In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, Alan Dershowitz suggested that it is time to update our definition of 'civilian' in light of the complexities of the current situation in the Middle East (see here). Here is an excerpt:
The new is filled these days with reports of civilian casualties, comparative civilian body counts and criticism of Israel, along with Hezbollah, for causing the deaths, injuries and "collective punishment" of civilians. But just who is a "civilian" in the age of terrorism, when militants don't wear uniforms, don't belong to regular armies and easily blend into civilian populations?
We need a new vocabulary to reflect the realities of modern warfare. A new phrase should be introduced into the reporting and analysis of current events in the Middle East: "the continuum of civilianality." Though cumbersome, this concept aptly captures the reality and nuance of warfare today and provides a more fair way to describe those who are killed, wounded and punished.
Turning specifically to the current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas, the line between Israeli soldiers and civilians is relatively clear. Hezbollah missiles and Hamas rockets target and hit Israeli restaurants, apartment buildings and schools. They are loaded with anti-personnel ball-bearings designed specifically to maximize civilian casualties.
Hezbollah and Hamas militants, on the other hand, are difficult to distinguish from those "civilians" who recruit, finance, harbor and facilitate their terrorism. Nor can women and children always be counted as civilians, as some organizations do. Terrorists increasingly use women and teenagers to play important roles in their attacks.
The Israeli army has given well-publicized notice to civilians to leave those areas of southern Lebanon that have been turned into war zones. Those who voluntarily remain behind have become complicit. Some — those who cannot leave on their own — should be counted among the innocent victims.
If the media were to adopt this "continuum," it would be informative to learn how many of the "civilian casualties" fall closer to the line of complicity and how many fall closer to the line of innocence.
Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others.
The suggestion that the civilians in Lebanon who 'voluntarily' stayed behind despite well-publicized Israeli warnings for them to flee thereby become complicit with terrorism is particularly problematic given that Israel specifically targeted the kinds of civilian infrastructure that would have made it possible for them to leave (e.g., airports, bridges, highways, etc.). This reminds me of the people who blamed the citizens in New Orleans who did not make it out in time for their dire situation. In both cases, a myriad of personal and economic factors which could explain why citizens might understandably stay behind are entirely ignored in order to legitimate not caring about their plight.
But setting that aside for present purposes, does it seem to anyone else that Derschowitz is essentially saying that the death of Israeli citizens is more tragic than the death of their Lebanese counterparts? After all, don't Israeli citizens have the ability to flee as well? The only way Dershowitz can justify placing the onus entirely on the shoulders of the citizens of Lebanon is if he assumes from the start that Israel is entirely in the right. At least for many people, that is an open question--a question that Dershowitz begs as usual.
UPDATE: See here for an interesting account of why Faerlie Wilson--a 24 year old American student working for Executive Magazine--is remaining in Lebanon. I suppose Dershowitz is committed to concluding that Wilson is complicit with terrorism, and hence if Wilson happens to get killed as the result of an Israeli bombing, it will certainly be less tragic than we might otherwise have thought.
UPDATE: It's probably worth pointing out in this context that the estimated ratio of Lebanese civilian casualties to Israeli civilian casualities (see here for details) is roughly 16:1 (or 280/17). As such, in order for Dershowitz's attempt to show that the death of Israeli civilians is somehow more tragic than the death of their Lebanese counterparts, he would need to show that at least 15 out of every 16 Lebanese civilian casualties are of the "complicit" variety. Otherwise his so-called "continuum of civilianality" doesn't do the work he needs it to do.