Archive for August 3rd, 2006

No Man is A Tory Island

In the run-up to the 1992 British General Election our form teacher asked the class to raise their hands to indicate which party each pupil wanted to win. First he asked who wanted Labour to win. Of the 28 in the class, 27 raised their hand for Labour. Then he asked who wanted the Tories to win. The remaining shining morning face raised its hand. ‘Twas I. And if I felt any inhibition about doing so, I cannot recall it, despite the general unpopularity of the Conservative Party at the time.

Given my secret Tory past, I have a certain regard for people who send invitations specifying that you should wear a blazer, and I have a certain regard for people who drink Pimms and go punting. What is more, I have a certain regard for fox-hunting and Barbour coats. I feel more comfortable among people who know how to distinguish between medium and dry sherry, and to whom the distinction actually matters. I also read the Daily Telegraph, principally because I can do its crossword in the hours around dinner time, but also because I like Boris Johnson’s columns.

There is much to admire about today’s article, as far as these things go, but there was one observation with which I must beg to differ:

‘Whatever the hideous shambles of the past few days, it is still true, in principle, that when Israeli rockets kill civilians, they have missed their targets, and that when Hizbollah rockets kill civilians, they have scored a deliberate hit.

That is a moral difference that needs to be dinned into the skull of every saloon-bar strategist currently denouncing Israel.’

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that Hizbollah rockets that kill civilians score a deliberate hit, I think he does the Israeli Defence Forces an injustice with regard to their targets.

Human Rights Watch reports the following:

‘In dozens of attacks, Israeli forces struck an area with no apparent military target. In some cases, the
timing and intensity of the attack, the absence of a military target, as well as return strikes on rescuers, suggest that Israeli forces deliberately targeted civilians.’


‘In addition to strikes from airplanes, helicopters, and traditional artillery, Israel has used artillery-fired cluster munitions against populated areas, causing civilian casualties.’


‘witnesses consistently told Human Rights Watch that neither Hezbollah fighters nor other legitimate military targets were in the area that the IDF attacked. However, Human Rights Watch did document cases in
which the IDF hit legitimate military targets, and, with limited exceptions, witnesses were generally willing to discuss the presence and activity of Hezbollah. At the sites visited by Human Rights Watch—Qana, Srifa, Tyre, and the southern suburbs of Beirut—on-site investigations did not identify any signs of military activity in the area attacked, such as trenches, destroyed rocket launchers, other military equipment, or dead or wounded fighters. International and local journalists, rescue workers, and international observers also did not produce evidence to contradict the statements of witnesses interviewed for this report.’

In a saloon-bar strategy session last night, over scotch and thick cigars, I wondered about the moral questions to which Boris refers. Criticisms of Israel, or the UK, or the US, are often denounced because the critic has introduced an element of ‘moral equivalence‘ or ‘moral relativism‘ (note how closely the Times leader column chimes with Blair’s speech) into proceedings. Perhaps the fug of alcohol befuddled me greatly on this point, and I am certainly aware that I lack either a first class mind or a degree in Classics, but as I sought my own simple real-world example for moral equivalence, I begun to wonder whether such a thing actually existed. But I finally found an example that explains it.

Let’s say you have a nun. ‘Have’ in the sense of there being one before you. A saintly nun, of 3 score and ten years, who has dedicated all her life to lifting people out of misery and squalor. One night, while out on a soup round, she is approached by a mildly troublesome tramp, at which point she lifts a claw hammer from her handbag and cracks open his head, killing him instantly.

Then you have a mobile phone salesman. A shameless rip-off merchant, who supplements his income by impersonating Bord Gas engineers and mugging grannies. One night, while out on a cocaine binge, he is urinating against a wall when he is approached by a mildly troublesome tramp, at which point he lifts a claw hammer from his pocket, and cracks open his head, killing him instantly.

This is, I think, where the principle of moral value is used. There is a moral distinction, we may be told, between the nun’s actions and those of the mobile phone salesman, because one is saintly and the other is nasty. But we might take this a step further and add that the nun committed her action whilst in pursuit of saintliness, and the mobile phone salesman his whilst in pursuit of vice.

We can be satisfied with this distinction: there is no moral equivalence between a nun murdering a tramp and a mobile phone salesman murdering one, because one is a nun and the other is a mobile phone salesman, because one had good intentions and the other had bad intentions. Also, most people trust nuns. So, we can conclude that since Israel is a liberal democracy, and Hizbollah is a terrorist guerrilla organisation, there is no moral equivalence between Israeli murder and Hizbollah murder.

As it is now mid-afternoon, I shall retire to my quarters, with a gin and tonic and a copy of the Spectator.

I on Twitter

August 2006