Nations Aren’t People

Celebrity chef Jose Andres (center) joins Sen. Chris Coons and Sen. Peter Welch for an interview following a meeting about getting humanitarian aid to Gaza at the U.S. Capitol on March 14, 2024, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Dear Reader (even those of you who are indifferent to promiscuity among cicadas),

Seven staffers of World Central Kitchen (WCK) were killed in Israel by Israeli forces. Israel apologized, launched an investigation, and, as of this, morning dismissed two senior officers for their roles in the accident. 

That hasn’t stopped a tidal wave of coverage suggesting, declaring, or insisting that “Israel deliberately” killed those staffers. Celebrity chef José Andrés, the founder of WCK, put this discourse into overdrive by saying as much. I’ll spare you the headlines, but if you just search Google News for “Israel deliberately” you’ll find plenty of examples (and if you search Twitter you’ll find countless more, alongside a sadly predictable miasma of blood libels and conspiracy theories on a range of topics). 

I don’t want to get into a lot of parsing and logic-chopping, but a little is necessary. It’s not disputed that Israel deliberately fired on the convoy, in the sense that someone deliberately pulled the trigger and/or gave the order to pull the trigger. But that is not the same thing as saying Israel intentionally and knowingly killed aid workers. When a surprised cop shoots a kid with a toy gun, he “deliberately” pulls the trigger. But that doesn’t mean he is guilty of intentionally and knowingly killing an unarmed child. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not criminally liable for his mistake, but he is not criminally liable for first-degree murder, which requires intent. 

This is really not that subtle a distinction. But when it comes to Israel’s critics, such distinctions are the first things—subtle or glaring—to fall by the wayside. On most days the charge is that Israel is indiscriminately murdering people. But when circumstances offer the chance to say that is discriminatingly murdering people, Israel’s critics and much of the media (an increasingly thin distinction) are primed to grab that cudgel. 

Whatever you make of Israel’s initial investigation, it was always obvious to me that this was some colossal, tragic mistake. One piece of evidence: Israel says it was a mistake. Israel does all sorts of things its detractors denounce as murderous and outrageous that Israel is perfectly willing to defend. It means something when they don’t defend, and even denounce, something they’re responsible for. 

But that’s not the only reason to believe Israel when they say this was not intentional. You wouldn’t know it from most media coverage, but Israel is more conscientious and careful about limiting civilian deaths than any country in the world, America included. A recent episode of Advisory Opinions covered this in detail. John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at West Point and possibly the world’s foremost expert on the topic, similarly writes, “Israel has implemented more precautions to prevent civilian harm than any military in history—above and beyond what international law requires and more than the U.S. did in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (Jamie Weinstein recently did an excellent interview with Spencer for The Dispatch Podcast.

Spencer writes:

Israel gave warning, in some cases for weeks, for civilians to evacuate the major urban areas of northern Gaza before it launched its ground campaign in the fall. The IDF reported dropping over 7 million flyers, but it also deployed technologies never used anywhere in the world, as I witness firsthand on a recent trip to Gaza and southern Israel.

Israel has made over 70,000 direct phones calls, sent over 13 million text messages and left over 15 million pre-recorded voicemails to notify civilians that they should leave combat areas, where they should go, and what route they should take. They deployed drones with speakers and dropped giant speakers by parachute that began broadcasting for civilians to leave combat areas once they hit the ground. They announced and conducted daily pauses of all operations to allow any civilians left in combat areas to evacuate.

There’s no need to revisit the “genocide” canard, but I will note that these are not the procedures a country takes when it’s looking to wipe out a whole population. 

More to the point, it just seems improbable that a military willing to forgo the element of surprise to spare Palestinian lives would suspend all of its safeguards for the express purpose of killing non-Palestinians (including one American). 

I generally don’t like cui bono arguments, but how could it possibly benefit Israel to do so? Who in command would say, “I know the Americans and EU are going to come down on us like a ton of bricks if we kill these aid workers, but it’s worth it”?

How this could possibly benefit Israel is an utter mystery to me. The only attempt at an answer I’ve seen—other than Israelis are monsters—is that they want to “starve” Palestinians, and so this was an extension of that alleged policy. Among the problems with this theory is that according to the people offering it, WCK wasn’t making much of a difference, given the scope of the food crisis in Gaza. If that’s true, surely it makes little sense to kill these people given the foreseeable blowback. 

Again, I think it’s obvious this was the kind of mistake that happens in war, especially urban war, and particularly an urban war when one side—that would be Hamas—rejects all laws of war and has an open and admitted policy of trying to maximize civilian deaths on their own side. 

This is the amazing thing about this war and why it confuses so many people. Normally when two countries fight a war, each side takes responsibility for taking care of its own people. In this war, Israel is expected to protect its own civilians but also be responsible for protecting—and feeding—Palestinian civilians. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t protect Palestinian civilians as best they can, nor am I saying they shouldn’t feed them as best they can. But a little recognition of the fact that this is a burden the “international community” imposes on exactly one country. 

