This is wartime, which is no time to be soft. The terrorists are tough, and so we must be tough. I am feeling tough, and toughly I feel also that too many children are being killed by the right side in this war, by my side, by Americans and by Israelis, in whose actions I am differently and willingly implicated. It is not all the same war, of course, unless one accepts the Bush administration's reduction of all our enemies into one enemy, a simplification better suited to sermons than strategies. The operation in Rafah was, I think, a foul mistake, but Israeli soldiers in Gaza are more obviously protecting Israel from terror than American soldiers in Iraq are protecting America from terror. Anyway, both armies are increasingly taken up with "force protection," which is not a justification of war but a consequence of war, and an ominous measure of the distance that separates them from their political objectives. But, as I say, I am suddenly haunted, and perhaps I should be ashamed of the suddenness, by the images of the dead children. Whatever the precise numbers of the dead Iraqi children in Mogr al-Deeb and the dead Palestinian children in Rafah, they are too high. ("How many dead children is too many is a question often asked by Palestinians and Israelis," James Bennet wrote in The New York Times, in the most ethically scrupulous piece I have read in a newspaper in years, "but it shows no hint of being resolved.") I was not taught by any of my traditions to look away from such developments. A war that asked for a quickening of conscience cannot now ask for a relaxing of it. I understand that this makes me no longer trustworthy among the "warriors" in town, but all I can say is that the injury to trust has been mutual.
But what about the death of Israeli children at the hands of Palestinians? I resent the question for its assumption that sympathy is compromising, a moral deformation, a kind of infidelity; that decency should accept political direction; that you can be sickened by Palestinian children with guns or by Palestinian children in shrouds, but you cannot be sickened by both. Still, the question deserves an answer. Of course one's own dead mean more than the other's dead, but the other's dead cannot mean nothing. The primacy of the obligation to one's own, the natural solidarity of the same, the love that precedes principle: These fundamental attainments of human association should not be taken to suggest that moral consciousness is essentially tribal. Indeed, the knowledge of our own mystic bonds is what enables us to imagine the mystic bonds of others. Since we are particular in our affections and our affiliations, we can understand particularity of affection and affiliation in general. A general understanding of particularity: That is a fine definition of universalism, and there are no escapes from universalism, except willed ones.
The quandaries of humaneness in wartime exploded into scandal in Israel last week, when Tommy Lapid, the minister of justice, reported on the radio that at a meeting of the Cabinet, at which he opposed the demolition of more Palestinian homes in Gaza, he had remarked that "I did think, when I saw a picture on the TV of an old woman on all fours in the ruins of her home looking under floor tiles for her medicines--I did think 'What would I say if it were my grandmother?'" Lapid's grandmother perished in the Holocaust, and so the denunciations began. Lapid, it was said, had compared Israelis to Nazis, which is to say, he had committed the mortal sin of moral equivalence. His words were certainly fierce, but they came from his heart and not from his head; and their origins in his heart do not embarrass them. Plainly Lapid does not believe that he sits in a government of Himmlers. He merely took pity on an old woman in a catastrophe because she reminded him of an old woman in a catastrophe. If no adversity can be likened to the Jewish adversity of the 1930s and 1940s, then all the instruction about the moral centrality of the Holocaust will have the perverse effect of stripping the Holocaust of its moral centrality, since it will no longer serve as a reference point in the analysis of contemporary evil. (The view that Omarska was not Auschwitz was partly responsible for the idleness of the Clinton administration during most of the Bosnian genocide.)
It is past time to apply a little mental pressure to the doctrine about "moral equivalence." Intelligent reflection about policy and history proceeds by analogies. These analogies are always made with respect to an attribute of an object or an event, never to the entirety of it. Otherwise things could be validly compared only to themselves, and we would learn nothing. Some analogies will be right and some will be wrong, but none will be perfect. The wrong ones must be criticized, but generally not as a form of blasphemy or treason. Most of the right-wing heresiologists who scream "moral equivalence" at the sight of an inconvenient similarity intend mainly to shore up their own thinking or to shut down the thinking of others. (They had no compunction about comparing Saddam to Stalin.) And what is compassion, if not an exercise in moral equivalence? The care that we feel for people other than ourselves is the result of regarding us all, the subjects of our concern and ourselves, under a single and highly general description, which is the description of the human. There is no way to pursue justice without believing in the moral equivalence of all men and women. The idea that small-town Americans can bring democracy to small-town Iraqis is also a version of this belief. But everyone has their preferred equivalences, just as everyone has their preferred corpses.
There is a lot of talk of toughness in Washington now. After Abu Ghraib, conservatives are warning of a weakening of will. Sherman on war is frequently adduced. "War is a terrible thing," Brit Hume manfully declared the other day, "and terrible things happen in war on all sides." At the Palm they are agreeing that it is time to finish this thing. But it is the task of soldiers to finish this thing, and it is the task of citizens to consider this thing. This war was not just an act of will, it was also an act of mind: It was launched for reasons, arguments, values. If the conduct or the course of the war appears to defy those reasons, those arguments, or those values, there will be a necessary quarrel, and it will not be entirely a political quarrel, and it will be the task of officials to justify this thing. The theory of just war is not the theory that it's just war.
This article originally ran in the June 7, 2004, issue of the magazine.