The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, August 09, 2002  

Moral Relativism, Cambridge Style

The Israel army’s recent assassination of Salah Shehadeh by means of a one-ton bomb dropped in a crowded residential neighborhood in Gaza City, an action that produced substantial collateral damage, including the death of at least 15 innocent civilians, has proved difficult to defend even by the most ardent supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the excessive force of the country’s military.

Let it not be said, however, that Martin Peretz couldn’t rise to the challenge, taking to the end page of the August 5 edition of his prized wedding gift, the New Republic, in an effort not only to justify the Israelis’ assault but to contend that the U.S. would have acted similarly, an argument he extends to the point of asserting Israel’s moral superiority over the U.S.

Noting the Bush administration’s half-hearted criticism of the attack, delivered by spokesman Ari Flesicher, (“this heavy-handed action does not contribute to peace”), Peretz writes: “It is true that Fleischer tried to draw a distinction between civilian casualties in the American-led war in Afghanistan and Israel’s bombing in Gaza. But, alas, this comparison does not redound in favor of the United States.”

Peretz cites a July 21 report in the New York Times in which it is asserted that the “American air campaign in Afghanistan, based on a high-tech, out-of-harm’s-way strategy, has produced a pattern of mistakes that have killed hundreds of Afghan civilians.”

The Times cites the U.S. bombing of a mosque last November during which 65 noncombatants were killed. Quoting the Times, Peretz adds: “[T]he evidence suggests that many civilians have been killed by air strikes hitting precisely the target they were aimed at . . . or because . . . Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilians and military targets.”

If true, this is more than carelessness,” Peretz argues. “But let me pose a question,” the polemicist continues. “If we knew Mullah Omar and his men were riding in a convoy with women and children, would we refrain from bombing, even though noncombatants might be killed? I doubt it.” [Emphasis added.]

Is this how Peretz writes about his own country? Is he suggesting that the U.S. military’s operation in Afghanistan is being conducted in manner that lacks 100-percent moral rectitude? Is he accusing the U.S. military of acting with reckless disregard for innocent human lives? Is he suggesting the U.S. has committed war crimes? Is he seeking to undermine public support for the war on terrorism?

As usual, Peretz has much to answer for.

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