It is true that in any given population there will always be a range of decency. Some might use the term morality instead of decency, but morality is loaded with too many disputed meanings. The term decency, hopefully, has a broader recognizable footprint. At the lowest end of any range of decency are those who are so egocentric or perverted that they not only act in ways that are harmful to others, but they do so as a form of enjoyment.
In extreme cases, such people usually end up in prison, or even asylums for the criminally insane. They have committed serial murders or some other form of horrible physical abuse. They have robbed their elderly neighbors for the fun of it or set fire to the local hospital or what have you. Yet, it is a strange quirk of our way of doing things that such degenerates can actually find a place in society were there is an accepted scope for their particular attitudes and actions. That place would have to bring them into contact with people outside the community and toward whom their society is hostile. Where the “rules of engagement,” as the phrase goes, is much more flexible and fuzzy than back home. That place is the military in times of war. This is not to say that every soldier is suffering from a severe case of “decency deficit.” However, if one has been in the military, particularly in a combat environment, one will most likely recognize the type. While everyone else is scared and counting the days until they can get out of an essentially inhuman environment, these people are enjoying themselves.
There has been a recent case of moderate decency deficiency involving a 20 year old female Israeli soldier by the name of Eden Abargil. Ms Abargil had her picture taken as she “guarded” Palestinian prisoners who were bound and blindfolded. She stands there with her rifle and smiles at the camera. She is not the only one who comes away from serving in Israel’s occupation army with such photographic trophies. What makes her special is that she posted this and other pictures on Facebook, under the title “The Army, the best time of my life.”
According to the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, these sort of trophy pictures are such a “widespread phenomenon” that taking them constitutes “a norm.” Why so? Because it is the “necessary result of a long term military control of a civilian population.” No doubt this is true, though if you are sufficiently decency deficient your exposure does not have to be “long term” at all.
Ms. Abargil gave an interview on Israeli Army Radio on August 17. She proclaimed herself “mystified” by those who were upset at the postings. She asked the audience, “what is wrong with that [putting the pictures on Facebook]?” After all, she continued, “there was no violence in the pictures” and “they reflect the military experience.” Abargil seems to have decency deficit problems. If nothing else she cannot see that there is in fact violence in her photos. The Palestinian men whom she is so gleefully guarding have obviously suffered violence simply by being bound and blindfolded for resisting illegal occupation. In fact, these scenes scream violence to anyone who can see them within a context of an occupation which itself is violent on a daily basis– anyone who is aware of the Geneva conventions, U.N. resolutions, the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, plain human decency. Yet, that is the rub. Eden Abargil cannot see it. Why not?
Well, her problem might be a personal one. That is, she may be one of those small number of people found worldwide who are incapable of recognizing the difference between right and wrong. If so we can compare her to another young lady whose psyche might qualify for this condition. This woman was also in the military, but she is a 28 year old American. Her name is Lynndie England. She was one of eleven soldiers court marshaled in 2005 for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Here too it was trophy pictures that exposed the smiling England romping among horribly abused captives. Ms. England said that she was just following orders.
In the case of Eden Abargil there is yet another possibility. How can you tell if you have a behavior problem or are simply misunderstood by outsiders, when you live in a community were decency deficiency is normal? After all, if Breaking the Silence, and other Israeli Human Rights organizations (whose memberships are quite small but collectively an important humane voice) are right, the taking of trophy pictures is “a widespread phenomenon, not an aberration caused by a single soldier.” In this regard it should noted that the IDF appears upset with Abargil, whose action it has labeled “crude,” not because she had “the best time of my life” posing for such pictures, but because she was indiscrete enough to display them to the world via the web.
To clarify the above question, consider the environment in which Eden Abargil was born and raised. It is an environment in which most Israelis are taught from childhood that the world is against them. When informed that her facebook postings might “injure Israel’s image in the International arena” Abargil responded, “We shall always be attacked. Whatever we do, we shall always be attacked.” Many Israelis are convinced that the Palestinians are barbarians, “beasts walking on two legs,” who want to “push the Jews into the sea.” The answer to this alleged threat is to convince the Palestinians that they are “a defeated people.” Yet they never seem to get this message and so Israel’s destructive power never gives its citizens the security they crave. On the other hand, many Israelis believe that to compromise with the enemy is to encourage them to keep trying to “push the Jews into the sea.” So they just continue on an illogical path of trying to humiliate the Palestinians into total surrender. The majority of Israelis have this problematic worldview reinforced throughout their lives by their parents, their schoolmates and teachers, their friends and co-workers, and their compatriots in the military. They even get it from their rabbis. Under the circumstances it is very difficult to avoid the taint of racism. So, is Eden Abargil’s decency deficiency a personal problem, or is she simply an acculturated, “normal” member of a society that is collectively deficient of decency?
If it is the former, the answer might be therapy, parole of one year to live in an Arab-Israeli town, or just keeping Ms Abargil indefinitely away from guns and cameras. If it is the latter, the first step to a cure is the isolation of the entire Israeli society on the model used against apartheid South Africa. Personally, I agree with Breaking the Silence. The problem goes beyond Eden Abargil. In fact she is only the latest public symptom of an indecent state and ideology (Zionism). For a long time both have done nothing but harm to the Jewish people and religion. It is for their sake, as well as for the long suffering Palestinians, that the treatment of isolation must be attempted.
LAWRENCE DAVIDSON is a Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania.