Sunday, March 18, 2012

Atrocities are Good, Massacres are even Better!

Category: Conversations, News, Mind Change

In 1979, during my first year of compulsory service in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), I was assigned to a unit of the much-dreaded “Golani” division. The unit’s remit encompassed a few villages in the West Bank. Jimmy Carter was visiting the region and we were tasked with suppressing any sign of overt dissent among the cowed populace. I was delighted to discover that a good friend of mine (we grew up together), SG, ended up in the same outfit. Otherwise, the company was comprised of social rejects, primary school dropouts, and worse.

The commanders of this tightly-knit camaraderie correctly interpreted their orders from highest up: they were to embark on a spree of torture and gruesome murder. One day, when they dispensed with an elderly villager by feeding him jam till his guts burst open, SG and I decided to maintain a coded diary of all events and to inform the military authorities of the unfolding atrocities.

Finally, at a serious risk to our lives, we both testified against the murderers and torturers in a closed session of a military court. The evidence was overwhelming, incontrovertible, and impeccable. Yet, the sentences were laughably lenient: the commander of the company, who murdered at least one Palestinian with his own hands, got six months in jail. Others were reprimanded.

As far as the military is concerned, atrocities and massacres have their good sides. Such misdeeds and abuse serve important strategic goals. They boost the morale of the troops and let them blow off steam; they deter would-be insurgents; they teach the Natives who is boss. The signal that such atrocities send is that the soldiery will stop at nothing and will observe no law when it is out to subdue a hostile population. This is why perpetrators of such deeds – if they belong to a victorious army - are never punished properly and proportionately.

A Kosovo Case Study

“You can’t blame the whole army. But why did they allow such a soldier to come here?”
“We believe he also has a mother an father and we cannot speak good or ill of him.”
Hamdi Shabiu, father of Merita, the sexually molested, forcibly sodomized and murdered child

“Sex offenders typically have a history, but if the guy was raised here, and went to school here, is there any evidence of it at all?”

“When soldiers are on a peacekeeping mission, it can be a very paranoid state. They’re not in attack mode, like they’re trained to be; they’re stuck in a neutral mode. (But…) the guy’s (Ronghi - SV) a staff sergeant. He’s been around, he’s not a rookie.”
Dr. Keith John Smedi, formerly a Mental Health Officer in the US Army

“We looked at KFOR as saviours, to save us from war and from violence… We want to see a picture of the man who did this to us.”
Remzje Shabiu, mother of Merita, the sexually molested, forcibly sodomized and murdered child

“We again trust the Americans.”
Hamdi Shabiu, father of Merita, the sexually molested, forcibly sodomized and murdered child

Staff Sergeant Frank J. Ronghi sexually molested, forcibly sodomized (“indecent acts with a child”) and then murdered an 11-years old girl in the basement of her drab building, when her father went to market to do some shopping. Then he spread flour from a UN aid package over the blood-stained floor. He wrapped the little, still warm body, in two sacks and dumped it under the staircase. He was sentenced to life in prison, without parole. It was a heinous crime which would have most certainly introduced him to the wrong end of a lethal injection in his homeland, the USA. But Staff Sergeant Ronghi was wise to have unleashed his depravity in Kosovo upon an Albanian girl. Ceteris paribus, it would seem that the going rate for dead Albanian girls is lower than for dead American ones.

There is nothing new in this supercilious attitude of the new masters of the universe. Fiercely independent, solipsistically provincial and fatuously ignorant - this nation of video clips and sound bites has imposed its narcissistic “culture” upon a world exhausted by wars hot and cold. Never averse to exploiting the global institutions to its ends - it often refrains from providing them with means. It still owes in excess of 160 million US dollars to the poorer nations of the world - its arrears to the UN peacekeeping operations. It refuses to subject itself to the judgements of the World Criminal Court, to the inspectors of the Chemical Weapons Convention, to the sanctions of the (anti) land mines treaty and to the provisions of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. In short, it is a bully - making its own laws as it goes, twisting arms and breaking bones when faced with opposition and ignoring the very edicts it promulgated at its convenience. Its soldiers and peacekeepers, its bankers and businessmen, its traders and diplomats are its long arms, an embodiment of this potent mixture of superiority and contempt.

The case of the bestial murderer Ronghi is not an aberration. It happened before (in Japan in 1995, for instance). Nor is the double moral standard applied only by the USA. When a (most probably intoxicated) Norwegian soldier killed a Macedonian minister and his family in a car crash in August 1999 (having swerved into the wrong lane), he was rushed back to Norway to face an incredibly lenient sentence of two months in prison - unimaginable if the Minister were Norwegian and the venue Oslo. More than 60 criminal investigations against NATO soldiers by the Macedonian police (the tip of an iceberg, no doubt) ended this way. So did proceedings in more than 200 traffic accidents involving almost 20 fatalities. These are the remains of a colonial state of mind - natives come cheap, their lives dispensable, the white man’s burden must not be exacerbated by excess legalism. Western folks should stick together, you know and, above all, should never be exposed to the vagaries of primitive indigenous jurisprudence.

In the village of Vitina, in Kosovo, a wiry Hamdi Shabiu, in an upturned fur hat and evanescent nylon jacket, waves the photograph of the swollen face of his formerly beautiful daughter, Merita. Her battered body was discovered on Thursday, January 13, 2000 (no one seems to agree as to where). The 35 year old weapons squad leader from Fort Bragg, North Carolina (born in Niles, Ohio), was arrested 3 days later in a show of unprecedented investigative efficiency. He was transferred to a confinement facility (a military euphemism for prison) in Mannheim and from there to a prison in Wuerzburg, near Frankfurt, Germany.

It was the sad denouement of what started as a love affair. The American contingent of KFOR was welcomed by the Kosovars in scenes of jubilation not seen since the end of World War Two. But this exuberance was soon quelled by the liberties some soldiers took with the local girls (for instance, when “searching” their bodies for “weapons”). Complaints were lodged - and ignored (another pattern of behaviour - American soldiers are ex-territorial). Later, Americans were involved in violent and brutal clashes with local Albanians, including in Vitina. The atmosphere has soured.

The Kosovo the peacekeepers entered is a fantastic place, the outcome of a hundred years of solitude. It is teeming with disgruntled and covinous guerilla fighters, steely-eyed and ruthless mafiosi, contumacious small-time delinquents and noisome, unctuous pimps in chintzy cars. In this nebulochaotically permissive atmosphere of insidious disintegration and ludic, sinuous sex - soldiers became involved in all manner of invenial skulduggery, drug peddling and abuse, in weapons trading and white prostitution networks. Ask any Macedonian, Kosovar, Greek, Albanian, Serb, or Bulgarian and they will tell you how deep and institutionalized the involvement of KFOR soldiers is in the smuggling of cigarettes, alcohol, sugar, flour and consumer goods. The surrealistic morass that is the Balkan has digested them and enmeshed them in venality and crime. The lack of functioning law enforcement institutions and the gaping void that replaced civil society in Kosovo contributed to the general moral turpitude. The unbearable lightness of being has rendered all moral precepts remote and niggling. To these soldiers, Kosovo was an Elysium of sin, an apogee of lasciviousness and avarice, a profligate perdition.

Ronghi set impassively through the reading of his verdict on July 30th. He offered the grieving family a convoluted apology: “I don’t know what went wrong that day”. Pathological Narcissists are characterized by alloplastic defences. They blame the world, destiny, the Universe, fate, or other people for their behaviour and for its (usually deleterious) outcomes. Faulty maps were blamed on the demolition of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The unfortunate event of the downing of an Iranian airliner was attributed to “human error”. An American pilot violated his flight instructions, killing vacationers in Italy in the process - and was exculpated. Ronghi, described as a wholesome American phenomenon by friends, family and commanders, blamed the day: “I don’t know what went wrong that day”, he said. He might as well have been discussing a scorched omelette. Devoid of all emotion or compunction, he added stolidly, reading from a crumpled piece of paper his lines of what evidently was, to him, merely a bad script. “I apologize from the bottom of my heart to the family. I ask them for my forgiveness” [sic! How Freudian!]. He added: “I never did anything wrong before. I know what I did was very wrong. That’s why I pleaded guilty.” In other words: I am a good and upright man, who can tell right from wrong and who assumes responsibility for his wrongful acts. The brutal rape and thrashing to death of a pre-adolescent girl is the exception in an otherwise commendable life and virtuous conduct.

