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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Morality, collective punishment and collective responsibility

One of the favorite memes of Palestinian Arabs is the notion that Israel engages in "collective punishment." This is viewed as immoral and illegal and de facto wrong.

One can sympathize with this viewpoint. After all, one would naturally think that innocent people should not suffer for the crimes of others. The idea of people being individually responsible for their actions is a strong one (and, I would argue, a Western one.)

There is a flip side though that those who trot out this argument will never address: Do the Palestinian Arab people have any collective responsibility?

Not only must people act responsibly, but nations (and other groups of people) must as well. This is not an unreasonable expectation. It also makes sense that the larger group will be inconvenienced as a result of the criminals' actions.

If a nation decides to act aggressively against another, one cannot expect the victim to keep the same level of economic or diplomatic ties. Even if the first nation is dependent on a specific product or service of the second, and the people of the first nation will suffer from its loss, that doesn't mean that the second nation has any reason to take that into consideration.

In other words, the idea of "collective punishment" being inherently bad is not so cut and dried. The US didn't allow high-tech equipment to be exported to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, depriving them of most computers. Isn't that a form of collective punishment?

Let's look at another angle. One group of people votes to eradicate the other group of people. If the vote was 90%-10%, the second group has every right to defend itself - even if the 10% suffers.

What percentage of a people acting immorally makes collective punishment a moral choice in response? And if the threat to the second group is imminent or present, how should the second group react?

I spent the better part of two years on this blog carefully differentiating between the Palestinian Arab people and their corrupt, terrorist leaders. My theory was that for the better part of their existence, most ordinary Palestinian Arabs didn't care about geopolitics or land or occupation or nationhood - they only cared to be able to provide a safe and secure place to raise their families.

As a result of years of propaganda, though, it is hard to argue that anymore. I recently posted the results of a few polls of Palestinian Arabs and the number that support terror against Jews is not only a majority, but a large majority (depending on how the question was asked.) No matter how hard one tries to spin it, Israel's neighbors want to see it destroyed and the Jews dispersed or killed or subjugated. In other words, no matter what you think, most Palestinian Arabs are in fact immoral.

Does this mean that collective punishment is always justified? Of course not. I cannot see justification for purely punitive actions that serve no defensive purpose. I also admit to feeling uneasy at punitive actions designed to compel a population to act in certain ways. The sentiment may be correct but the probability of success is rather low, IMHO.

So while deliberate collective punishment is problematic, there are fewer moral qualms about doing defensive actions like striking at terrorists in ways that can peripherally hurt the population at large. The complicity of the host population to the terror is a significant factor. Going after hostage takers, for example in Beslan, obviously requires more care than going after a terrorist in a building where the other people are aware of and condone his activities.

It is a tricky ethical problem trying to minimize casualties while trying to aggressively eliminate a threat to your own people. It may an ethical problem that the Palestinian Arabs do not spend one minute worrying about, but Israel should not take morality lessons from those who celebrate murderers.

Even so, it is worthwhile not only to explore the parameters of not only collective punishment but also collective guilt and collective responsibility. Taking responsibility for one's actions is what distinguishes a mature person from an immature one - and taking responsibility for one's people is an even greater level. It is a shame that Palestinian Arabs have shown no ability to even take that first step.

And it is a bigger shame that most of the world community doesn't expect them to.