Guilty Until Proven Guilty

The uproar over Israel's actions aboard a Gaza-bound vessel proves that the world holds the Jewish state to an impossibly high standard. For their own sake, Americans should think twice about joining this flood of international condemnation.


On the evening of April 28, 2003, a crowd of approximately 200 Iraqi civilians gathered outside U.S. Army headquarters in Fallujah to protest the occupation of their city. As tension grew, U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne stationed on the building’s roof began firing upon the crowd, killing at least 13 Iraqis and wounding more than 70. U.S. troops insisted that they fired only to defend themselves from gunfire coming from the crowd. The protesters claimed that they were unarmed and never fired at the soldiers.

The odds are that you have never beaten your breast or searched your soul over this incident in Fallujah. In fact, you have likely never even heard of this incident. And the odds are that you have never heard of the tens if not hundreds of incidents like it, in which civilians have been killed as U.S. soldiers fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

But the odds are overwhelming that you have heard — repeatedly — of an Israeli operation last week aboard a Gaza-bound ship in the Mediterranean. Israel’s naval commandos, several of whom were beaten to within an inch of their lives, responded with lethal force, killing nine people.

The term "double standard" does not sufficiently capture this phenomenon. It’s not just that the Israelis are being held to a different — and immeasurably higher — standard than the rest of humanity. Israel is now being judged in the absence of any objective standard whatsoever. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week, it seems that Israel is now "guilty until proven guilty."

Sadly, it is no surprise to see angry mobs on the streets of Tehran or London calling for Jewish blood. It seems that we now must accustom ourselves to similar scenes playing out in Istanbul as well. Yet what is far more troubling is that we are now hearing these critiques being echoed right here in the United States. 

This is hardly the first time that my friends and neighbors have been strangely focused on Israel’s alleged misdeeds. Many complained about the collateral damage in Gaza associated with Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead, intended to stop Hamas from firing thousands of missiles into its southern cities. Yet these same friends were completely unaware of the destruction wrought by America’s armed forces in Fallujah less than two years after the April 2003 incident described above. The U.S. Army destroyed nearly one-fifth of the city — and damaged far more — in its effort to crush the insurgency that had taken root there.

Many of my friends are horrified by Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Yet these same people never once questioned the United States’ blockade of Saddam-controlled Iraq throughout most of the 1990s. They have no idea that America’s enemies protested the U.S.-led blockade of Iraq in terms almost identical to those they now use to protest Israel’s blockade of Gaza. In his 1996 fatwa declaring war on the United States, for example, Osama bin Laden claimed that "more than 600,000 Iraqi children have died due to lack of food and medicine and as a result of the unjustifiable aggression [sanctions] imposed on Iraq." In 1998, bin Laden again cited the blockade of Iraq and the "over 1 million" Iraqis the United States had killed there.

Constructive criticism is fine and welcome. We must always demand that the United States — and its allies such as Israel — adhere to the highest ethical standards in the fight against terror. We must ensure that every possible effort is made to avoid civilian casualties. The U.S. military must never cease to treasure every single innocent life.

Yet the attacks on Israel from most quarters — and the United States’ increasing impatience with Israel, even as it fights a similar battle, with similar tactics, against a similar enemy — go well beyond such legitimate critiques. The American public and its government should be wary of joining this chorus of condemnation. Americans should understand by now that fighting enemies who shoot from civilian areas and hide behind human shields — or sometimes masquerade as civilians — will often require that soldiers make difficult choices, and will inevitably produce mistakes. To the extent that we in the West blur the line between those fighting terrorism and the terrorists themselves, we help legitimize a standard that will boomerang back on ourselves. It already has. 

Early last month we had a startling reminder of where this flawed logic can lead. On May 1, a crude car bomb was discovered in an SUV parked in the heart of Times Square. The police later identified the prime suspect as Faisal Shahzad, an American of Pakistani origin. In trying to figure out what had turned Shahzad from an upwardly mobile financial analyst into a would-be terrorist, commentators have focused on an email in which he complained about the killing of his fellow Muslims in Pakistan, Iraq, and Palestine and claimed, "The crusade has already started against Islam and Muslims with cartoons of our beloved Prophet." Elsewhere Shahzad noted a moderate Pakistani politician who had "bought into the Western jargon" of calling the Taliban and their allies "extremist."

The path toward terrorism begins with the erasure of moral lines. It starts with the equation of terrorists — who seek to kill civilians — with the armed forces who seek to stop the terrorists. It mistakes cartoons with corpses, collateral damage with intentional murder. It fails to distinguish between an errant missile and an intentional suicide bomb. It confuses the "extremists" with those who fight extremism.

As we Americans fight the war on terror, we must fight with our heads as well as our hearts. Americans must always demand the highest standards from their army and from those of allies such as Israel. But we should never validate the type of thinking that is the hallmark of the very enemies we pursue. Today Israel’s soldiers are in the dock. But tomorrow it will be our own.

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