Just War arguments on Gaza and media effects

Attention conservation notice: the political conflicts in the US about the conflict in Israel tend to fall into two lines of just war arguments. People on the right tend to stress jus ad bellum arguments–the justness of Israel’s self-defense, while people on the left are claiming that, by killing civilians, Israel has violated jus in bellum (just conduct in war) principles because of the disproportionate use of force.

I’ve been reading the various accounts of the press surrounding human shields in Gaza, and it’s following an a-typical trajectory for foreign journalism. The Israeli conflict confronts us a functional worry about the state of journalism right now. There are few national news outlets in the US that have retained their foreign corps, which back in the day was the marker of an elite broadsheet. It was a big blow to the LA Times, for example, when it had it give up its international desk. The consequences of all this scaling back at the elite dailies is that you only have a handful of papers written in English with journalists on the ground. Concurrent with that is the social media use among relatively elite, English speaking computer users leaking into the US media from sources like Twitter and Instagram.

The result is the ever-present claim of biased journalism and social media slant, including Netanyahu’s stupid gaffes with the media (‘the telegenically dead’ crack, among others, and the subsequent discussion that the Israel ‘has the right’ to defend itself against Hamas, who started it, etc etc. There are various riffs on the “telegenically dead” comments in and around the media, from Fox News to Zionist commentators.

I suppose the meta-discussion about bias helps some. One of my goals has always been to help people see how various forms of media influence political narratives, and in particular, urban politics around planning. So the fact that we now have a meta-level discussion about reporting and “the news media” and its role in Gaza, it’s possible for people to reflect on the images they are seeing and what those images mean within our understanding of what is happening and what ought to happen.

However, it doesn’t really help with the problem of whether Israel is now fighting a just war in a just manner. So suppose the Zionist writers are right and Hamas is this congenitally evil group of people who has lined up its own people to serve as human shields (there is evidence of this, of people who crowd into an area after warning shots…even that involves questions. Are they doing so under some threat from Hamas? Or are they doing so because they have a cause they intend to die for?) The various reactions to the human shield question range from the hawkish “Human shields are Hamas’ fault and another reason to revile them” to those who ask the question about what kind of moral war exists when a more powerful entity shoots into in human shields knowing they are…shooting into human shields, voluntary or involuntary. Collateral damage, indeed.

So in swapping allegations of media bias does not help us with the fundamental moral conflicts about what to do when confronted with something like a human shield: stop firing, in the name of human rights, or keep going, despite the deaths, in order to get at the people you want to get at to solve the problem you think you have a just cause to solve.

Just war theories have never helped me out very much thinking about these issues, even though our Just War thinkers are among our very best from Thucydides and St. Augustine onward. Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf are two I find exceptionally useful.

Just war (justum bellum) theory has multiple components: jus ad bellum (the justice of war in the first place); jus in bello (just conduct in war) and jus post bellum justice after war. The Internet Encyclopedia has a beautifully written introduction to these ideas found here.

A helpful summary of jus ad bellum:

The principles of the justice of war are commonly held to be: having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success, and the end being proportional to the means used. One can immediately detect that the principles are not wholly intrinsicist nor consequentialist—they invoke the concerns of both models.

It is here where the Zionist writers draw most heavily. This is a just cause; Israel has a ‘right to defend itself’ from Hamas, an organization whose stated purpose to eliminate Isreal. There are some writers on the left who have contested the just cause framing based on “last resort” criteria.

A helpful summary on jus in bellum:

The rules of just conduct within war fall under the two broad principles of discrimination and proportionality. The principle of discrimination concerns who are legitimate targets in war, whilst the principle of proportionality concerns how much force is morally appropriate. A third principle can be added to the traditional two, namely the principle of responsibility, which demands an examination of where responsibility lies in war.

Here, then, are where most of the outrage on the left comes from about current Israeli conflict. It’s not that Israel has no just cause, it is that they view the civilian casualties as illegitimate targets and the amount of force disproportionate.

We can then get into many arguments about whether, if you voted a party into power, you are still innocent in a war that it provokes, whether you are still a civilian if you voluntarily act as a human shield, etc.

But that is the moral landscape of the political discussion in the US.

Most Americans’ understandings of what is true about the conflict are mediated through the images and stories created by others, which is why journalism and media are so important.

Some things to read.

Michael Walzer Just and Unjust Wars (1977) a
Barrie Paskins and Michael Dockrill The Ethics of War (1979),
Richard Norman Ethics, Killing, and War (1995),
Brian Orend War and International Justice (2001)

Thomas Nagel “War and Massacre” (entire article in html), Elizabeth Anscombe “War and Murder” (entire article in pdf)