From the Biden administration and much of the media, there’s this amazing, twisted, morally deformed assumption that Hamas should not be blamed for anything that happens in Gaza. In the fringier corners of academia and activism, this belief extends so far as to make October 7 Israel’s fault, because raping and mass murder are inevitable acts of resistance to “occupation.” (Never mind that Gaza was not “occupied” on October 7.)  

Mousa Abu Marzouk, a Hamas leader, explained that because the tunnels and shelters underneath Gaza were built for Hamas fighters, the civilians on the surface are somebody else’s problem. More specifically, Hamas considers Palestinian civilian deaths to be a necessary sacrifice in the effort to bring international condemnation down on Israel and its allies. After six months of war, Hamas has not budged from its original negotiating position. But, yeah, Israel is being unreasonable. 

I want to get off this subject, but it’s worth noting that despite getting its ass handed to it militarily, its territory pulverized, and watching thousands of civilians get killed, Hamas looks at the international climate, and the political climate in America, and thinks time is on its side. In other words, they think their strategy is working. They could only think this if they held the lives of Palestinians cheap, far cheaper than Israelis do. 

Given how the Biden administration is wavering in its supposed “unwavering support,” Hamas may be right about its strategy working. 

The personification problem. 

I didn’t want to get into the weeds of this tragedy or spend a lot of time defending Israel here. Not that both aren’t worthwhile things to do, I just know from experience that if I jumped into what I really wanted to write about I’d be accused of dodging the issue. Now, I don’t have the space to do it right. But I’ll put down a down payment. 

So, if you go back and read what I wrote above, I’m part of the problem I want to talk about. 

For all sorts of understandable and probably unavoidable reasons, we tend to talk about countries like they’re people or indivisible, unified units. We describe national interests as if they’re analogous to individual interests. Russia did X, because Russia wants Y. So-called “realists” are notorious for this kind of thing. They often talk about nations acting on their interests as if neither leaders nor populations have any role in the course of action nations take. It’s as if there’s just something in the soil that makes Russia want a warm water port or a vassalized Ukraine. Human agency has nothing to do with it.  

But the realists hardly started it. This is an ancient tendency, with all sorts of permutations. The Athenians talked about Spartans as if all Spartans were interchangeable. British opinion about the “frogs” didn’t change much, regardless who was on the throne. Ditto, French opinion of the “roast beefs.” 

Until the Enlightenment, such statements were mostly grounded in assumptions about culture, religion, etc. But sometimes the assumptions were quasi-biological, as if different nations or peoples (the “nation” was a fluid concept for a long time) were made up of different subspecies of humanity.  

Modern science intensified this. Jamelle Bouie wrote a controversial piece back in 2018 attacking the Enlightenment for creating biological racism. (I had sharp disagreements with the essay, but he certainly had a point as I explained here.) Long before anyone busted out their phrenological calipers or the Nazis took it all to its horrible conclusion, the scientific revolution made “race science” seem much more plausible. “Natural philosophers” would come up with taxonomies of different kinds of people. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was arguably the founder of “scientific” racial classification with his 1776 book On the Natural Varieties of Mankind. He was followed by Gobineau and others. 

One of my gripes—probably not in the top 10—with Woodrow Wilson was his commitment to this kind of thinking. A lot of his defenders claim that Wilson’s concept of “self-determination” was a watershed advance in the cause of democracy. Maybe it was. But that was sort of incidental. Wilson himself trafficked in all sorts of racial and cultural assumptions about nations and peoples. Wilson might concede that self-determination might mean democracy for those races “suited” for democracy, but for him, the concept was aimed more at imperialism. Nations should be free to organize in accordance to their nature, not be dictated to by foreign rulers. 

Self-determination was more linked with the concept of “popular sovereignty” —“Italy for the Italians!” and that sort of thing—than democracy. For instance, the first plank in the Nazi Party platform of 1920 was, “We demand the union of all Germans in a Greater Germany on the basis of the right of national self-determination.” The Nazis were not democrats. 

Anyway, you don’t have to traffic in biological racism or cultural chauvinism to understand why we anthropomorphize nations. What else are we supposed to do? Just journalistically, it’s pretty much impossible to do otherwise.  Saying things like “Britain cut taxes,” “Australia invested in infrastructure,” “Ukraine broadened conscription,” is just the simplest, clearest, way to convey certain kinds of information. No one is going to stop doing that. 

But it comes with problems. Without subscribing to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I think it’s generally true that language can shape how we think about things. And when we reduce countries to anthropomorphized entities, we can blur important distinctions. We recognize this problem in domestic politics all the time. You can get in a lot of trouble beginning a sentence with “The blacks” or “blacks think X.” The insinuation that everybody in a demographic group is homogeneous in their thinking or attitudes gets really close to the line of racism. Sometimes. Other times not. We could talk for hours about when it’s acceptable and when it’s not. 

Many of the same problems and perils apply when talking about nations and nationalities. But there are some unique ones too. That’s because when we talk about nations like they’re people, we erase the fact that in some countries the actual people have no say in what their country does. 

For instance, lots of folks talk about the U.N. as if it is akin to Tennyson’s “Parliament of Man.” People talk about the delegations as if they are all equally legitimate because they “represent” their nations the way senators or congressmen represent their states. Well, according to the Economist’s Democracy Index, only 24 nations are “full democracies.” Another 50 are “flawed democracies,” 34 are “hybrids,” and 59 are “authoritarian.” Call me a pie-eyed democracy fetishist, but I don’t think North Korea’s U.N. representatives are as legitimate or representative of “the North Koreans” as the delegates from, say,  Switzerland are of the Swiss. In other words, the flunkies sent by dictatorships do not represent their people; they represent the crappy regimes they work for. 

The tendency to talk about nations as if they’re people also invites us to talk about national rights as if they’re like individual rights. But international law rests on very different—and, in my opinion, far flimsier—assumptions than natural law, constitutional law, or common law. When we say “Russia has the right to this territory” we are making an entirely different kind of argument than when we say “John Smith has a right to build a shed on his property.”

The failure to appreciate that the governments of some countries are little better than mafias or juntas with no democratic legitimacy poisons a lot of foreign policy debates. “Respecting” China, Iran, or Russia doesn’t require respecting their governments, at least not on a moral calculus. Indeed, respecting the people of those countries arguably requires scorn for their governments. Sure, as a matter of realpolitik it’s necessary to recognize those regimes, but recognition and respect aren’t the same thing. And respecting the reality of power is different than respecting the morality of its use. 

I could go on, but this is already too long for such a subtle—and perhaps uninteresting—topic. But what got me thinking about this was all that “Israel intentionally” garbage. 

When people say—again wrongly in my opinion—that “Israel deliberately” killed those workers, it is a statement of collective guilt. Who killed those people? Not the pilot, or drone operator, or the general who gave the order. Israel did it. The fact that Israel did not want or choose this war with Hamas, that it did not ask to be in charge of protecting noncombatants and aid workers in a war zone, doesn’t matter. “This is what Israel does.”

But if I were to say “the Palestinians raped teenagers at a peace concert” or “the Palestinians burned families alive in their homes,” the “Israel deliberately” crowd would object, “No, no, that was Hamas!” (Some extremists will simply lie, saying it didn’t happen at all or, in some cases, claim it was justified). They will insist that you cannot hold the Palestinians responsible for the actions of Hamas. You cannot insinuate that everyone who hates Israel is a terrorist. And, as a general proposition, I think that’s a wholly defensible response (put aside questionable polling of Palestinians who say they support Hamas). But when specific individuals in the Israeli military make mistakes, and when the democratic leadership condemns and apologizes for those mistakes, the response is “shut up, it was deliberate.”

It’s just another example of how the rules always seem to have a special exemption for Israel. 

Various & Sundry

Canine update: So, readers may recall that the Goldbergs started our van life chapter last fall when we picked up our Sprinter. Last weekend we took Zoe and Pippa to a campsite in the Shenandoah Valley. On their last trip, the girls really didn’t get too comfortable with the beast. Zoe tried to stay up by the front seats the entire time and Pippa tried to hide in the footwell. That was annoying for the front passenger, but kinda dangerous for the driver (and by extension everybody else). I’m happy to report the girls seem to have grown comfortable—or more comfortable—with van life. They even shared a dog bed from time to time, which is unprecedented in any location. But what they really liked was the destination. We rented a little spot by a creek, we were pretty much alone, though the owner of the property was apparently around. He had goats and sheep, and the girls loved watching them from the campfire. They also loved the campfire

I will confess that at one point Zoë did get her blood up and chased the beasts from her side of the wire fence. Rumors that she was searching for a way into the pen are well-founded. But she didn’t gain entry before she ultimately heeded my commands. Pippa really loved chasing a ball there, so much so that we had to use the van’s external shower to clean her off a couple of times. Anyway, a very successful outing. We did leave Gracie entirely alone—with lots of food and water—for longer than we normally like. She chastised us. We made it up to her. 

The weather since we got back has been terrible. We even had a morning walk called on account of sky booms, which pretty much never happens. Speaking of bad weather, I’m on a plane to Texas right now where we’re going to see the eclipse—or at least we’re supposed to. The weather forecast is not great. We would have taken the van, but we’re going with a group of friends. The girls are staying with Kirsten, and Gracie has her own personal assistant for the whole weekend.

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