Wednesday, August 29, 2012

No obligations, no gestures, no smiles, and no insults.

I confess to not ever having read an article from the Boston Review before.

But, chasing a pointer from Bruce Schneier's blog, I plowed through Oded Na'aman's fascinating article in the summer issue of Boston Review: The Checkpoint: Terror, Power, and Cruelty.

Na'aman, a graduate student at Harvard, served in the Israeli Defense Force a decade ago, and wrote this article reflecting on his experiences there and how it had changed him.

Now, I don't have any of the appropriate background to comment deeply on the article: I've never traveled to the Middle East; I have no military background; I have little religious background; and I have no experience with living in or near an area of active conflict.

Regardless, this was a fascinating article and I thought he had some very insightful things to say. For example, he discusses the moral and philosophical imperatives of the security checkpoint:

The soldier does not only have authority to make exceptions; the soldier has a responsibility to make exceptions. At the checkpoint, omnipotence is the power to create orders, not merely the power to enforce them. When a soldier’s order is defied, it is he, his judgment, that is defied, not merely a rule that he represents. Disobedience, therefore, is always personal at the checkpoint.

As Na'aman observes, the realities of the checkpoint lead inevitably to a certain outcome:

The circumstances instill in soldiers and Palestinians an intense interest in each other’s minds. This same interest subverts their capacity to recognize each other. There can be neither truth telling nor lying at the checkpoint. No obligations, no gestures, no smiles, and no insults. There can be neither respect nor disrespect, neither shame nor honor. Palestinians will say and do whatever they think is most likely to get them through the checkpoint. Soldiers will say and do whatever keeps the Palestinians scared enough to do nothing but obey.

The result, in the end, says Na'aman, is nothing short of tragic:

Even if the soldier is failing to act on his values, he still has them. He decides not to succumb to indifference, not to let his moral sentiments wear off. He must not grow accustomed to the unnecessary suffering he is bound to inflict with his arbitrary exercise of power. He holds on to guilt as a drowning man holds on to a log of wood.

As Robert Burns put it, 250 years ago:

Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, -
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!

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