Logic, emotion and Twitter (in Gaza)

This article in the (leftish) Jewish Daily Forward is quite something. You can get the gist from the headline and standfirst:

Israel Has a New Worst Enemy — Twitter

The Medium’s Immediacy and Emotion Overwhelm All Logic

And the first paragraph:

Shortly after Israel began its ground invasion of Gaza, Anne Barnard, a New York Times reporter who has covered wars for over a decade, stood in the emergency room of the Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City and watched a 9-year-old girl die.

The girl was alone, without family, nameless. And when the doctor finally pronounced her dead, Barnard and another reporter wept.

And then she tweeted

…and that’s what the story’s about: Twitter. Hold back for a moment your own reflection on the appalling human tragedy represented by that little girl’s lonely death; let’s think about the interesting and novel development represented by lots of other people reflecting on it. Because (the author suggests) a lot of those people might not take the same view of it that you and I would; in fact, the further that message travels, the less likely it is that anyone will take the same view that we do.

Israel’s wars are always fought on two fronts — the actual on-the-ground one and the battlefield of world opinion. The tricky part is that a victory on one front very often means a loss on the other: Say a house is bombed, killing a man in charge of a rocket launcher, but it also killed his family, including five children, whose lifeless bodies appear on television that night. It’s not clear what front should have priority — your perspective on this will depend largely on whether you yourself are cowering in a bomb shelter in a city targeted by that rocket launcher or have the benefit of viewing all this from a safe distance.

If anyone not directly involved would see the situation in a certain way, that does seem to suggest something about the two perspectives. (To say nothing of the possibility that ‘you yourself’ might ‘have the benefit of viewing all this’ from Gaza.)

But what’s absolutely certain now is that Twitter has been a game changer for the public perception front, demolishing much of the distance that allowed for attempts at objectivity and balance, the careful construction of stories that bow to the narratives of both sides.

So here’s a good story: “In this troubled region, the intransigence of one side all too often seems to bring out the worst in the other side. While Gaza is pounded by IDF artillery, there is still no sign of Hamas repudiating the anti-semitism of its founding Charter.”

And here’s a bad story: “I have just watched a nine-year-old girl die from injuries inflicted by IDF artillery.”

But why is the second example a bad story? Apparently it has to do with immediacy and the personal touch:

As Barnard herself put it in an interview recently on NPR, she writes things in tweets that would never go in an article or get past an editor. … Unlike in a news story, with a tweet like that, Barnard said, “people feel like they are getting a postcard from another human being who is experiencing something far away.”

To combat the impact of those postcards on people’s perception of the conflict, Israel has deployed logic — logic that often makes a great deal of sense. It is true that Hamas would kill many more Israeli civilians if it could, that a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account “intended deaths.” It is true that Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas. And it is true that Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t. Fair or not, this argumentation, so rational and reasonable, is powerless when put up against an image or description of a dead child.

This is the core argument of the article, and it’s an argument which, I think, needs to be rejected quite firmly. We pit logic against emotion all the time, and generally speaking logic wins. You pit logic against emotion when you have a pet put down or agree to turn off a loved one’s life support. In a broader sense, states pit logic against emotion every time they go to war, and armies do so with every act of war. Killing people is both morally wrong and viscerally repulsive: battlefield stress is a natural emotional response to being put in a situation nobody would choose to be in and doing things nobody would choose to do. (Of course, there are people who would choose to do those things – but we hope and trust they won’t be in the position to do so. I’m told that British army officer training reliably weeds out two types of people – those who, when push comes to shove, realise that they couldn’t kill another person, and those who realise that they would enjoy it.) We rely on logic to demonstrate rationally that the emotionally horrible things soldiers are being asked to do should still be done: to demonstrate, in other words, that military aggression was deployed for legitimate reasons – primarily self-defence – in the first place (jus ad bellum) and that lethal force is being used to achieve legitimate military objectives without disproportionate damage to civilian life and property (jus in bello).

Now, it’s true that “Hamas bears responsibility for endangering its own population by shooting rockets from populated areas”. To quote the Geneva conventions:

The presence or movements of the civilian population or individual civilians shall not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations, in particular in attempts to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield, favour or impede military operations. The parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations.

Using civilians and civilian properties to shield military objectives is a war crime. But read on:

Any violation of these prohibitions shall not release the parties to the conflict from their legal obligations with respect to the civilian population and civilians

Attacking civilians, even civilians being deliberately (and unlawfully) used as human shields, is still a war crime – unless the civilian casualties are unavoidable in attaining a valid military objective and proportionate to the value of that objective. And (needless to say) responsibility for it still lies with the attacker.

It’s also true that “a tallying of deaths doesn’t take into account ‘intended deaths.'” – and, frankly, quite right too. If you have an enemy who wants to kill anything up to 75% of your population, you have only two hopes, self-defence and diplomacy. You make sure that, in the short term, you’ll be strong enough and they’ll be weak enough to minimise the actual danger they pose; and you try to make sure that, in the longer term, they’ll change their minds. Killing (say) 2% of their population has very little to do with self-defence and nothing to do with diplomacy. Comparing actual Palestinian deaths to theoretically possible Israeli deaths – in a nightmare scenario in which the balance of power and weaponry between Israel and Gaza was somehow reversed – is bizarrely perverse: the point for Israel is surely to stop such a confrontation from happening, not to indulge in the consoling thought that in that case Israel would at least have the moral high ground. (As, right now, it doesn’t.)

As for unconditional ceasefires, the record here is disputed – but even if it is true that “Israel has accepted unconditional cease-fires while Hamas hasn’t”, I wonder how much this is to Israel’s credit. An unconditional ceasefire – with Gaza’s borders closed, with the port blockaded and with illegal building (and evictions) continuing on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem: how long could that be expected to last until Hamas (or a militia not under Hamas control) decided to lash out again? Ceasefires come and go, but only a comprehensive settlement in accordance with international law is going to create the conditions for peace in Gaza. And while both Israel and its key international partner prefer to ignore international law (“For many outside the United States, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank is considered illegal.” – New York Times), that settlement could be a long time coming.

One last thought from Forward:

in a battle involving asymmetric defense systems, in which the vast majority of the casualties are on the Palestinians’ side, Twitter punches you in the gut on behalf of those civilians in a way that overwhelms much else.

In a battle against an enemy which has killed very few of our people, in which we’re killing a lot of their people, mostly civilians, the thought of all those dead civilians makes you wonder if perhaps we might not be wholly in the right. Blame Twitter.

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