In the film Schindler's List, there's a
scene where Nazi soldiers are coming to take the Jews out of the ghetto in which
they've been forced to live as refugees in their own country. The soldiers look
anxious and extremely "pumped up," as would be necessary for any human
being ordered to carry out such an odious task. They were to round up hundreds
of Jews from their homes and take them to concentration camps.
Like a SWAT team, the soldiers raid the apartment buildings without warning,
to prevent the inhabitants from thinking of any way to escape. The screaming
of orders and frightened voices overwhelms the senses. Chaos and noise make
it almost impossible to figure out what's happening. The men in uniform storm
the apartment building in an organized fashion, banging on doors and ordering
the families out. Those who resist or don't understand what they're supposed
to do are shot.
Out in the street, two troops drag a slender young woman back toward the trucks – she
had tried to run away – but before they can get her to the truck, another soldier
shoots her to death. She collapses, each soldier still holding a now-limp arm.
One of them runs up screaming at the young man who'd killed their unarmed prisoner:
He'd gone too far. He'd been trigger-happy.
But there's no time to worry about that, no time to consider whether or not
this was murder. The soldiers return to herding the people toward the trucks.
Inside the building, a few troops simply dissociate, blocking out the shots
and screams right down the hall by playing Bach on an old piano, smiling in
a crazy way – crazy, but somehow fitting for the insane circumstances into which
they've been thrust.
At that advanced stage of Hitler's remodeling of nation and psyche, there was
no need for any announcement that the military would launch an investigation.
There was no need to announce, weeks or months later, that "no wrongdoing
was found" and that the soldier was simply "stressed out." There
would be no press conference to allay public fears that something was profoundly
wrong with the moral values of their nation's military leaders, or that their
youth had been born again in the image of their leader – that their troops had
become "natural born" killers.
little Palestinian girl was walking to school when…
"The Israeli captain on duty alerted his troops to reports of a suspicious
figure about 100 yards from the outpost. Soldiers fired into the air, according
to radio transmissions, military court documents and witnesses.
"'It's a little girl,' a soldier watching from a nearby Israeli observation
post cautioned over the military radio. 'She's running defensively eastward.
... A girl of about 10, she's behind the embankment, scared to death.'
"Four minutes later, Israeli troops opened fire on the girl with machine
guns and rifles, the radio transmissions indicated. The captain walked to the
spot where the girl 'was lying down' and fired two bullets from his M-16 assault
rifle into her head, according to an indictment against the officer. He started
to walk away, but pivoted, set his rifle on automatic and emptied his magazine
into the girl's prone body, the indictment alleged.
"'This is Commander,' the captain said into the radio when he was finished.
'Whoever dares to move in the area, even if it's a 3-year-old – you have to
kill him. Over.'"
The Israeli military, like the U.S. military, seems to know no limits. Or if
it does, those limits are not publicized, and are unimaginable to most people.
Their remarkably similar "rules of engagement" may conjure up images
of engagement parties or rules for good behavior. But "rules of engagement"
are a set of guidelines for murder – which murder is okay, which is not. Which
bullets fired are okay, which are not. Which bombs dropped are okay, which are
not. When it's okay to machine-gun a car full of people, when it's not. How
many civilians are okay to kill, and the number that's one digit too many.
Volumes have been spoken and written about the immorality of terrorism and
our rights to protect ourselves as individuals and nations. Self-defense can
be real, but it can also be a camouflage for murder. Real self-defense – when
someone is, right this very minute, clearly attacking you – is a natural
But the moment you go even one inch further, things get dodgy. When preemptive
killings and wars are carried out in the name of self-defense, they're lynchings
or assassinations or massacres. Whether or not you feel threatened, when you
kill others because they might one day attack you, you've lost the high moral
ground. Now you're the threat.
Was It Justifiable? We Must Begin to Think for Ourselves
Are these actions justifiable as reasonable self-defense?
And if not, who's really to blame? Increasingly, we're asked to wink
at the kinds of torture and killing that civilized nations used to consider
illegal, genocidal, or, well, uncivilized. The explanations our military and
political leaders offer are uncritically passed along to us by news anchors,
talking heads, and newspapers, so we're going to have to start thinking
Question what you've been told. Following are three questions that won't
be raised in your newspaper, on radio talk shows, or on the evening news. In
fact, if you live in militaristic cultures like the U.S. and Israel, you're
not supposed to think about them at all:
1. If someone isn't currently trying to kill you but you feel threatened,
are you morally justified in killing them (rather than monitoring their behavior,
taking cover, or arresting them, etc.) just to be on the safe side?
The line between "trying to kill you" and "looking like maybe
they're trying to kill you" – and the line between the latter and
"looking like other people who might want to kill you" or even "looking
like somebody who probably couldn't kill you, but who is a child of people
who could maybe pack a bomb into their lunch bag" – can be so thin as to
"Five days after the October incident, Yaalon told Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon's cabinet that the girl likely had been used as a lure to draw
soldiers from the outpost and into the range of Palestinian sniper fire. Yaalon
told the cabinet that his investigation showed that the soldiers fired into
the air, but when the girl continued walking and tossed her backpack aside,
they shot at her, fearful that she might have a bomb."
