The front page of this morning’s New York Times has a thought-provoking article on Gaza, “Civilians as Human Shields? Gaza War Intensifies Debate.” The issues discussed in it are difficult and complex, and the article as a whole is well worth reading. There’s a vast literature out there on human shields, as well as on Gazans-as-human-shields, and it would be silly to try to discuss any large swatch of it in a single blog post. Just two quick observations, then:
(1) People sometimes cavalierly claim that philosophy is irrelevant to “real life,” but this article is a vivid, if unintentional, refutation of that claim. For better or worse, the language of “human shields” (or innocent shields, or innocent threats, etc.) is now all-but-taken for granted in discussions of the ethics of warfare, as is the presumption of civilian or non-combatant immunity from military attack. That wasn’t always the case. Moral philosophers made it the case by making the relevant arguments in “obscure” books and journals, and lawyers followed their lead and institutionalized the philosophers’ claims. Military commanders eventually made compliance with those philosophical and legal principles a matter of “honor.” But the bottom line is that the terms of today’s debates about the war in Gaza were set by the writings of yesterday’s philosophers– specifically by the writings of the generation of philosophers (Walzer, Nozick, Nagel, Judith Thomson, etc.) who achieved academic prominence during the worst days of the Vietnam War, and turned to philosophy as a means of processing what they observed. If that doesn’t count as evidence of philosophy’s relevance to “the real world,” then questions of evidence are themselves irrelevant to the discussion.
(2) In a related article, an unnamed State Department official is quoted as saying the following:
“What we’re trying to figure out is how we can get to the point where the violence can stop and these bigger key issues can be addressed over the longer term,” said a senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified in keeping with the agency’s protocol for briefing reporters.
The biggest key issue is the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank. But American credibility on that issue can be gauged by the fact that the last time it was called on publicly to re-affirm its own assessment of Israel’s settlement policies–at the UN, in 2011–it refused to do so. Putting the point less charitably, it couldn’t summon up the integrity or courage to do so. The US has consistently claimed to be opposed to Israel’s settlement policies but has just as consistently refused to condition support for Israel on Israel’s ending that policy. And so the policy has continued, with pro forma American disapproval, and de facto American support. Any intelligent person would have to wonder how long such a charade could go on.
After almost five decades of this pattern, the State Department wants us–and the Palestinians, and the rest of the world–to take the United States’s supposed interest in “bigger issues” on faith. But fideism doesn’t work in politics anymore than it works anywhere else. Fideism, secular and religious, is after all one of the “root causes” of the Arab-Israeli conflict as such. What makes the US a dishonest broker in the dispute–not that it has to be a broker at all–is its equivocal attitude toward faith-based politics. Unfortunately, that attitude has its basis in philosophy as well–yet another confirmation of philosophy’s relevance to “real life” and of its power over people oblivious to the power it has.