Collective responsibility, terrorism and the conduct of war.
Posted on 00:09, January 20th, 2009 by Pablo
The Israeli offensive in Gaza has rekindled debate about the role of collective responsibility in the initiation and prosecution of war. Israel is specifically accused of collectively punishing all Gazans in retaliation for Hamas missile attacks on the Israeli population, with some claiming that aspects of Israeli military operations amount to war crimes. Such may or may not be true, but the issue is more complex than that.
Hamas argues that it is justified in firing missiles into Israeli population centers because all Jews are complicit in the Zionist enterprise and all Israelis eventually complete some form of military service. From that perspective better to kill a Jew in the crib than on the battlefield. Sunni extremists in Iraq target Shiia worshippers at their holy sites because they hold them accountable for the apostasy of their clerical leaders. Osama bin Laden has openly stated that the US public made itself a target for attack by repeatedly electing pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim administrations. Kurds and Armenians hold all Turks responsible for the sins of the Ottomans, Kemalists and their successors. Chechnyan militants hold all Russians culpable for the depredations of the Russian military in the post-Soviet republic. Germans are still held by some to be collectively guilty for the sins of the Nazis. The Japanese are accused on not feeling guilty enough for the depredations of Hirohito and company. The list of collective finger-pointing, responsibility, guilt, targeting and punishment is long.
The issue is complicated by the fact that, by the criteria of collective responsibility, open and honest elections increase the culpability of the electorate in the sins of their political representatives. That was Osama’s point about the US. Whatever one may think about the US electorate’s complicity in Bush 43’s follies, by that logic the Palestinians are collectively culpable for having voted in favour of a Hamas-majority parliament in 2006. Put another way, citizens of non-elected authoritarian regimes cannot be held accountable for the behaviour of those regimes unless there is some other mechanism to attribute direct support for the authoritarian project. An example would be Argentines during the Falklands/Malvinas war, which was initiated by a brutal military dictatorship feared by its own people. Conversely, the citizens of all democratic regimes are complicit in the behavior of their governments because it was their majority vote that brought those governments into power. The minority of those who voted against these democratically-elected incumbents may take issue with that (and indeed have), but the logic is inscrutable on the point: mass elections make the masses collectively responsible for the conduct of their elected leaders.
We could debate whether Hamas has majority support or whether its militant wing has any electoral support at all. That is not the issue. The issue is that Israel apparently holds the entire Palestinian population, specifically residents of Gaza, responsible for Hamas’s electoral ascent to power at the expense of Fatah, the more accomodationist branch of the Palestinian political spectrum, as well as Hamas’s behaviour once in power (one aspect of which is to apply notions of collective responsibility to all Israelis). It punishes them accordingly.
This is where terrorism comes in. Terrorism is the use of symbolic violence in pursuit of political objectives. It has a subject, object and target, which are not the same. Targeting of civilians in their daily lives is designed to influence the will of subject populations with the objective of bending it towards the perpetrator’s demands. When the perpetrator adopts notions of collective responsibility, the choice of civilian targets becomes easier and, to the minds of the irregular warrior/terrorist, justifiable. That in turns evokes a response in kind from those being attacked unless the counterpoised subject population can offer demonstrable proof of distance from and repudiation of the terrorist attack. If not, and especially if the civilian population shows sympathy to the terrorist goals and/or offers them shelter and support, then the retaliatory response will be based on notions of collective responsibility as well. After all, success in warfare involves obtaining tactical and strategic symmetry (so as to level the battlespace “playing field”), which then allows the elements of will, training, discipline and technology to be brought into play.
That is the “game” being played in Gaza, and so long as collective responsibility remains a justification for the conduct of war, innocents will die.
Perhaps, then, the first step in securing a durable peace is for all sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to formally renounce notions of collective responsibility and guilt on principle. This may sound like social constructivist nonsense, but such a declaration would remove the internal justifications for both Hamas’s rocket attacks as well as Israeli bombing of densely populated areas (there is a whole story to the complexities of the irregular urban battlefield, but that is best left for another post). In turn, that would allow subject populations to better resist coerced cooperation in armed ventures (as hard as this it). In practice, that would limit armed struggle to clear military targets, or at least force combatants to exercise more discretion in the choice of targets when conducting military operations.
Then again, that would force each side to exercise mutual self-restraint, and that may not be an option the elites on both sides would prefer to pursue. If one side declares its intentions along those lines, an opponent may see military advantage in not doing so. Whatever the the case, if notions of collective responsibility prevail in the conduct of war, then attacks against innocents can be expected to continue, in Israel, Gaza and elsewhere.