2. If you've been brainwashed by your leaders to believe that the people
you're fighting are "Satan"
bunch of cold-blooded killers, and that's the way we're going to treat
them," or "better
to make their mothers cry than ours," or that you should "go
sweep it all up. Things related and not," is it you
who should be punished if you go too far (intentionally or not), or the leaders
who taught you, by word and example, to do so?
When a system is set up for the killing of people under the heading "war"
or its offspring, "occupation," the deck is stacked for murder. This
fact is camouflaged by constant references to "a few bad apples" who
are to blame whenever word of a particularly savage killing gets out. "Bad
apples," so the argument goes, are found in any organization, so we should
overlook these things.
But what makes such extreme "bad apples" out of good men and women
in the military is a system that knowingly places them in "truly
This system replaces their clothing – their original selves – with a uniform
that subconsciously pledges their allegiance to the values of the men in charge
of that system. One's true morality must now be exchanged for the morals of
one's president, prime minister, and commanders, because only then does a soldier
receive immunity from accountability – for a price.
"If and only if you purge your soul of your own moral values, the ones
your mother raised you with, you can count on us to excuse you from whatever
you do." This Faustian bargain is at the root of U.S.
and Israeli leaders' slimy refusal to be held accountable, as other nations'
leaders and militaries are, to international courts that prosecute war crimes:
If they did, they couldn't hold up their end of the bargain.
"Under questioning from a cabinet member, Yaalon denied press reports
that the commander and other soldiers left the outpost to make sure the girl
was dead. At the next cabinet meeting a week later, he went further, saying
he believed the captain's account that he was responding to 'gunfire aimed at
him by firing a burst into the ground' and said the captain offered 'a reasonable
explanation considering the conditions of the location and the events.'"
Zimbardo's experiments have illustrated, even labeling a person as a "prisoner"
or a "guard" changes their identity and their inclinations to act
accordingly. Trading their own clothes for
uniforms that represent authority is an especially quick and easy way to
help people exchange their normal ways of thinking about good and bad, right
and wrong, for that of their leaders, their co-workers, and their organization.
It requires a huge violation to activate the suppressed personality and conscience
under the uniform, and in those who view the uniform as equivalent with goodness
3. Why does society condemn you more for shooting or desecrating a dead body,
or for torturing and humiliating someone, than for actually killing people,
If you pay close attention, you'll find that it's not the killing itself that
arouses opposition in militaristic cultures like the U.S. and Israel, it's
the way it's performed and what is done afterward. I was glad to see that
soldiers are speaking out against this murder. But the stamp of militarism is
visible in this man's protest – it's as if he realizes, at some level, that
to rouse the comatose morality of his military leaders and his society, he must
condemn not the killing itself (for they won't care too much about that), but
the unusual part:
"'There is no logical reason for what he did,' a soldier, who declined to
be identified, told the daily newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth a few days
after the incident. 'Not for shooting the two bullets at her, and certainly
not the burst afterward. This is the most sickening thing I have ever seen during
my army service. It was desecration of a body. That is not what we are taught
to do in the army. ... The 13-year-old girl was already dead. Why did he fire
that burst into her?'"
Indeed, the only thing that can break through our numbed, military-worshipping
psyches is something really unusual: beheadings, desecrations of dead
bodies, or shooting somebody who's already dead. Murder and massacres are no
big deal – we've seen it all before. And if we ever do get upset, well there's
always a soothing TV or radio commentator to help us feel better about it. To
get a little perspective. To understand that this is how they do things in the
military. To tuck away our moral values and repeat to ourselves, "It's
for a good cause."
Even when a Marine was caught, on film, in the act of shooting an injured,
unarmed Iraqi prisoner, this was quickly explained away as a "kill-check,"
yet another heinously cute term for an inhuman policy. It seemed awful, yes,
at first – until we understood it better, until the authorities explained why
it was necessary to kill a man lying on the floor and begging for mercy. You
know, "rules of engagement."
Thank Heaven for Little Girls
A little girl running in fear from armed men is
killed in cold blood. A wounded man is killed at point-blank range. Families
who panic at roadblocks or don't understand they're supposed to stop are pumped
full of bullets – babies, grannies, and all. The world is left gasping, unable
to speak, because it is clear to us now: No level of killing will ever qualify
as a war crime in cultures where military values override our moral values.
The authorities are trying their best to come up with a reason why this schoolgirl
was shot so many times after she was dead – because that's the unusual
part. But in no way will the Israeli government, or the U.S. government, decry
the fact that Palestinian civilians like her are being shot on a regular basis.
Instead, they will decry Palestinian terrorism again (which is unnecessary because
we despise terrorism already, but is a good tactic for diverting our attention)
and remind us that soldiers have a right to protect themselves.
If that doesn't do the trick, they'll bring out the ultimate weapon: "There
are always a few bad apples, and they will be punished."
"Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree
corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit."