What began as a nearly universal outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the crimes of October 7, 2023, has now followed the post-9/11 trajectory, with the Israel government killing multiple times the number of victims destroyed in the precipitating attack by Hamas. Everyone should be appalled by what was done to Israeli citizens, but the question from the outset was what to do in response.
Early on, Republican presidential candidate and former Boeing board member Nikki Haley bellowed out her prescription: “Finish ’em off!” She repeatedly tweeted emotive exhortations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wipe the members of Hamas off the face of the planet. The government of Israel may well share her sentiments, given what has transpired in Gaza for more than three months now. Many thousands of people have been killed, including thousands of children. Entire neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble.
The government of South Africa is currently challenging, at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the comportment of the Israel government in Gaza, alleging specifically that they have violated the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The mainstream media have predictably downplayed, if not entirely suppressed, coverage of the trial. For its part, the U.S. government continues to oscillate between the untenable dualities of sending more bombs for use against the people located in Gaza and expressing concern about establishing humanitarian routes for the delivery of essential food and medicine to the residents of Gaza. Actions speak louder than words, and President Joe Biden’s decision to bomb Yemen, in response to the Houthis’ attempts to block shipments of further weapons to Israel via the Red Sea, reveals where his primary sympathies lie, all rhetoric aside. Biden may not be as shrill and open-throated in his support of Israel as is Nikki Haley, but his administration champions the very same plan, a “bold” but blind approach which altogether ignores the etiology of murderous factions, as though they popped into existence unprovoked and ex nihilo.
It is depressing but nonetheless true that dead people need neither medication nor food, so the swiftest and most efficient, albeit immoral, “solution” to both the quest to bring Hamas to justice and the humanitarian crisis may well be to follow the strident calls of Nikki Haley, et al., and “Finish ’em off!” Sounds a lot like “The Final Solution” to me. When asked, supporters of the Israel war on Gaza naturally deny that they advocate genocide. But the South African government has considered the consequences on the ground and the means by which they have been achieved, and come to the conclusion that what is underway is best characterized as genocide: the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group.
The evidence being presented at the ICJ includes documentation of what are tantamount to rallying cries of “Finish ’em off” among the killers themselves, bolstered by obvious falsehoods, such as: “There are no innocent Palestinians!” The suggestion by some hard-line Zionists that all Palestinians are intrinsically evil—or subhuman animals—bears a frightening resemblance to what the Nazis were saying about the Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. But rather than acknowledge the similarity between the two cases, those who condone the ruthless razing of Gaza and the systematic slaughter of anyone present—from infants to grandparents to journalists to nurses and doctors, and everyone in between—instead appear to believe that “Everything is permitted” to the government of the nation erected in response to the Holocaust. The German government, too, knows a thing or two about genocide and has taken Israel’s side in denying that what is going on in Gaza bears any resemblance to the mass extermination of Jews by the Nazis.
When descendants of both the victims and the perpetrators of the most obvious case of genocide in the twentieth century vociferously deny the allegations being made by the South African government, then this may be taken to boost the defendants’ credibility. Courts aim for but do not always achieve justice, and international courts are even less successful in this quest, for what little power they possess derives solely from the consent of a variety of parties with conflicting perspectives, values, and interests. Notably, the United States itself has largely evaded official allegations of war crimes throughout the twenty-first century, which demonstrates the inherent weakness of supranational courts and institutions. The United States withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC), and took great pains to prevent military personnel from being indicted in any supranational forum throughout the Global War on Terror. The United Nations, to which the United States is party, has proven especially ineffective in addressing a seemingly endless series of war crimes, for the weakest member states risk economic ruin by the powerful states with whom they might otherwise dare to disagree.
Given recent history, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. government has chosen to side with Israel as it continues its military campaign against Hamas fighters embedded among millions of civilians. In large part thanks to the press, the benefit of the doubt granted to state killers in promoting the official story written by themselves achieved new nadirs under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Recall that Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responded to a question about the killing of noncombatants located near terrorist targets as follows:
“We have assumed that where you find large numbers of al Qaeda and Taliban, that there may very well be noncombatants with them who are family members or supporters of some kind, who are there of their own free will, knowing who they’re with and who they’re supporting and who they’re encouraging and who they’re assisting.” (War and Delusion, p. 98)
Over the more than two decades of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. military destroyed the lives of many innocent people who happened to be located in the vicinity of places believed by analysts to harbor terrorists. The Gaza model, in a phrase. None of this is new; it’s just become more flagrant because of the density of the population on the small piece of land known as the Gaza strip.
The ascription of guilt by association and the infliction of collective punishment were hallmarks of the Global War on Terror, and a slate of euphemisms helped to smooth the normalization of state-inflicted assassination by rebranding it as “targeted killing” and “smart war.” All of these concepts are now assumed by the government of Israel as it ravages Gaza in 2024. The precedent was set by the so-called beacon of democracy and indispensable nation, so it would seem that Israel is simply following its mentor and benefactor’s lead. But is it “genocide”?
Words exist for anyone’s use, whatever their purposes may be. Genocide, for example, has been deployed rhetorically by government administrators such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former UN Ambassador Samantha Power (who now works for USAID, essentially a CIA cutout) in favor of military interventions in places such as Kosovo, Syria, and Libya. When “the genocide card” is played in the hopes of persuading persons otherwise ill-inclined to support bombing campaigns, then it should be called out for the delusional and/or mendacious propaganda that it is. Turning the tables on the South African government, the Israeli defense team has claimed that it was Hamas who demonstrated genocidal intent in its rampage of October 7, 2023, and the government of Israel is doing no more and no less than attempting to defend itself.
It is unclear to me that murderous crimes become more despicable by attaching a new label to them. That said, I do believe that to rally behind “Finish ’em off!” is, as not only the government of South Africa but also millions of protesters worldwide are convinced, to condone the moral equivalent of genocide. To see this, it suffices to consider how and why the current members of Hamas came to be members of Hamas, or how and why young men were persuaded to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Terrorists and factional killers are not born; they are formed. This lesson should have been indelibly engraved on the minds of every conscious person in view of what happened during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. A small group of actors murdered some 3,000 persons on U.S. soil. It was horrifying and repulsive. The U.S. government’s reaction, however, achieved new and deeper levels of horror, by institutionalizing the use of terrorism against entire societies through occupying both the land and the sky, with menacing weapons continually pointed at civilians as though they were personally guilty of the crimes of September 11, 2001.
The very same sort of racism and callous dismissal of human rights seen in Israel today led the U.S. government to target brown-skinned persons all over the Middle East in drone strikes claimed to be justified by the crimes of Al Qaeda. Note that the normalization of what was arguably racial profiling abroad occurred under the leadership of the first black U.S. president and is similar, in some ways, to the insistence by the survivors of the Holocaust that they are not, and could not possibly, be committing genocide today.
As the Global War on Terror dragged on, progressively younger and younger males, some mere teenagers, galvanized by their outrage at the brutality of the U.S. occupiers, including, in some cases, the savage slaughter of family members and friends, joined forces with local dissident groups, as a result of which their names were added to ever-lengthening hit lists of persons to be terminated. No matter that their anger was often entirely righteous. No matter that, in joining the dissidents, the newly minted jihadists sought above all to repel the invaders of their land. The mere expression of hostility toward the U.S. military was taken as evidence that these young terrorist suspects might someday attempt to harm the people of the United States. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, thousands of persons were executed outside areas of active hostilities (i.e., not in war zones), without indictment or trial, on the basis of sketchy, circumstantial evidence, even in cases where it was obvious that the targeted suspects had no means or prospects for making their way to U.S. shores.
The moral horror of what was done to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Mali, among other forsaken places, is as inexcusable as were the crimes of September 11, 2001, and those of October 7, 2023. The incessant persecution of innocent people throughout the Middle East, including Gaza, has had as its primary result to dramatically increase the number of jihadists and militants in the region. When the U.S government used missile-equipped drones to hunt down and kill young men, the targeted factions grew and spread to new places to regroup. But they did not flee solely out of fear. They also wanted to devise methods apt to the task of defeating the invaders.
One of the more stunning developments during this period of history was the emergence of suicide bombers willing to sacrifice their very lives in retaliatory acts against the war waged by the U.S. government in response to the crimes of a small group of people. The ranks of the jihadists dramatically increased because of what fresh converts came to regard as their just cause, conjoined with the equally necessary belief that they had nothing to lose anyway. The latter condition is even more obviously satisfied in the case of Gaza, whose residents inhabit what is for all intents and purposes an open-air prison, with the government of Israel guarding and controlling all possible avenues of egress.
To state the seldom discussed reality that the government of Israeli has been lobbing missiles on Gaza strip for many years, always targeting suspected militants, but often generating “collateral damage,” is in no way to defend the crimes of October 7, 2023. Rather, it is to point out that the chaos and strife in Israel and in the U.S. Global War on Terror both corroborate that “violence breeds violence.” As much as government leaders may wish to believe that they are “legitimate authorities,” who alone possess a monopoly on the permissible use of deadly force, the “just war” framework undergirds the thinking of both military states and violent factional dissidents, all of whom assume that so long as they wave the banner of justice high above their heads, they may mercilessly end the lives of their fellow human beings, even innocent bystanders, should that be required in order to achieve their political aims.
To explain how a person becomes a member of Hamas is in no way to excuse the behavior of those who ambushed and murdered Israeli citizens on October 7, 2023, any more than the explanation of the emergence of ISIS excuses the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) throughout Iraq. But the spread of jihadism and the generation of sympathy for even horrific retaliation schemes can be viewed, from a tactical or strategic standpoint, as a failure to appreciate that radicalization is the most predictable outcome when civilians are terrorized, maimed, killed, or left bereft of their loved ones. The failure of U.S. warmakers to recognize the entirely natural quest of human beings to seek revenge in the aftermath of missile strikes explains how and why the hyper-aggressive effort to bring the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice culminated in a widespread killing spree throughout the Middle East, far beyond the perimeters of Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the crimes of September 11, 2001, are themselves most plausibly understood as reactions by jihadists seeking revenge for the devastation wrought on the people of Iraq throughout the 1991 Gulf War and in its aftermath.
This is the sense in which what is going on in Gaza today can only culminate, at its logical limit, in the annihilation—a.k.a. genocide—or disappearance of the Palestinian people. Every bomb dropped on civilians generates new members of Hamas. In other words, so long as Israel continues indiscriminately to kill innocent people, they will reach the end of their hit list only through following the ghastly prescription to “Finish ‘’em off!”
Nikki Haley recently suggested that the Palestinians should all go to “Hamas-friendly countries,” such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. As infeasible as that may be, the proposal would seem to impugn any and all charges of genocide, for the expressed intent is not to remove the Palestinian people from the face of the earth but to expel them from Israel. That said, the delusive claim of “national self-defense” does not camouflage what is the intent of a government in wiping out civilian shelters, hospitals, mosques, and schools. As Sheldon Richman succinctly put it in a recent column: “Smells like genocide…” In other words, a genocide by any other name would smell as foul as what is going on in Gaza today.
Israel heartily denies that its intention is to erase the Palestinian people from existence. If that is the level of intent which must be demonstrated for charges of genocide to stick, then it looks as though Netanyahu, et al., will be able to sashay smoothly through the court proceedings by waving the banner of “the doctrine of double effect,” which has been taken up for centuries now, in one form or another, by every leader who claims be prosecuting a just war. In the just war paradigm, what matter above all are intentions, but intentions are private, accessible only to subjects themselves. Even piles of corpses and rows of dead children swathed in blankets for their burials do not belie the claim on the part of the killers that they meant only to do good. In this framework, the innocent civilians massacred are characterized as mere side effects, unfortunate but unavoidable “collateral damage,” in attempts by a military state to defend itself and its people.
Note that the same sort of reasoning is nearly never deemed exculpatory for individual, apolitical murderers, nor for subnational factions. Only in the case of states are allegedly good intentions enough to excuse in the minds of most of the populace the premeditated, intentional destruction of thousands or even millions of human beings. That “good intentions” are accepted as sufficient to rationalize mass homicide is one of the grotesque ironies of the modern world, given that states are nonhuman, inanimate, artifacts. Some of the persons who work for governments probably have good intentions; others may not. But spokesmen for states naturally claim the best of the intentions of the conglomerate of persons who devise and execute policy, and it is always possible to discount indisputable cases of malfeasance as the doings of “a few bad apples.”
Equally peculiar is that the sort of mercenary corruption well known to lead to crime in civil society is disregarded as somehow irrelevant when it comes to foreign policy. Sure, a few people may get rich quick through the provision of implements of homicide to leaders who will use them to destroy the lives of countless human beings, but this is casually brushed aside even in cases as flagrant as those of Nikki Haley (Boeing) and Lloyd Austin (Raytheon)—or the world’s foremost war entrepreneur, Dick Cheney (Halliburton)—with indisputable financial ties to the military industry. The very banality of evil diagnosed by Hannah Arendt in her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial can be seen in the widespread acceptance among high-level officials the world over of the scenes of carnage throughout Gaza today. The rhetorical power of the just war paradigm is reflected in the fact that officials are able to look at a pile of mangled corpses and claim, in apparent sincerity, that they were the result of a quest for justice.
Ultimately, the genocide question may serve as a red herring, distracting from the sheer atrocity of the business-as-usual of large-scale and unremitting state slaughter. In the political arena of the United States, mass homicide has become utterly normalized, and is no longer recognizable by either the representatives of the people or most of the people themselves. The idea that the government’s own campaigns of intentional, premeditated, mass homicide might be morally atrocious, no longer crosses most people’s mind, provided only that it is claimed to be carried out in national self-defense. Altogether ignoring the role that war profiteering plays in forging the pro-war policies of coopted politicians, many persons with nothing to gain blithely join in the chorus whenever public figures unabashedly call for the moral equivalent of genocide: “Finish ’em off!”