The Right of Self-Defense

They’re at it again, and another week of it begins:

Tens of thousands of panicked residents fled their homes in the northern Gaza Strip on Sunday after the Israeli military dropped leaflets from the sky warning those who stayed behind that they were risking their lives because a large, intense operation was imminent.

Residents in Gaza were whipsawed by growing anxiety and frustration. More than 17,000 people poured into makeshift shelters as Israeli commandos entered the coastal enclave early Sunday to knock out a Hamas rocket-launch site. A brief gun battle with Hamas militants ensued and left four Israeli soldiers lightly wounded.

The brief incursion by commandos followed the single deadliest Israeli bombing of the six-day campaign.

Israeli missiles hit a house where Gaza’s police chief, Tayseer al-Batsh, was praying Saturday night. The explosions killed 18 members of his extended family, including six children, and sent the top Hamas law-enforcement officer into intensive care, where he was clinging to life Sunday.

The latest violence in Gaza came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that Israel has no interest in halting its assault. Israel’s objective, he said at his weekly cabinet meeting, is to inflict “a significant blow on Hamas” that will yield “the restoration of quiet for a long period.”

This, then, is a matter of self-defense, one that started with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas – except that J. J. Goldberg has discovered that the official story of what happened after those three Israeli yeshiva students were kidnapped was not what it seemed – it wasn’t Hamas at all, and the dramatic and extended rescue effort to find and free those three kids was political theater. The Israeli government knew from the first that the three kids were already dead, but they wanted to be all heroic and whip up new hatred of Hamas, to justify ridding the region of those folks.

It was an opportunity, but when six Israeli kids grabbed a young Palestinian boy, and then gleefully burned him alive, things got out of hand – Netanyahu had to tell the folks running through the streets, cheering about that, that Israel was not that kind of place. The issue was self-defense, but there was dispute about who gets to do what. Grabbing young Palestinian kids and burning them alive is a no-no. That’s the government’s job. Let the government bomb them to death, or take them out with snipers, or invade Gaza, the home of Hamas, and reduce the place to rubble. As for the West Bank, home of the rival Palestinian Authority, that will soon be all Israeli settlements, solving that problem. That too is something that the Israeli government sees as a matter of self-defense. The Palestinians think that’s their land, and the UN and internal laws agrees with them, but all that can be made moot if they’re no longer there on “their” West Bank. Hamas recently sort of merged with the Palestinian Authority but no matter – the government will take care of all this, not patriotic citizen vigilantes.

The principle is clear. Citizens do not get to take the nation’s self-defense into their own hands. The state must have what’s called a monopoly on the use of deadly force – chip in your tax dollars and they’ll create and manage an Army and a Navy and an Air Force, amazingly armed, to protect you, along with a border patrol, also heavily armed, to keep the scum of the earth away from you. Let them do it. You don’t get to take your assault rifle – even if you have the right to own one – down to El Paso and point it south and shoot anyone who looks to you to be a little too Hispanic. That’s the government’s job – or to be precise about it, if you think that’s the government’s job and they’re just not doing it, work to elect those who set policies to shoot on sight and ask questions later. That’s how things work here. When you’re a citizen who is part of democracy, you give up your right to be a patriotic citizen vigilante. There is no such thing. That is what Netanyahu was saying. He was facing a very American problem, citizens who thought they were free to use deadly force. That sort of thing only leads to chaos.

It’s the same with the police and the judicial system. No one, except for Batman and Superman in the comic books, gets to take the law into their own hands. You may be armed, but if you shoot someone who bothers you quite dead, you’ll have to explain that – there was no time to call the police or whatever. Sure, everyone has the right to defend themselves, but the state, to prevent chaos and all sorts of folks shooting each other willy-nilly, has been granted that monopoly on the use of deadly force. Even with all the new Stand Your Ground laws, creating new exceptions to that monopoly, shoot someone who bothers you and you’ll end up in court, like George Zimmerman. You may get off. You may not. Unlike Zimmerman, you might not have the NRA and Sean Hannity on your side. And don’t even think about grabbing some young black kid or gay twenty-something guy and burning him alive. That’s always a no-no. Gunning down doctors who work in abortion clinics is also frowned upon, at least in some circles. Kathy Perkins, the founder of Moms-With-Guns, just posted an item on Obama on her Facebook page and asked a simple question – “Where is an assassin when you need one?”

Kathy Perkins doesn’t get that thing about the state’s monopoly on the use of deadly force. We vote. The state shoots, but there were contradictions about our freedom of action from the start. We all want to be free, but we also want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society. Those two don’t mix easily. After all, we started out declaring our independence from a king, saying kings don’t matter – there were certain inalienable rights everyone has, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This was the big radical idea at the time, thanks to John Locke and others. No king, or actually no government, has the inherent right to just take your life, or to toss you in jail and throw away the key, or to tell you that you can’t do what makes you happy or makes you feel safe. The founders were thinking of King George claiming that he had those nasty rights, by divine mandate, but of course all governments should have those rights. They make a safe and somewhat orderly society possible. They make civil society possible. They make civilization possible. The trick is to develop a government that doesn’t abuse its power to punish and imprison and forbid all sorts of pursuits, even if those pursuits make an individual happy.

Representative democracy was the answer. Monarchies and dictatorships were inherently illegitimate. What the government can punish and forbid and take should be determined by the informed consent of the governed. All we had to do was work out the details of that, but this took some time. The 1776 Declaration of Independence was only a statement of general principles. The matter of what the government can punish and forbid and take, and under what conditions, and what it cannot do, was finally addressed in the Constitution, adopted on September 17, 1787, but much of the Constitution addresses structural issues – how the government is organized and which branch has which specific powers. That’s the boring stuff. The good stuff was and is in the Bill of Rights, right up front, fleshing out what freedom means, in a safe and somewhat orderly society. The anti-federalists demanded those first ten amendments – Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams led the charge. If we must have a strong central government, for efficiency’s sake, at least it could be kept on a leash.

They got their way, but over the years what should have been clear got muddied. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are guaranteed – except that later we all agreed you’re not free to shout FIRE in a crowded theater, and slander and libel are always forbidden, as is publishing anything that endangers national security. That last matter has been in dispute recently, of course. Edward Snowden may or may not have damaged national security, or if he did, a bit, our right to know about such things may be more important to us. It’s complicated. The Fourth Amendment also forbids illegal search and seizure by the government, unless by court order – a warrant based on probable cause. Technology has muddied the waters there too – the metadata about everyone’s phone calls and electronic communications, not the content, may be fair game – or not. That leads to the right to privacy, never mentioned in the constitution but which the Supreme Court ruled was clearly implied. In the matter of Griswold v Connecticut they ruled the police can’t bust down the bedroom door and arrest a married couple they think are using some form of birth control. That was going too far. Privacy is implicitly guaranteed as a constitutional right, but the Griswold ruling led to Roe v Wade – which forbids interfering with a woman’s decision to seek an abortion, at least in the first trimester – an unwarranted invasion of privacy of exactly the same sort. That also led to their ruling in Lawrence v Texas – the police can’t bust down the bedroom door and arrest two consenting adults engaged in homosexual activity, in private. That too is going too far.

Each ruling follows the other, logically, enraging social conservatives and the religious right. That’s why Rick Santorum has long argued the whole problem started with the Griswold ruling – there’s no such thing as a right to privacy. Santorum says that was decided wrongly. He concedes that if we want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society there have to be rules, but God’s rules, as he understands them, will do just fine. Maybe so, but the First Amendment clearly states that the government should never, ever, make any law that even implies the establishment of religion, so he can’t really go there, but now the Hobby Lobby decision has muddied the waters again. A corporation can now claim exemption from following a law passed fair and square by the representatives of the people, because of that corporation’s religious beliefs, no matter what was guaranteed to individual citizens by the same law. The government should never, ever, make any law that even implies the establishment of religion, but here we seem to have an exception. Some religious stuff, as defined by the Supreme Court as the right sort of religious stuff, trumps the laws devised by the people. The five white male devout-Catholic justices said so. The other four justices disagreed. Everyone saw that coming.

Then there’s the issue of self-defense and the Second Amendment. Citizens have the right to bear arms. Anyone can pack heat, but the business about how that’s because “a well-regulated militia” is important does muddy the waters. That’s the only rationale given in the amendment, and no one knows what that means now. There’s some question of what it even meant then. There was no standing army at the time and a spare force of armed soldiers could be useful, when the Indians attack or something. It couldn’t have meant that everyone should carry a gun. In a safe and somewhat orderly society only the police carry guns, to keep order – using them only when necessary. Trigger-happy asshole policemen lose their jobs and go to jail – or should. You can’t have everyone being an avenging vigilante. The government alone must have a monopoly on the use deadly force, and also be held accountable, by the people, for its use. If every man, woman and child is allowed to be judge, jury and executioner, civilization itself is impossible.

The counterargument is that the police can’t be everywhere and everyone has the right to protect themselves. The guys who hammered out the Bill of Rights didn’t mention that at all, but the argument is that this is the real reason they came up with the amendment. If a right to privacy, never mentioned in the Constitution at all, can be inferred, then this too can be inferred. That must be it, as in common law self-defense has always been a defense when you’ve killed someone. You had no choice. In all states, if safe retreat is possible, you’re supposed to scram rather than shoot the guy – except that in Florida and other states they have new Stand Your Ground laws, written for them by the NRA. You are not now required to retreat, even if you safely can. You can shoot the guy. Although his case wasn’t exactly a Stand Your Ground case, George Zimmerman could. He went free. Everyone at Fox News was happy about that.

No good has come of this, but maybe this is a generational thing. Older white folks, the Fox News demographic, see the world falling apart. Arm the young wannabe cops who volunteer for neighborhood watch, even if they’re flaky and unstable – arm everyone, except young black men. Everyone has the right to carry a gun, or many of them, everywhere, all the time. This is the only thing that will save civilization. We all want to live in a safe and somewhat orderly society.

There’s no point in pointing out how absurd that is. When every single citizen is free to be judge, jury and executioner, a safe and somewhat orderly society becomes impossible. This may not be what those fellows drafting the Second Amendment had in mind. In all those ten amendments that are the Bill of Rights they were just trying to work out the relationship between freedom and public order, and there were contradictions from the start. Those contradictions are still with us. One man’s utterly justifiable act of self-defense is another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever.

It’s the same thing in international politics. Benjamin Netanyahu may be trying to contain his overly enthusiastic countrymen, the guys with the matches and kerosene looking for the next hapless Palestinian ten-year-old, but he’s a bit of a George Zimmerman himself. He argues innocent self-defense, but something else may be going on here:

The cycle has come to be known in Israel as “mowing the lawn” – a temporary disruption of Hamas’s ability and will to fire rockets. Pressure is growing in Israel to make sure that this time is different.

“The army should not stop until they wipe out Hamas,” said Avner Peretz, 46, just minutes after the windows in his brother-in-law’s house were blown out by a Hamas rocket attack in the southern Israeli town of Netivot over the weekend. “The last two conflicts, we came out looking like the losers. This time, we need to be the winner.”

So far, there’s no doubt that Israel has inflicted far more damage than Hamas, but that’s consistently true in this deeply asymmetrical fight.

There have been 166 residents of Gaza killed in the current Israeli operation, including 36 children and 24 women, according to the Gazan Health Ministry. The United Nations estimates that three-quarters of the dead are civilians.

Hamas and its allies have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel – including 130 on Sunday – but most have either landed in open areas or been shot down by Israel’s sophisticated anti-missile system, Iron Dome. Several Israelis have been seriously injured by the rocket fire, but none have been killed.

Israel is now relatively safe – all the deaths are on the other side – but Israel will keep shooting, and will probably invade and occupy Gaza for a generation or two. Is that innocent self-defense? The Palestinians think they are engaged in self-defense too, defense from a brutal occupying power. Here too, one man’s utterly justifiable acts of self-defense are another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever – except here we’re dealing with countries not individuals, and neither side has a monopoly on the use of deadly force. Each side only wishes they had that monopoly.

This is a case where everyone’s a law unto themselves, and in the Times of Israel, David Horovitz explains where that leads:

At his Friday press conference, the prime minister ruled out full Palestinian sovereignty, derided the US approach to Israeli security, and set out his Middle East overview with unprecedented candor. His remarks were not widely reported; they should be.

A few of the details:

Netanyahu began his appearance, typically, by reading some prepared remarks. But then, most atypically, he took a series of questions. And while he initially stuck to responses tied to the war against Hamas, its goals, and the terms under which it might be halted, he then moved – unasked – into territory he does not usually chart in public, and certainly not with such candor.

For some, his overall outlook will seem bleak and depressing; for others, savvy and pragmatic. One thing’s for sure: Nobody will ever be able to claim in the future that he didn’t tell us what he really thinks.

He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.

Operation Protective Edge will go on until “guaranteed calm” was restored to Israel, and if that takes forever and that means never, so be it, and that means this:

Netanyahu has stressed often in the past that he doesn’t want Israel to become a binational state – implying that he favors some kind of accommodation with and separation from the Palestinians. But on Friday he made explicit that this could not extend to full Palestinian sovereignty. Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.

And this:

Earlier this spring, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sparked a storm in Israel-US ties when he told a private gathering that the US-Kerry-Allen security proposals weren’t worth the paper they were written on. Netanyahu on Friday said the same, and more, in public.

Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan, it should be emphasized, means not giving a Palestinian entity full sovereignty there. It means not acceding to Mahmoud Abbas’s demands, to Barack Obama’s demands, to the international community’s demands. This is not merely demanding a demilitarized Palestine; it is insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state. …

He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible. …

And in a passage that was primarily directed at Israel’s Islamist enemies, but might equally be internalized by those he plainly regards as Israel’s muddle-headed self-styled friends, he added: “Nobody should mess with us.”

Somehow Netanyahu sounds like this guy:

An activist who is rallying a Bundy Ranch-style militia to the Texas border to address the ongoing crisis there reportedly released a YouTube video in which he said those crossing illegally would be warned: “Get back across the border or you will be shot.”

