Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Crimes against the innocent

It is Passover season again. Jews everywhere remember the flight from slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh finally let the Jews go after God killed every Egyptian firstborn. The Jews left Egypt in a great hurry but then found themselves at the shore of the Red Sea with the Egyptian army in pursuit. Once again God came to their rescue. The waves of the sea parted so that they could walk on solid land. When they reached the other side, the sea closed up again drowning the pursuing Egyptian soldiers.
During Passover we remember this history of our ancestors and rejoice about our liberation and about all the liberation struggles since then.
A short while ago we were reflecting about this history and about Passover and my partner, Lucy, observed that amid all the rejoicing we do not to pay attention to the deaths of all Egyptian firstborn children or the drowning of the Egyptian army. The liberation of the Jews came at a very high price.
You might say that the soldiers who died should have been prepared because soldiers die as a part of the life they chose as soldiers. The death of some is the price for the glory of others. But no such excuse can be provided for the death of firstborn children. They were indeed innocent victims.
As we see every day, military actions have innocent victims. The bombs that we drop in Syria in order to combat Isis quite regularly kill women and children who are not only not connected with Isis but who are not connected at all with the whole Civil War. The women just wanted it to stop. The children are too small to have a choice.
Recent reports about the massive destruction in Syria note that many schools have also been reduced to rubble. More than 1 million children have never been to school. They cannot read or write. They cannot add and subtract. What kind of future are they looking forward to? Once grown up, what work will they be able to do in these highly technological societies? The countries bombing Syria, including the US, bear responsibility for lives bound to end in poverty and utter misery.
Our leaders, throughout our history, do not understand that. Laying a wreath in Italy at the site of a Nazi massacre during World War II, the Secretary of State , Rex Tillerson, vowed that we, the United States, would "punish those who commit crimes against innocents anywhere in the world." Since our armies in Afghanistan, in Iraq and now in Syria, daily harm innocents, we would have to begin by punishing ourselves if we took this threat seriously. But it is only political propaganda.
Wars have always inflicted great suffering on civilian populations. Before there was artillery that destroyed the houses in the country and the cities, Before there were airplanes that drop bombs from high altitudes or guided missiles that come from far away, there were troops that, once victorious, pillaged and plundered and raped, and burned down houses and barns. In the ancient world conquering armies would massacre entire populations. During World War II both sides tried to win by methodically bombing each other's cities and killing civilian populations. The same tactics are still being used every day by us.
Harming innocents has always been a legitimate tactic of warfare. Promising to protect innocents is hypocritical unless the government that makes that promise suspends all military activity.
Last year the body of a drowned child washed up on the coast of Greece. His family had tried to cross the Mediterranean in an un-seaworthy boat. The picture went viral and there was a wave of sympathy for refugees from Syria, from Libya and elsewhere.
No one observed that refugees from Libya are reacting to the United States bombing a number of years ago that killed the dictator and left the country in political chaos. Instead of pitying this child, people would have done better to protest against the military actions of the United States that were the direct cause of this boy drowning. Pity that does not impel us to action is useless and insincere.
This is the deeper message of the Jewish liberation from Egyptian slavery. The price for violent liberation is often paid by those who have nothing to do with the conflict that takes their life. We should not rejoice over liberation and forget the victims who die through no fault of their own.
This is a hard lesson to learn because it is so universally ignored and because it makes clear that we can only protect the innocents by strictly adhering to a policy of nonviolence. Promising to protect the innocents through violence is to promise the impossible. Through violence some innocents will be sacrificed to protect others. Who is in a position to decide which innocent will live and which will die?
We can only protect the innocent by being nonviolent ourselves.