Palestinians and American Responsibility

by Todd May

Two facts are clear: that Israelis have needlessly killed many Palestinians civilians in their recent incursion into the West Bank and that the United States has greatly assisted in those killings. The first fact is obvious. The second fact is nearly as obvious, since it stems both from the billions of dollars the U.S. supplies Israel each year and Israel’s use of Apache helicopters, F-16’s, and American made products such as Caterpillar bulldozers.

The question is: what is the responsibility of American citizens in all of this? I’m not talking about the U.S. government, which is clearly culpable, but regular citizens, folks who just go to work, raise their families, and, of course, pay taxes.

Let me start with an analogy. You’re walking along the beach and you see a child drowning in some shallow waves. You know how to swim. The water isn’t very turbulent. Are you morally responsible if you keep walking? Of course you are. You could have saved the child at no risk to yourself, but you chose not to. If the child dies, you should feel responsible for it.

Have I drawn a proper analogy? In some ways I have. Palestinian civilians are no more able to resist their killing than the child could resist the waves. And Americans, through our taxes, are helping to stir the water.

Some will say there are important differences between the killing of Palestinians and the drowning child. First, what can American citizens do? The President and the Congress can do much to alleviate the situation. They’re the ones responsible. But for individual Americans it is different. The analogy here would be with someone walking along the beach that couldn’t swim. Surely that person can’t be held responsible for saving the drowning child.

It is true that if one can’t swim one cannot be held responsible for saving the drowning child. But that does not absolve one of responsibility. One can be held responsible for not telling the lifeguard about it, and even urging the lifeguard to do something if it looks as though the lifeguard can’t be bothered to act. In this case, the President and the Congress would be lifeguards; they can stop giving the support to Israel that allows Israel to kill civilians. To neglect to tell them about it would be a failure of moral responsibility.

But suppose one doesn’t know what is happening? After all, since Israel has barred reporters from the scenes of many of the killings and lied about what it was doing, the extent of the killing was often_and remains_unclear. Here again, let’s turn to the analogy. You’re not sure a child is drowning: maybe, maybe not. What do you do? You still call the lifeguard and point out what you might be seeing, and urge them to check. After all, what happens if you read in the paper the next day that a child drowned in the water of the beach you were strolling along?

Recall also that our tax dollars and our military equipment are contributing to the killing of innocent civilians, not marginally but centrally. Without those contributions, the waves would be much smaller and the child might be safe.

Of course there are some people who are more inclined to excuse Israel’s actions. They would argue that the entire analogy I have proposed is misleading. Rather than seeing the Israeli invasion as a destructive wave and Palestinian civilians as helpless children, they would offer an analogy of the following type. You’re walking along the street and you see a larger kid beating up a smaller one. You learn that the smaller kid has beaten up the larger kid’s little sister. Do you have responsibility to stop the beating? And here they would answer, not necessarily.

The problem is that this analogy doesn’t work. First, Palestinian civilians didn’t beat up anybody. And we know, Israeli denials to the contrary, that the Israeli army killed many of those civilians needlessly. So the attempt to make Palestinians guilty of a prior crime, as the analogy does, is mistaken. But even if we leave that obvious problem aside, there is a second problem. Because if the smaller kid did beat up the larger kid’s little sister, it would have been because the larger kid had beaten him up and had threatened to keep doing so. After all, the Palestinians who engaged in violence didn’t do so out of sheer orneriness, but because they have been spending thirty-five years under a brutal occupation. However, adding this fact to the analogy changes things. If a larger kid is beating up a smaller kid for taking vengeance for the larger kid’s earlier actions, then once again you have a responsibility to help the smaller kid.

But suppose you don’t know who really started it. It’s just too complex. Each of the kids is screaming that the other one started it. In order see the analogy this way we need to lay aside both the fact that Palestinian civilians didn’t beat anybody up and the fact that it is clear in the case of Israel and the Palestinians who is occupying whom. This is about the most sympathetic to Israel one can reasonably be with the analogy.

What should you do? It is clear that you are still responsible for pulling the larger kid off the smaller one. If you do pull him off and the smaller kid did something wrong, there are ways to rectify that. And if the smaller kid didn’t do anything and you walk away, then you allowed an innocent child to be harmed. Moreover, if we bring the analogy closer to home then we should add that the larger kid is beating the smaller one with a stick that you bought him.

The moral lesson is clear. We Americans, primarily through our tax dollars and military equipment but also through some of our private corporations, have contributed to the killing of innocent Palestinians, many of them children. We might not be able to stop the killings, at least immediately, but since it is our resources that are being used, we are responsible to try to stop it at least to the extent of contacting those who supply those resources and urging them to cease doing so.

Otherwise, the blood is on our hands too.

Todd May is a Professor of Philosophy at Clemson University He can be reached at: mayt@clemson.edu


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