
Read more by Dr. Teresa Whitehurst
- Ethics for Dummies – November 7th, 2005
- ‘Do You Think He’s Dead, Mom?’ – October 20th, 2005
- Do You Feel Any Safer? – October 10th, 2005
- NY Times Skews the News Again – August 30th, 2005
- Angry Mothers and Trembling Grizzlies: The Sheehan Effect – August 10th, 2005