The Political Breakdown

Jul 22

A Response to Yishai Schwartz

I was recently sent an article titled “Israel’s 2014 Invasion of the Gaza Strip is Morally Justified”, by Yishai Schwartz. It has been years since I’ve been so disturbed and disgusted by a piece of writing.

A bit of background: several days ago I got into a…spirited debate on the subject of Israel and Palestine with a friend. This is rare, because though I write and discuss politics on the internet, I’m not the type to jump into one in the real world, especially not such a difficult and divisive issue as this one. But it happened. The viewpoint I gave to my friend was much the one I’ve written of previously - that both sides have legitimate grievances, that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that I find the way Israel chooses to marginalize Hamas both confusing, ineffective, and cruel in its high collateral damage.

Afterwards, my friend sent me Schwartz’s article. I found myself dumbfounded by its threadbare argument. Obviously enough, Schwartz writes that Israel’s recent actions in Gaza, beginning on July 8th with bombings of suspected Hamas militant stockpiles and quarters and continuing with a ground offensive, are morally justified. As of today (August 22nd), 25 Israeli soldiers and 2 Israeli civilians have died. Meanwhile, 550 Gazan citizens have perished, including at least 30 children.

Schwartz writes:

For if Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.

But there is an alternative. We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally.

Schwartz has laced his argument in rhetoric that speaks of principles, morals, and a greater good. But when you actually spend the time to discern and summarize his argument, it is that because Hamas uses reprehensible tactics, human shields are a non-issue that must be ignored.

I was floored. How could an educated man make that argument that Israel is morally justified for no other reason than that the other side is using despicable tactics? His sole argument is this: two wrongs make a right.

That’s it. That’s all there is.

It is childish, it is petty, and it is cruel. There is no appeal to Just War Theory or any substantive argument of political science. Only the belief that we must create a precedent in which the actions of terrorists do not at all constrict our own tactics. And yet he espouses the precedent that in times of conflict, innocent human shields should be blithely ignored for the sake of achieving tactical objectives.

The tactics of the enemy influence our own. They always have and they always should. I can not imagine the slope that such a belief would take humanity down. Do we mow down the next gunman that takes a hostage, just to show future criminals that we won’t allow innocents to determine our tactics? Because this seems to be precisely what Schwartz is arguing for.

Like Nicholas Kristof, I believe both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate grievances. I personally do not believe Hamas is justified in its tactics that trade civilian life for potshots at Israel, nor do I believe Israel is justified in accepting extremely high collateral damage in exchange for mediocre tactical gains. I believe that there are better ways for Israel to end the rocket fire. Yet with a terrorist group firing rockets into its territory, I am certain a plausible argument could be made that Israel’s Gazan offensive is morally justifiable, even though it is likely I would ultimately disagree.

This however, is not one of those arguments.

Jul 21

Israel, Palestine, and Elementary Counterinsurgency.


Israel is a smart nation full of very smart people, so I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t applying the most basic - and by far most critical - tenant of counterinsurgency doctrine to their relations with Gaza.

Let’s back up for just a second. Insurgents, by their nature, do not fight an open war. They fight in the shadows, attacking and then blending back into the arboreal or urban jungle from which they came. You cannot fight them like you would fight an “ordinary” war - you have to dramatically change your strategy in order to have any real effect. The United States had to learn this lesson the hard way when they invaded Iraq in 2003. For the first several years, casualties were climbing and despite our force’s best efforts, conditions were not improving. Things did not start getting better until 2006 when General Petraeus, under the tutelage of counterinsurgency master David Kilcullen, completely changed the way the military was operating.

Now, Kilcullen has a lot to say about counterinsurgency (abbreviated COIN), and it is all fascinating. But here is the keystone to it all: the way to defeat insurgency is not to attack the enemy, but to protect and win over the people.

If insurgents are fish, the people are a coral reef. If insurgents are snakes, the people are the grass. If there is no grass, no coral reef, then the inhabitants within will have no place to hide.

Back to Iraq. The number of attacks did not decline until Petraeus took command in 2007. Technology did not help. Missiles, bombs, and bullets did not make the situation more stable. Instead, General Petraeus got the troops among the people, protected them, stayed with them, and they began to talk to him and give him much needed information. Petraeus convened a meeting of experts to make a new manual, retraining army officers how to think. The manual adhered to classic tenants of COIN: Minimum firepower and force must be used. Winning over the population is the objective.

What if Israel decided to follow basic COIN in their fight with Hamas? What if instead of enraging the Palestinians and the Arab world, they sought to win over the Palestinians through education, social services, reliable utilities, etc? It has worked in the past and could work in the future. If the Israeli government focused on winning over the Palestinian people, it could do much more for their security than missile strikes ever could.