But Ronghi was unfazed by what he did. To bury Merita’s body, ensconced in two UN flour sacks, under the staircase in the basement, Ronghi took with him another soldier, a private, who finally turned him in. He told him: “(it was) easy to get away with something like this in a Third World country”. Sergeant Christopher Rice, who was on duty the night Ronghi murdered the child, added: “He knew because he’d done it before in the desert (in operation ‘Desert Storm’ in Iraq - SV).”

If Rice knew this about Ronghi - why didn’t he turn him in? If the Army knew this about Ronghi - why did they send him on a peacekeeping mission involving contact with civilian population? Is it true that peacekeeping operations are the dumping grounds of mercenaries and military misfits, drug addicts and the criminally-inclined? That the selection criteria and procedures are less than rigorous is an open secret. Peacekeepers are notoriously culturally insensitive, undressing publicly (in Kumanovo), getting embroiled in inebriated brawls (in restaurants and bars), raping and thieving, smuggling and trading, playing with pistols during the famous Struga poetry festival. This has come to be expected of them. But not murder and, perhaps, not the rape of a pre-pubescent girl.

So many under-estimated the pernicious effects of promiscuousness and disdain combined. Many more have turned a blind eye to the convergence of the armed presence of Albanian thugs of all political hues and their counterparts in KFOR. To many soldiers, the citizens of Kosovo, both Albanian and Serb, were but sub-humans - a view shared by the Albanian predators that confiscated their apartments and killed them by the hundreds. This confluence of jaded scorn, this somnolent sadism and condescending malfeasance, this propinquity of criminal and law - made Kosovo the Dantesque netherland it has become. It killed Merita. It had the face of Ronghi but the number of the beast.

Affiliation and Morality

The Anglo-Saxon members of the motley “Coalition of the Willing” were proud of their aircraft’s and missiles’ “surgical” precision. The legal (and moral) imperative to spare the lives of innocent civilians was well observed, they bragged. “Collateral damage” was minimized. They were lucky to have confronted a dilapidated enemy. Precision bombing is expensive, in terms of lives - of fighter pilots. Military planners are well aware that there is a hushed trade-off between civilian and combatant casualties.

This dilemma is both ethical and practical. It is often “resolved” by applying - explicitly or implicitly - the principle of “over-riding affiliation”. As usual, Judaism was there first, agonizing over similar moral conflicts. Two Jewish sayings amount to a reluctant admission of the relativity of moral calculus: “One is close to oneself” and “Your city’s poor denizens come first (with regards to charity)”.

This is also known as “moral hypocrisy”. The moral hypocrite feels self-righteous even when he engages in acts and behaves in ways that he roundly condemns in others. Two psychologists, Piercarlo Valdesolo and David DeSteno, have demonstrated that, in the words of DeSteno:

“Anyone who is on ‘our team’ is excused for moral transgressions. The importance of group cohesion, of any type, simply extends our moral radius for lenience. Basically, it’s a form of one person’s patriot is another’s terrorist ... The question here is whether we’re designed at heart to be fair or selfish.” (New-York Times, July 6, 2008).

Dr. Valdesolo added:

“Hypocrisy is driven by mental processes over which we have volitional control.. Our gut seems to be equally sensitive to our own and others’ transgressions, suggesting that we just need to find ways to better translate our moral feelings into moral actions.”

One’s proper conduct, in other words, is decided by one’s self-interest and by one’s affiliations with the ingroups one belongs to. Affiliation (to a community, or a fraternity), in turn, is determined by one’s positions and, to some extent, by one’s oppositions to various outgroups.

What are these “positions” (ingroups) and “oppositions” (outgroups)?

The most fundamental position - from which all others are derived - is the positive statement “I am a human being”. Belonging to the human race is an immutable and inalienable position. Denying this leads to horrors such as the Holocaust. The Nazis did not regard as humans the Jews, the Slavs, homosexuals, and other minorities - so they sought to exterminate them.

All other, synthetic, positions are made of couples of positive and negative statements with the structure “I am and I am not”.

