Choosing Civilization

July 30, 2006

August edition of the Sun Magazine, Santa Fe, NM

Israel loses a soldier to the Palestinians and retaliates by bombing Hamas government buildings, targeting homes with civilians, destroying water and public facilities. It is an outpouring of rage and fury seemingly without limit. Then, Hezbollah strikes back and takes two more Israeli soldiers and Israel turns north to Lebanon. There she bombs the airport, public buildings, bridges, roads, undermines the infrastructure of civil society and kills civilians indiscriminately.

Israeli rage and fury are seemingly without limit. Living on the edge of fear, its people have erupted into a fit of military passion, leaving all civilized limits behind. It does not matter that some of those whom they now kill are innocent, or even that most of those killed are innocent. It apparently matters more that Israel send a message of great power and strength and indomitable will.

In1728 BC, even before the rise of the Hebrew states, the Middle East produced the Code of Hammurabi. It was the earliest organized law code in the West and it proclaimed “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” which, in the temper of the times, meant, only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth. The code was intended to set limits to the raw use of power, to establish a proportionality, a balance. If a man pokes out someone’s eye, the wounded victim may take out only an eye in return; he may not take the aggressor’s head. This code laid the groundwork for both Jewish and Greek civilizations which were to follow.

Today, therefore, college courses teach that proportion and balance are bedrock to western law; a foundation for the progress of civilization. Unfortunately, in its present fury, Israeli leadership is taking its people back 3,000 years, before this foundation, rejecting balance, and in effect, rejecting all rules except the rule of power. Since civilization at the point of a gun is a meaningless contradiction, they have chosen a course which must ultimately fail.

In ancient China, it was formerly the case that when an emperor believed some official in a distant village had betrayed him, he would be apt to kill everyone in the village, willy, nilly, without regard to innocence or guilt. This was called collective responsibility; it was primitive, brutal and, we would say, uncivilized.

Unfortunately, to round up the Taliban in Afghanistan, as the US has done, as if everyone including “Taliban” children were equally guilty, or even guilty at all, is also an exercise of collective responsibility. It leaves principles of individual guilt and individual responsibility behind, condemns people because of their affiliations, or their imagined affiliations, and takes the US, like the Chinese of old, back to a time before law and before civilization.

U.S. marines were enforcing a principle of collective responsibility when they all but eliminated the city of Fallujah, with its 300,000 inhabitants, and the U.S. is accepting the principle of collective responsibility when Mr. Bush supports the Israelis as they destroy any functioning society in Lebanon.

These are not, therefore, merely mistakes in foreign policy, missteps in some grand geo-political strategy, mistakes in a neo con plan for stability in the oil rich Middle East. These are not merely misjudgments about what will work and what will not work in some religious clash. These are missteps in the understanding of what it takes to make and keep a civilization.

Collective responsibility, as a principle, cannot be a step toward democracy, individual dignity, the rights of man. Brutal, furious, calculated destruction of water systems, power plants and roads, cannot be a step toward building a culture of human decency. To kill, slash, and burn outside her borders while pretending to be humane within is simply hypocritical.

Israel’s leadership seems now so captivated by the story of its power that it believes itself invincible, which is a form of insanity. In supporting this insanity, America’s leaders have themselves gone blind and deaf, unable to see how proportion and balance are the essential foundation of a great nation and unable to hear those moral principles required to remain a great nation.

It is time, now, therefore, for the civil, the decent, the compassionate, the collaborative, those who understand the science of civilization, of cooperation, of mutual respect, to speak out loud the story of who we are. Our current leaders and our Israeli allies are not acting in the tradition of the 3,000 years of civility and decency which is the necessary soil, the only soil, from which human progress can spring. We have regressed to acting like nomadic tribes come to fight over the water holes of the desert. But our American genius, our mission, the flag that arose out of our Declaration of Independence, was not intended to be for war and destruction. Our genius, we then loudly proclaimed to the world, would be in civilizing, creating a society of laws and not of mad furies.

Times like these force us to choose again under which banner we shall march, by which story we intend to live, and, while we still have a choice, some of us still choose the banner and the story of civilization.