Another gratuitous self-reblog. But since everything is exactly the same as last time, as this cycle repeats itself to the letter every two to three years, I’ve little to say that I haven’t already said before. Why is Israel ignoring the most basic tenants of counterinsurgency as espoused by David Kilcullen and other experts in the field? There are better ways to defeat terrorists like Hamas - by winning over the people.

Jul 20

On the contrary, this is a war in which both peoples have a considerable amount of right on their sides. The failure to acknowledge the humanity and legitimate interests of people on the other side has led to cross-demonization. That results in a series of military escalations that leave both peoples worse off.

Israelis are absolutely correct that they have a right not to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings. And Palestinians are absolutely right that they have a right to a state, a right to run businesses and import goods, a right to live in freedom rather than relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land.

Both sides have plenty of good people who just want the best for their children and their communities, and also plenty of myopic zealots who preach hatred. A starting point is to put away the good vs. evil narrative and recognize this as the aching story of two peoples — each with legitimate grievances — colliding with each other.

” — The absolute gospel truth according to Nicholas Kristoff, which is admittedly very similar to what I said in my opinion article Neither is Justified. This is the article I’ve been searching for. It’s not the one Israel supporters or Palestine supporters want, but it’s the one both desperately need. Read it. Reread it. Take it to heart.

(Source: The New York Times)

Jul 18

The number of people seeking sanctuary in UN shelters in Gaza rose from 22,000 to over 40,000 on Friday, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

"We have also launched a $60m (£35m) appeal for our emergency work," he added.

The BBC’s Yolande Knell in Gaza City says Israeli aircraft and artillery intensified strikes in the north, east and south of Gaza on Friday. Meanwhile, air raid sirens sounded in towns across southern Israel as rocket attacks from Gaza continued.

At least 48 Palestinians have been killed since the ground offensive began, officials in Gaza said. One Israeli soldier also died. The dead included three Palestinian children killed by Israeli tank fire in the north of Gaza, medics added.

At least 290 Palestinians - three-quarters of them civilians - have died since the start of the wider Israeli operation on 8 July, officials in Gaza say. One Israeli civilian has been killed by mortar fire and several Israelis have been seriously injured.

” —

BBC News, “Gaza Conflict”.

It happened in 2008, it happened in 2012, and it’s happening again now. The situation is gross and festering and complicated and I can’t take sides, but I will admit I always find Israel’s actions extremely problematic, bordering on morbid. I recognize Israel’s right to safety, but when you look at the numbers, it becomes civilian slaughter - a far cry from self defense.


Jul 17

On Israel and Palestine: Neither is Justified.


l’ve been avoiding this.

With the world and the internet blowing up with opinions on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, I feel the need to throw my own into the ring. I didn’t become a political blogger to avoid the heavy issues. I’m going to do my best to condense an opinion I carried throughout Israel’s ground offensive in Gaza four years ago; an opinion that has remained more or less constant to this day.

Let me get one thing out of the way, before I begin. The question of who is “right” and who is “wrong” in the conflict between Israel and Palestine is so impossible to answer as to be ridiculous to ask. I suppose if one studied the centuries long conflict over the disputed territories they could reasonably say who they thought was in the right. However, while I have delved into the last sixty years of conflict and the founding of Israel, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go back millennia in search of whether the Palestinians or the Israelis are “right”. With that being said, let me continue.

I was privileged to attend an extremely multicultural and international university four years ago when Israel’s last Gaza offensive occurred. I patiently listened to the opinions of Jewish classmates, former Israeli soldiers, and Palestinian supporters. While both sides had heavy-hitting, plausible arguments, there was only one thing I absolutely could not abide. The one thing I cannot stand is when a person attempts to cast either Israel or Palestine - in this case, it is actually correct to say Hamas - as morally justified in their actions. I cannot say this enough. Neither is just. Neither’s actions are justified. The actions both take are entirely reprehensible. Why?

Whether the Israeli government is right or wrong in terms of expanding settlements, blockades, etc, Hamas’s firing of rockets blindly at Israeli citizens is morally reprehensible.

Whether you have the “right to defend yourself” or not, blowing up buildings that you know innocent women, men, children, and babies reside in is morally reprehensible. 

Hamas is cruel and cowardly. They hide behind the innocents and blame the Israelis for deaths that come from retaliation.

Israel is cruel and draconian. Their counterstrikes on the homes of “suspected militants” have killed far more innocents than Hamas’ cruel rockets ever have.