But there is an important asymmetry at the heart of this neat arrangement.

The negative statements in each couple are fully derived from - and thus are entirely dependent on and implied by - the positive statements. Not so the positive statements. They cannot be derived from, or be implied by, the negative one.

Lest we get distractingly abstract, let us consider an example.

Study the couple “I am an Israeli” and “I am not a Syrian”.

Assuming that there are 220 countries and territories, the positive statement “I am an Israeli” implies about 220 certain (true) negative statements. You can derive each and every one of these negative statements from the positive statement. You can thus create 220 perfectly valid couples.

“I am an Israeli ...”


“I am not ... (a citizen of country X, which is not Israel)”.

You can safely derive the true statement “I am not a Syrian” from the statement “I am an Israeli”.

Can I derive the statement “I am an Israeli” from the statement “I am not a Syrian”?

Not with any certainty.

The negative statement “I am not a Syrian” implies 220 possible positive statements of the type “I am ... (a citizen of country X, which is not India)”, including the statement “I am an Israeli”. “I am not a Syrian and I am a citizen of ... (220 possibilities)”

Negative statements can be derived with certainty from any positive statement.

Negative statements as well as positive statements cannot be derived with certainty from any negative statement.

This formal-logical trait reflects a deep psychological reality with unsettling consequences.

A positive statement about one’s affiliation (“I am an Israeli”) immediately generates 220 certain negative statements (such as “I am not a Syrian”).

One’s positive self-definition automatically excludes all others by assigning to them negative values. “I am” always goes with “I am not”.

The positive self-definitions of others, in turn, negate one’s self-definition.

Statements about one’s affiliation are inevitably exclusionary.

It is possible for many people to share the same positive self-definition. About 6 million people can truly say “I am an Israeli”.

Affiliation - to a community, fraternity, nation, state, religion, or team - is really a positive statement of self-definition (“I am an Israeli”, for instance) shared by all the affiliated members (the affiliates).

One’s moral obligations towards one’s affiliates override and supersede one’s moral obligations towards non-affiliated humans. Ingroup bias carries the weight of a moral principle.

Thus, an American’s moral obligation to safeguard the lives of American fighter pilots overrides and supersedes (subordinates) his moral obligation to save the lives of innocent civilians, however numerous, if they are not Americans.

The larger the number of positive self-definitions I share with someone (i.e., the more affiliations we have in common) , the larger and more overriding is my moral obligation to him or her.


I have moral obligations towards all other humans because I share with them my affiliation to the human species.

But my moral obligations towards my countrymen supersede these obligation. I share with my compatriots two affiliations rather than one. We are all members of the human race - but we are also citizens of the same state.

This patriotism, in turn, is superseded by my moral obligation towards the members of my family. With them I share a third affiliation - we are all members of the same clan.

I owe the utmost to myself. With myself I share all the aforementioned affiliations plus one: the affiliation to the one member club that is me.

But this scheme raises some difficulties.

We postulated that the strength of one’s moral obligations towards other people is determined by the number of positive self-definitions (“affiliations”) he shares with them.

Moral obligations are, therefore, contingent. They are, indeed, the outcomes of interactions with others - but not in the immediate sense, as the personalist philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested.

Rather, ethical principles, rights, and obligations are merely the solutions yielded by a moral calculus of shared affiliations. Think about them as matrices with specific moral values and obligations attached to the numerical strengths of one’s affiliations.

Some moral obligations are universal and are the outcomes of one’s organic position as a human being (the “basic affiliation”). These are the “transcendent moral values”.

Other moral values and obligations arise only as the number of shared affiliations increases. These are the “derivative moral values”.

Moreover, it would wrong to say that moral values and obligations “accumulate”, or that the more fundamental ones are the strongest.

On the very contrary. The universal ethical principles - the ones related to one’s position as a human being - are the weakest. They are subordinate to derivative moral values and obligations yielded by one’s affiliations.

The universal imperative “thou shall not kill (another human being)” is easily over-ruled by the moral obligation to kill for one’s country. The imperative “though shall not steal” is superseded by one’s moral obligation to spy for one’s nation. Treason is when we prefer universal ethical principles to derivatives ones, dictated by our affiliation (citizenship).

