The Children of Qana
by Leon Wieseltier
The killing of children, any children, is an evil. Those who are responsible for the death of children in war are responsible for an evil. To think otherwise is surely a depravity. There can be no absolution for such an act in nationalism or in religion, though both are plentiful with extenuations of the misdeeds of members and believers.
In wartime, when arguments are made more to fortify than to instruct, such extenuations abound. Sometimes they are made in good faith, sometimes not. In wartime, intellectual life is generally degraded into apologetics--for our side or their side, for the right side or the wrong side, but apologetics. Nothing more decisively exposes the sterility of such discourse, its fear of the ethical ambiguities in human conflict, its confusion of rightness with innocence, than the destruction of children. It shames realists and it shames idealists--all believe that a war may be analyzed without a moral vocabulary, because it is an affair of power or because it is already just.
But is not the evaluation of a war in terms of its justice a practice of conscience? In the beginning, it is; but the sensation of one's virtue also has a hardening effect. A war must not only start just, it must also stay just. A just war can lose its justice. For this reason, conscience must be as dynamic as the battlefield, and moral assessments as regular and as alert (but not as nimble!) as tactical assessments, or else the invocation of justice is only a device for easing the lives of cynics.
Of course, for those who think that all wars are evil, that war is itself the evil, such perplexities do not exist: the killing of children merely confirms what they already know, it is only a smaller crime in a greater crime. But this pristinity cannot account for historical experience, which shows that some wars have been just and some wars unjust, even though all wars have been cruel. Not every war is like World War I, even if every war seems the same, and senseless, when it is considered from the standpoint of tragedy. But there is tragedy even, or especially, in moral situations. All good wars are also bad wars.
The question of the killing of children in a just war is not the same as the question of the killing of children in an unjust war. It is easy to arrive at moral clarity about the evil done in a wrong cause. A wrong war must be opposed even when no such outrages occur, even when it is conducted with humanitarian diligence. But a right war in which such outrages occur--surely it is not enough to refresh one's sense of the admirable nature of one's principles and be done.
The fact that you are not a monster is beside the point when you have just done something monstrous. One should not be consoled for one's misdeeds, one should regret them; and regret is genuine only when it is beyond the reach of consolation. If your guilt reminds you of how otherwise guiltless you are, then you have not been improved by the discovery of your sin, you have been corrupted by it. It is important also to be wary of the pride of self-criticism. At least we worry about such things: this proves only that the standard is low. To congratulate oneself upon the severity of one's self-reckoning is to vitiate it--to nullify conscience by reference to its very exercise.
I am thinking of the children who were killed by an Israeli airstrike in Qana. Since I support the Israeli war against Hezbollah, I have a duty to admit that I support a war in which such catastrophes happen. This is difficult; but the brutal truth is that it is not impossible. This hurts my brain. For Qana is not all I need to know about the war. Conscience is not the enemy of intelligence, and there is more about this conflict, about any conflict, that is pertinent to moral analysis.
The exterminationist objective of Israel's adversary and of its adversary's patron, the rain of rockets launched precisely to kill non-combatants, the deployment of its arsenal in the thick of its own population: these, too, are facts of moral significance. For Hezbollah, the murder of innocents, in Israel and in Lebanon, is its strategy. And so I am not embarrassed by Israeli power, or by its use against this particular enemy. I notice also that some people who denounce the loss of life on the Lebanese side of the border are reticent about the loss of life on the Israeli side of the border. Perhaps more Israeli deaths would restore a perverse kind of moral parity, and correct their asymmetrical hearts.
Anyway, it appears that in our humanitarianism we are all hypocrites. We all have our more acceptable and less acceptable victims. (I recall from a decade ago that people who spoke loudly against the killing of children by Serbian snipers in Sarajevo spoke softly or not at all against the killing of children by Nato planes in Belgrade.)
This is ugly, but in a cold way it makes sense, if you agree that there are things worth dying for and killing for. I am not doing either the killing or the dying, obviously; but none of us are. I do not see that we are therefore disqualified from our causes. We are, for one reason or another, insulated from the consequences of most of our opinions. But the certification of the justice or injustice of a war is not a professional activity. There are no experts in the calculation of the relations of means and ends, of costs and purposes. The "proportionality" that is supposed to settle these matters is not a scientific measure. It remains for us to reason, even about horrors.
I do not see that one can fairly oppose the Israeli campaign against Hezbollah without asking a state to acquiesce in a mortal danger to itself, and a region to acquiesce in the ascendancy of jihadism. The weakening of Hezbollah would amount to the strengthening of Israel, the strengthening of Lebanon, and the weakening of Iran.
This seems like a fine strategic result and a fine moral result. It might even permit us to talk again of peace. (Remember peace?) I do not wish to defend every one of Israel's strikes, some of which worsen the situation that they are designed to improve; and I understand that six hundred civilian deaths are six hundred too many.
These are not tender times. I am not trying to talk myself into accepting the deaths of the children of Qana. I am trying to talk myself into not accepting them, whatever that means. But it isn't working. I see no escape from the distinction between moralism and morality. Moralism is a denial of the actual conditions of moral and historical action. It is a way of protecting morality from the knowledge of the world. Whether or not this sounds complacent, I believe it.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.