As far as the disputed land is concerned, whether you believe Israel is right, Palestinians is right, or this two-state solution using X year’s boundaries is the correct answer to this dispute, that is fine by me. I will listen carefully and add your justifications and arguments into those I have heard before. But do not ever have the gall to attempt to convince me that one side’s violent, murderous actions are just.  

In the wake of such mind-numbing fatalities such as Israel killing a group of children playing on a Gaza beach, I thought this self-reblog to be relevant.

Jun 30

What the hell is going on in politics this week? First the Supreme Court strikes down the anti-harassment buffer zone around abortion clinics - even though the Supreme Court itself has a massive buffer zone! And now, employers can opt out of the law on providing birth control - also know as health care - to their employees due to religious beliefs. In one week? What the hell?

I seriously worry about the direction our country is headed in. That direction, coincidentally, is backwards.

If “how long can I be at work before actually doing any work” were a sport, I’d be an Olympic athlete by now.

May 26

Rural Japan. Toon-Shi, Ehime Prefecture.

Rural Japan. Toon-Shi, Ehime Prefecture.

May 22

The Anti-Vaccination Movement is Real, and it is Terrifying.

It had been a long day.

I sat in a coffee shop one day last week after a hectic twelve hours of work, the gym, and several errands. As usual, I drank my third or fourth cup of coffee of the day while catching up on my online life. Just another evening of a frequent routine - after an hour of emails, facebook, and a bit of writing I’d head home to inhale a quick dinner and crash, ready to do it at all again the next day. Yet when I checked Facebook, I stumbled across a strange post from a friend. This friend had given birth to her son few weeks ago - I’d attended the baby shower just last month. She wrote that she’d been reading all these terrible things about vaccines and the metals and tissues issued in them, and how could she have that given to her young son?

I was certain she was joking.

I mean, I’d listened to a story about the “anti-vaxxers” on NPR, and had seen the odd post about it on Facebook and tumblr.  Still, I assumed it was a fringe of crazies, blown out of proportion by the internet. It was the 21st century - who could possibly believe such a thing? I expected a “lol, kidding” post to soon follow my friend’s post about her vaccination fears.

Half an hour later, I didn’t see an update.

Growing concerned (could she be serious?) I wrote a brief post on her wall, assuring her that the anti-vaccination movement was crazy and that vaccines were safe, healthy, and one of the best advances in modern medicine.

Note that I am not calling my friend stupid or crazy. She’s a smart, wonderful person who is already an amazing mother after just a few weeks on the job. I was sure she had stumbled across an anti-vaccination article and, having not heard about the movement and its dangerous lies, had gotten a bit worried. What I didn’t expect was for people to start angrily arguing that I was wrong, and that vaccinations were dangerous.

Oh hell no. I was not about to let some ignorant Facebook friends of my friend put her infant son in danger by promulgating lies. I hadn’t bothered to argue with strangers on the internet since I turned 14, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you gotta. I went on the warpath.

I assumed that a couple decent points and a few links to some actually reputable sources would put her anti-vaxxer “friends” to rest. I’d forgotten an important lesson, one of the only ones that often keeps me sane.

People are stupid.

The arguments kept coming. The medical journals had to be a conspiracy, they must be “in” with the pharmacy companies, etc. And this wasn’t coming from some fringe group on the interblags! This was coming from friends of my friend, presumably in my greater sphere of peers. Fortunately, soon after several other friends of my young mother friend jumped in, defending me, and urging her to get her young son vaccinated. For a moment there, I’d been despairing.

I don’t know what my young mother friend ultimately decided about vaccines, though I’ll be sure to politely ask next I see her. What struck me as most disturbing is that anti-vaxxers aren’t some dumb small group in a dark corner of the internet. Rather - they are dumb, but they’re not small, nor are they in a tiny corner of the net. They’re real, they’re close, and they’re likely spreading. These are people that blithely eschew one of the greatest medical advances in history, and one of the primary reasons we’ve largely eliminated diseases which used to kill or cripple an untold number of people. People that proudly stand behind their stupidity and ignore the facts, and in doing so endanger their own offspring and everyone else’s. And the worst is that they infect others, like my friend the young mother, into thinking there might be truth to vicious lies and rumors.

Arguing with strangers on the internet may usually be one of the most useless pursuits on the planet, but if you encounter anti-vaxxers in your online life - and especially if you encounter them in your real life - I encourage you to fight back with words, facts, and knowledge. Educate everyone around you so that no one will fall prey to their lives.

Fight stupid people, so their stupidity will die with them.

This just in. Japan is neat.