At times like this, the same thing always happens: the Israeli military kills and injures large numbers of Palestinians with guided missiles while Palestinians fire a few rockets at Israel and kill and injure a much smaller number. These numbers and the mismatch seem important, as does the question of who broke the truce first. Who was justified in killing innocent people in response to the killing of innocent people? Who is blameworthy, for having killed more innocent people than necessary?
If you watch this video, for instance–which is framed with the requisite “balance,” in that there is one Israeli and one Palestinian–you can’t really escape noticing that only one of them is in a place where his building is being shaken by nearby missile strikes. The other shows us images of his kids, and asks us to sympathize with their fear and danger–and, of course, yes, of course–but we don’t see their fear or hear its cause. That’s because it’s actually a lot more dangerous to be a civilian in Gaza than in southern Israel, an order of magnitude more dangerous and more terrifying. If we compare the amount of ordinance directed at Gazan targets versus the amount of damage done to Israeli soil, there is, in fact, almost no comparison. And yet, of course, there is; that is the comparison, the fact that one side is much larger.
I’m not interested in arguing this comparison, however. I’m interested in what happens to us, and how we think, when this kind of comparison seems like the important question, when it seems like the answer to such questions means something. When we look at what’s happening in Israel and Gaza right now and we try to figure out which innocent life being extinguished we should get angry about, and which innocent life being extinguished we should accept with weary resolution, haven’t we accepted something unacceptable? Why, after all, would it ever be okay for any civilian to be bombed? It’s one thing to criticize the false equivalence, by which both sides are equally sinned against or sinning. But when we complain about the false equivalence, are we agreeing that some kinds of sins deserve to punished by death?
Last time this happened, the last time Israel invaded Gaza, Judith Butler published a book called Frames of War, in which she tried to theorize–using a familiar set of theoretical texts and continental philosophers–how and where and why some kinds of life become “grievable” while others do not. When Israeli children die, she observed, it is seen–as it should be–as a loss of life that can be grieved. But when Palestinian children die, their very lives can seem like the provocation that made it necessary to kill them, in self-defense. It’s a smart argument, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since 2009, when that book came out. But I find myself dissatisfied with her opening framing. I was listening to a podcast of a talk she gave on the book, last night as I was biking home, and I was struck by a moment in which she asked (I am paraphrasing) the rhetorical question of when and whether and why and how we might have an obligation to “protect” a life. It made me think of the ways that the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine can become the cause of a war, the way Palestinians are dying, right now, to protect Israelis, and the way more Israelis will, eventually, die because someone thought that would protect Palestinian lives. It made me wonder if we could ask that question differently.
To put it too simply, the rhetoric of “protection” and “grieving” not only presumes the corpse, it focuses on the corpse. We do not see the hand that presses the trigger, but even more importantly, we find ourselves asking the question of whether or not the life in question is worth protecting/saving/grieving, as well as begging the question that it might sometimes not be. The life is the thing in question, but as such, it’s also the thing that must justify itself: failing its nomination as “life,” it can be killed. This is not where Butler wants the argument to go, of course. But the current carries out boat in that direction regardless: if some lives are grievable, aren’t others killable? Why do we take the violence for granted while making the life plead its case? Why isn’t all violence illegitimate by default? Why isn’t all life sacred, by definition?
In other words, when we argue that a child was innocent, that a civilian should not have been targeted, that rhetoric has a hidden consequence: if the child should not have been killed, doesn’t the not-child suddenly emerge out of the protection we’ve just extended towards the innocent, as guilty? If it’s because they are children that we cannot kill them, what can we say about those who are not children? And while killing militants is easier if killing civilians is harder, that’s not an argument that killing them is justified. In fact, if some forms of killings are justified, then the fact that we live in a world filled with justifications–the fact that our soil is soaked with blood–means we will never run out of justifications to turn into violence. We will be reduced to comparing them, to see whose crimes are worse.
I say this because when we compare the two lists–say, when we compare the thousand or so Palestinians who were killed during Israel’s “Cast Lead” invasion of Gaza in 2009 to the dozen or so Israelis who were killed–we show something important about the massive imbalance in force between the two “sides.” But is that the most important thing? I wonder if we also create a market in death when we suggest that there is some kind of ratio or exchange or commensurability between these numbers, that deaths can be understood by relations of exchange and comparison. Do we suggest that the handful of Israelis who were killed were justified, because so many Palestinians paid for it with their lives? Rather, can we note the massive inequity in death rates without avoiding that suggestion? Or without suggesting that some kind of more equitable death ratio would be less scandalous? Can we complain about the imbalance without suggesting that there is a balance?
This is not a post with an argument, a critique, an indictment, or a call to action, and it certainly isn’t a post that feels good about itself. The only thing I feel certain about is that there is nothing to feel good or certain about here. I don’t know that there is any statement you can make about an obscenity like this one that doesn’t make you a worse person for saying it. For whatever reason, reading about Gaza right now doesn’t even make me angry, the way it did in 2009. It just makes me more tired, more frustrated, more rotten. So I’m not going to try to finish this post, to craft and shape and edit an elegant argument saying some good clear thing about some version of all of that disgusting bullshit. I don’t think there is any clarity to be found here, or there. I can only be disgusted with myself, that I share humanity with people who think there is something to be felt here other than despair.