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The Point of Politics Is to Stop This
If your politics allows dead children, it is poison.
Is there a compromise position on the murder of a child? “The opposition might have burned them, but we only tore them apart with shrapnel. The other side might have blown off their arms, but we only took their legs.” Some things do not lend themselves to moderation. Some things are not fuel for political maneuvering. They are, instead, the object of politics. What could you possibly owe to a politician who would trade your child’s life away?
As of today, more than 7,000 people have been killed in Gaza as a result of the Israeli military bombardment after the Hamas attacks of October 7. Close to 3,000 of those deaths have been children. Here is how many of those children’s deaths have been justified: none. Here is how many children it is morally acceptable for a nation to violently kill: none. Here is how many children’s lives Israel can reasonably say that it deserves to take in order to carry out its goals: none.
If you disagree, would you volunteer your own child to be blown apart by bombs, crushed by falling cement, burned to death in a fire, because you understand the knotty geopolitical realities of the moment? If your answer is “no,” then you do not disagree. It does not make you wise to shake your head and cluck your tongue and mutter about how all of this is awful, but must be accepted. That is the familiar position of luxurious cowardice, one that we are all prone to sink into when we are sure that we personally have nothing at stake. The simple way that you know that this position is hollow is to reflect on whether you would continue to hold it if you did have something at stake. The core of human rights, the core of ethics, is the recognition that all people are equally entitled to basic rights like life, simply by being people. Children, innocents, hold a right to life completely unsullied by any arguments about how their own actions may have made them legitimate targets. Respect for innocent life is the very lowest bar of human conduct. Failing to show reverence for that is the mark of a monster.
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There is a strain of commentary pervasive in America that anchors itself only in the tactical machinations of politics, and regards dwelling on the morality of politics to be tedious, childish, the work of unserious rubes. Those who operate in this vein are distinguished by what they believe to be their own hard-nosed embrace of reality—their praiseworthy willingness to accept the harsh facts of the world in order to establish, with their wisdom, the boundaries of the possible. Ironically, it is these very people who fail to grasp the point of politics. Their (often flawed) judgment of its inherent limits leads them to view all the world as mere fodder for the intellectually amusing practice of political debate. They mistake their sedated acceptance of today with sophistication about tomorrow. Their veneration of shrewdness above all other qualities causes them to miss the fact that politics is only valuable to the extent that it makes the world better. Without that, it is just another atrocity.
The ruthless bombardment of Gaza and its thousands of dead and dismembered children is viewed by this sort of political actor as a board game. The relevant discussion becomes not the thousands of dead and dismembered children, but instead, the proper amount of admiration or criticism that should be directed at the way that political leaders are “handling” the crisis. Is Biden “navigating” the tricky shoals of the Middle Eastern conflict with aplomb? Has his administration struck the right “tone” in its public statements? How will these events affect his base of support in the Midwest in 2024? All of this discussion accepts, as an unspoken premise, the idea that all the violent events of the world are but another small chapter in the ongoing Book of Politics, which is the appropriate topic of attention.
What is politics worth if it cannot stop a child from being blown up with a bomb that we built and supplied? What is all the sophistication and savvy good for to the dead child? How about to the child’s mother? Should she be grateful that the American economy was bolstered by the manufacture of the weapons in question? Should be soothed by the knowledge that Anthony Blinken urged Israel to take civilian casualties into account? Should she be happy that Joe Biden is requesting money for domestic needs along with the money to supply Israel with the missiles it will need to kill the rest of her family? As she cradles the remains of her dead child, should she be reasonable, and reflect upon the fact that Israeli leaders needed to show strength in the wake of the Hamas attack? Should she accept the fact that her child had to be blown up because a ceasefire is not politically popular at this time? Perhaps if she understood that there is a great deal of pressure on the politicians making the decision to approve the money and the weapons that were used to kill her child, she would not wail quite so much?
The point of politics—the value of politics, the reason to participate in politics—is to prevent something like this from happening. Not to countenance it. Not to excuse it. And certainly not to assist it. There has been, particularly among young voters and American Muslims and those with relatives in Palestine, an outraged burst of declarations in recent weeks that they will never vote for Joe Biden, after watching him enable the slaughter in Gaza. These outbursts have been met with equal pushback from Democrats pointing out that their position is irrational, because Donald Trump would be worse. Yes, he would. But to expect citizens to be cold, utilitarian calculating machines is to miss the point that politicians work for the people, and not vice versa. Joe Biden auditioned for a very important job, and a baseline expectation of his performance in that job is that he would not bring about the deaths of innocent children. And yet he has failed. If your child, or your relative’s child, or your friend’s child, was incinerated in an air strike that Joe Biden had tacitly given America’s approval to, how enthusiastic would you be about pulling the lever for him?
Soldiers can fight wars. Children do not and cannot and must not. It is more appropriate to put a million soldiers’ lives at risks than to decide to conduct your military operation in a way that kills children. Hamas killed children, and they were condemned, and Israel is doing the same thing but worse, and they must be condemned, as such conduct must be condemned everywhere it happens. There is no moral legitimacy for killing children. None. Politics and power are useful to the extent that they stop this from happening. To the extent that politics is used to enable this to happen, or to create an atmosphere of acceptance around it, or to hide in mealy-mouthed inaction as it happens, it is not deserving of any respect. Human lives are not poker chips to be pushed around by world-powerful leaders engaged in a fascinating game. Political commentary is not a Hot-Or-Not rating system which marks leaders as up or down and doesn’t bother to look directly at the dead children laying on the ground. The worst and most inexcusable things imaginable are happening in Gaza right now. They can and should be stopped immediately. The job of a political leader is to make that happen. It doesn’t matter what party they are in or what seat they hold. If they are doing something besides trying to stop the bombs, they are failing.
A list of good charities serving Palestine can be found here. There are a number of good essays about the progressive response to this issue on the home page of In These Times right now, for further reading.
The comment section of any news story about this issue inevitably descends into a back-and-forth volley of accusations about who did the bad thing first that caused them to be responsible for all the bad things that came after. The focus seems to be purely on assigning blame so that the slaughter can then proceed in good conscience. This particular style of debate, as thousands of people are dying, has started to make me sick to my stomach. Please don’t do that here.
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