Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Morality of Occupation


A recent video posted to youtube shows an IDF soldier "belly dancing" and gyrating mockingly while a Palestinian woman stands bound and blindfolded against a wall. Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, the darkest and most cynical dehumanization. The ensuing dialogue about the incident will no doubt follow a familiar formula. The Army will declare the offending soldiers "bad apples," why critics and human rights groups will insist that occupation brings out the worst tendencies in otherwise ordinary people.

I suspect that the reality of such incidents isn't explained by one or the other argument alone, but some combination of both. And ultimately, trying to parse out whether the offending soldiers began as "bad apples" or were somehow induced to aberrant behavior by the brutal reality of geopolitics would be futile. However, what this incident reminds us is that often what gets the most attention and generates the most debate are incidents where the crimes involve some level of deviance or salaciousness.

"If it bleeds it leads," so the old saying goes. However, in the U.S. press, the bleeding of some is more news worthy than the bleeding of others. It was clear during the Abu Ghraib incident that this moment of strange and deviant dehumanization emerged as a focal point for opposition to the occupation of Iraq, and a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment in the Islamic World. There is no doubt that such events damage the moral standing of nations that insist that their interventions are either purely defensive or even benevolent, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. To be sure, these are important stories which focus a bright light on occupation and its effects. However, I contend that perhaps these things are just aberrations, and obscure the daily crimes of occupying armies.

As far the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I doubt most Americans know the price paid in the blood of the "natives." In fact, the case of Iraq has been so mired in misinformation that there is significant variation in Iraqi death toll estimates among informed observers. Similarly, the figures for civilian deaths in Afghanistan are difficult to verify. Good records were simply not kept during the opening years of the war, and the reporting of civilian casualties in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were compromised by the dire security situation. During the decades of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, numerous human rights groups have kept records of Palestinian civilian deaths at the hands of the IDF (links to Al Mezan and B'Tselem can be found in the links section to the right). The deaths of course are not all attributable to American or Israeli military action. What is not accounted for in the statistical data is the daily abuse, the checkpoints, house searches, demolitions, curfews and random arrests and detentions.

So incidents like the belly dancing IDF soldier and Abu Ghraib perhaps ultimately are aberrations. The background events of occupation are more directly and obviously brutal, they lack the color of psychological deviance, and rather embody the logic of empire. If such incidents bring focus to the conditions of occupation, all the better. However, our outrage - and attention - must remain focused on the daily crimes committed in these seemingly endless conflicts.

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