IT’S been “Obama season” in the press, as each paper provides its own review of the President’s first year in office, coinciding with his dramatic fall in popularity and the loss of one of the Democratic Party’s safest Senate seats.
While reading an excellent contribution from The Economist (14/01), I was suddenly struck by the following reference, innocently inserted onto the third page:
“Mr Obama has been quicker on the trigger than [former President] George Bush when it comes to assassinating terrorist suspects in Pakistan with missiles fired from drones … killing some 400-500 militants and an unknown number of civilians.”
It seems that for the past year, America has waged its own version of “Operation Cast Lead”, week after week after week. The intended victims are not even terrorists, but “suspects” who have never been tried in court. And the number of civilians slaughtered in these attacks is “unknown” because a journalist has not bothered to find out.
In fact, The Economist could have found out very easily. In the time it takes to do a Google search, I discovered that conservative estimates put the civilian toll at 700, but some reports suggest that an average of nine non-combatants are killed with every terrorist, implying a much higher total.
And the world stands by. Not a whimper of protest, not a whisper of “war crimes”.
This American action does not serve to make the killing of civilians acceptable. Every victim of war is a tragedy, and every army — even when justified in its attacks — must take all precautions to avoid innocent casualties. I hope that is what Mr Obama and his troops do, just as I have confidence that the same efforts are made by Israel in its fight against terror.
Neither does this revelation “justify” Israel by an application of moral relativism. Israel’s actions in Gaza were justified by the right of self-defence, and not because “other countries do the same”. Although the aim of some strands of Zionism is to turn the Jews into a nation just like any other, I am proud that Israel tries to live according to a higher standard of morality, higher even than that of the pinnacle of western civilisation, the United States. That is the privilege and the burden of being a “light unto the nations”.
But the fact that America, in 2009 alone, probably killed a similar number of terrorists and civilians to that which the Palestinians claim fell in the Gaza war, raises some questions.
The following may be obvious and tired, but no less acute: Where are the demonstrations against American tennis players? Where is the Goldstone report into these killings? Where are the arrest warrants for Barack Obama and Robert Gates?
Those who protest against Israel or fulminate against it in newspaper columns are affronted by any accusation of anti-Semitism. They claim they are motivated by a concern for human rights, and the need to draw others’ attention to injustice. But the silence of those same protesters when it comes to Pakistani victims of American drones makes one ask whether they are opposed to injustice in general, or just when allegedly perpetrated by Jews. And there’s a word for those who single out Jews for special treatment.
But a further question needs to be directed to a different quarter — those whose job it is to bring us the news. Why is America’s version of “targeted assassinations” only mentioned obliquely, buried in an article on another topic, when it is occurring month after month? Why was the Israeli “massacre” in Jenin in 2003 reported so extensively, even when it never happened, whereas the American massacre in Fallujah a few months later, which did take place, only received a fraction of the coverage?
We have perhaps given up on expecting the media to report on crimes committed by China in Tibet, Russia in Chechnya or the Sudanese in Darfur. We know that there is a profoundly racist presumption that “one can’t expect better” from such nations. But surely the attitude of the leader of the western world to “collateral damage” deserves investigating and reporting?
In short, why are Jews news, but, when ordering attacks on terrorists with inevitable civilian deaths, Barack Obama is not?
Israel should not close its borders to journalists, as many countries do. Its actions should be scrutinised and its government should be prepared and expected to defend its policies. But if journalists fulfilled their mission, then not only would slain Pakistani civilians be counted, but when Israel is placed in the court of a warped version of international law, then it would know who should be standing alongside it in the same dock, on the same charges.
Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, Melbourne.