Operation Secure Our Border, with its own Facebook page, is being organized by members of the “Patriot” movement along with Oathkeepers and Three-Percenters, according to the San Antonio Express News. Those are some of the same militia groups that came to Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s defense earlier this year.

The Express News and The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, both reported on a YouTube video featuring Chris Davis, who has been identified as the commander of the militia, in which he apparently explained how the border would be secured.

“You see an illegal. You point your gun dead at him, right between his eyes, and you say, ‘Get back across the border or you will be shot,'” Davis said in the video, according to the reports.

It’s the same thing, except that one man’s utterly justifiable act of self-defense is another man’s lawlessness that assures chaos forever:

Law enforcement, for their part, doesn’t seem interested in the help that the militia purports to provide.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Express News it does not “endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences.”

“We don’t need their services on our border,” a Texas county sheriff told the Monitor.

We do have laws that recognize that the state rightly has a monopoly on the use of deadly force, so these guys should go home, or they’ll go to jail. In the safe and civilized world, people have ceded their absolute right to self-defense for the greater good – the absence of perpetual anarchy. One trades unconditional freedom for relative security. We eventually send our sovereign citizens to jail.

It doesn’t seem to work that way with countries. The League of Nations failed. The UN is useless. International law is a bit of a joke. And the Israelis and the Palestinians will be at war forever, because there’s no controlling agreement about managing the competing demands for both freedom and security, save for a peace treaty every decade or so, that both sides ignore after a week or two. They stand alone, and their sovereignty means unconditional freedom, and that means unending war. There, self-defense can excuse anything, and eventually does. Here we’ve spent over two centuries believing that’s just not so, although lately we’ve been changing our mind about that too. We’re still working things out, after all.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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3 Responses to The Right of Self-Defense

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Perhaps a dozen years or so ago, someone in a position to know articulated to me an informal rule of Israeli response to suicide bombing: for every Israeli casualty, ten dead Palestinians. A bit more than “an eye for an eye”. It seemed a fair representation of reality then; very conservative now.

    There are a great many Israelis, probably a majority, who are horrified at the actions of their government in the name of security. For assorted reasons they’re largely impotent. I’d like to make an analogy to our own United States and immigration policy, but I can’t. “Government” for us is a bunch of warring fragments (Tea Party, House, Senate, Progressives…) who in too many instances refuse to bargain in good faith with each other; use race to gin up hate, and the majority of we Americans who disagree are too silent or docile or uninterested.

    Israel is a tiny, isolated, artificial country which seems bent on its own ultimate self-destruction, taking down as much of the rest of the world as possible with it.

    The insane devotion of too many Americans to the right of the individual, and the silence of the rest of us, is tearing our own country apart.

    Israel and the U.S. are very different, but at the same time identical twins. We’ll both end up getting what we deserve, which is not a win for our “side”.

    I’m normally an optimist.

    I’m discouraged.

  2. Rick says:

    The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, reporting on Bibi Netanyahu’s Friday news conference:

    “He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible.”

    In other words, of course, he doesn’t support a two-state solution.

    But if he doesn’t support that, what does he support? A one-state solution, in which all citizens, Jew and Arab and whatnot, all share equal rights? Or, maybe more likely, one in which Israel swallows up the occupied territories, making them part of Israel proper, and where Jews essentially rule the country and Palestinians enjoy second-class citizenship — sort of like the way Islamic states operate, but in reverse?

    As you point out in your statement, “As for the West Bank, home of the rival Palestinian Authority, that will soon be all Israeli settlements, solving that problem” — while we rarely hear any main-stream justification for the Settlement movement, we’re left to speculate that Israel’s government hopes the settlers will turn all Palestine into Israel — a fait accompli, and the sooner, the better. It’s as if (and I think it’s probably true) Netanyahu and his people are taking a lesson from the American example, in which, while promising anything we felt it necessary to promise to the Indians, we had no intention of keeping any promise that kept us from our destiny: A nation of our own, stretching from sea to sea.

    Specifically, Israel is consciously trying to get away with doing to the Arabs what the United States got away with doing to Native Americans — although while we have the benefit of a century or so of history separating us from our crime, the Israelis know they don’t have that luxury. They need to be creating their ugly history in real time.

    As I’ve said, it’s hard to choose sides between the Palestinians who want to wipe out Israel and the Israelis who want to wipe out Palestine, and if I were a Jew or a Palestinian (or anybody else, for that matter) who lived in a place where one could only choose between supporting one asshole state or the other, I imagine I would just leave and go live somewhere else.


  3. Russell says:

    It appears both Texans and the Israelis are demanding an episode of “ethnic-cleansing” in their little corners of the world. The rest of the world will not judge them kindly if it begins.

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