Murder by stoning, death by shrapnel: the fallacy of moral equivalence.
By Charles Krauthammer, May 2001
On May 9, two 14-year-old Israeli boys who had been playing hooky from
school and hiking on the West Bank were found in a cave battered to death and
In Western news reports, this horror was not permitted to stand alone. It
was routinely coupled with a recent Palestinian death.
“The deaths came two days after a 4-month-old Palestinian baby girl
was killed by Israeli tank fire and further roiled emotions in a week of spiraling
violence that neither side seems able to control,” reported the New York Times
the next day.
The coupling was invariable. “The deaths of children have enraged both sides,”
reported USA Today.
Or as CNN summarized it, “In a region seemingly numb to violence, the
deaths of both Palestinian and Israeli youngsters has struck nerves on both
sides of the conflict.”
Both sides. Tragedy all around. The presumption of moral equivalence between
these two events and, by implication, between the two sides is by now entirely
characteristic of the Western view of the fighting. And it is entirely wrong.
Consider these two incidents.
The Israeli firings in Gaza were not, as the reader might presume, unprovoked.
Israeli tanks did not gratuitously go hunting for babies in Gaza. Israelis had been
attacked by mortar rounds fired from Palestinian territory. Israel was trying to
silence the mortars.
If, say, Zapatista guerrillas were launching mortars into San Diego, is it
conceivable that the U.S. Army would not cross into Tijuana to silence them?
Clearly, what happened in Gaza was the inadvertent death of an infant in the
urban warfare the Palestinians launched eight months ago. Such deaths happen
in every instance of urban warfare, from the post-Normandy fighting in the
villages of France in World War II to the more recent NATO bombing of Serbia.
There is a difference, an immense moral difference, between this kind of
unintentional death and what happened to those two Israeli boys. It is the
difference between tragedy and infamy.
From the 1972 Munich massacre of Israel’s Olympic athletes to the suicide
bombers of today, the world has long since grown accustomed to Palestinian
terrorism. But even terrorism – the deliberate murder of innocents – pales beside
what happened to those two boys. Terrorism at least has a perverse logic: It is
murder as a means to some political end. What happened in that cave was
murder as an end in itself.
These boys were not targets. They were not deliberately sought out by a
terrorist on a mission. The most chilling part of this story is that the boys were
merely chanced upon. And then were torn to pieces.
Last year, two Israeli reservists lost their way and strayed into Ramallah, where
they were lynched by a frenzied mob. The Palestinians then made up the story
that the Israelis were suspected undercover agents.
What could the story be this week? Fourteen-year-old boys are neither spies nor
soldiers. Yet they were bludgeoned to death with stones, their blood then
dabbed on the walls of the cave.
This is not war. This is not even terrorism. This is bloodlust. It is savagery so
grotesque that it might not have been believed had we not all seen that picture
last fall on the cover of Time of the Palestinian, having just beaten to death the
two Israeli reservists in Ramallah, exultantly holding out his blood-stained hands
to the crowd in a gesture of triumph.
People are not born with bloodlust. They learn it. It is no mystery where the
Palestinians have learned it.
For years Arafat’s mini-police-state has been feeding his people the
rawest Jew-hatred since the Third Reich. In television, radio, newspapers, and
textbooks, Arafat has created the psychic infrastructure that sustains his
endless war on Israel – and gives us the barbarism in the cave.
“I hate the Israelis,” declared Palestinian first lady Suha Arafat only two
weeks ago. That hatred is in the air Palestinians breathe. A few days later,
Syrian president Bashar Assad – in the presence of the pope, no less – accused
the Jews of trying “to kill the principle of religions in the same mentality in
which they betrayed Jesus Christ and in the same way with which they tried to
kill the Prophet Muhammad.”
His defense minister then said on television:
“When I see a Jew before me, I kill him. If every Arab did this, it would
be the end of the Jews.”
This is not from crackpots. This is not from the political fringes. This is from the
highest level of the leadership among Israel’s neighbors. Keep that up for years,
and you have raised a generation prepared – no, designed – to bathe in the
blood of 14-year-old boys.
When practiced during the Cold War, moral equivalence (between East and
West) was a form of moral obtuseness. As practiced today in the Middle East, it
remains so. The plain fact is that Israelis are not raised on bloodlust. They are
not taught to hate Arabs.
On the contrary. On the 50th anniversary of independence, Israel TV
produced a historical series so sympathetic to the Palestinians as to raise the
question whether Israel had taken sympathy to the point of self-flagellation.
When Baruch Goldstein committed a massacre of Palestinians in Hebron,
he was vilified by every major leader in Israel. His name became anathema to
When the “Engineer,” the terrorist behind a string of deadly suicide
bombings, was assassinated, Arafat declared him a martyr and national hero.
When that child in Gaza was accidentally killed by Israeli gunfire, Prime
Minister Sharon immediately expressed his regrets and apologized.
What of the lynching of the two boys? Utter silence from Yasser Arafat.