This leads to another startling conclusion:

There is no such thing as a self-consistent moral system. Moral values and obligations often contradict and conflict with each other.

In the examples above, killing (for one’s country) and stealing (for one’s nation) are moral obligations, the outcomes of the application of derivative moral values. Yet, they contradict the universal moral value of the sanctity of life and property and the universal moral obligation not to kill.

Hence, killing the non-affiliated (civilians of another country) to defend one’s own (fighter pilots) is morally justified. It violates some fundamental principles - but upholds higher moral obligations, to one’s kin and kith.

Note - The Exclusionary Conscience

The self-identity of most nation-states is exclusionary and oppositional: to generate solidarity, a sense of shared community, and consensus, an ill-defined “we” is unfavorably contrasted with a fuzzy “they”. While hate speech has been largely outlawed the world over, these often counterfactual dichotomies between “us” and “them” still reign supreme.

In extreme - though surprisingly frequent - cases, whole groups (typically minorities) are excluded from the nation’s moral universe and from the ambit of civil society. Thus, they are rendered “invisible”, “subhuman”, and unprotected by laws, institutions, and ethics. This process of distancing and dehumanization I call “exclusionary conscience”.

The most recent examples are the massacre of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the Holocaust of the Jews in Nazi Germany’s Third Reich, and the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. Radical Islamists are now advocating the mass slaughter of Westerners, particularly of Americans and Israelis, regardless of age, gender, and alleged culpability. But the phenomenon of exclusionary conscience far predates these horrendous events. In the Bible, the ancient Hebrews are instructed to exterminate all Amalekites, men, women, and children.

In her book, “The Nazi Conscience”, Claudia Koontz quotes from Freud’s “Civilization and its Discontents”:

“If (the Golden Rule of morality) commanded ‘Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee’, I should not take exception to it. If he is a stranger to me ... it will be hard for me to love him.” (p. 5)

Note - The Rule of Law, Discrimination, and Morality

In an article titled “Places Far Away, Places Very near - Mauthausen, the Camps of the Shoah, and the Bystanders” (published in Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck (eds.) - The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined - Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998), the author, Gordon J. Horwitz, describes how the denizens of the picturesque towns surrounding the infaous death camp were drawn into its economic and immoral ambit.

Why did these law-abiding citizens turn a blind eye towards the murder and mayhem that they had witnessed daily in the enclosure literally on their doorstep? Because morality is a transaction. As Rabbi Hillel, the Talmudic Jewish sage, and Jesus of Nazareth put it: do not do unto others that which you don’t want them to do to you (to apply a utilitarian slant to their words).

When people believe and are assured by the authorities that an immoral law or practice will never apply to them, they don’t mind its application to others. Immoral acts inevitably devolve from guaranteed impunity. The Rule of Law does not preclude exclusionary or discriminatory or even evil praxis.

The only way to make sure that agents behave ethically is by providing equal treatment to all subjects, regardless of race, sex, religious beliefs, sexual preferences, or age. “Don’t do unto others what you fear might be done to you” is a potent deterrent but it has a corollary: “Feel free to do unto them what, in all probability, will never be done to you.”

Nazi atrocities throughout conquered Europe were not a-historical eruptions. They took place within the framework of a morally corrupt, permissive and promiscuous environment. Events such as Dir Yassin, My Lai, and Rwanda prove that genocide can and will be repeated everywhere and at all times given the right circumstances.

The State of Israel (Dir Yassin) and the United States (My Lai) strictly prohibit crimes against humanity and explicitly protect civilians during military operations. Hence the rarity of genocidal actions by their armed forces. Rwanda and Nazi Germany openly condoned, encouraged, abetted, and logistically supported genocide.

Had the roles been reversed, would Israelis and Americans have committed genocide? Undoubtedly, they would have. Had the USA and Israel promulgated genocidal policies, their policemen, secret agents, and soldiers would have mercilessly massacred men, women, and children by the millions. It is human nature. What prevents genocide from becoming a daily occurrence is the fact that the vast majority of nations subscribe to what Adolf Hitler derisively termed “Judeo-Christian morality.”