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Too many

Apocalypse-averting calculus

Philosopher Michael Walzer gives us the benefit of his soothing wisdom on Gaza. ((Via Aaronovitch Watch.)) His main “argument” as such is that discussions of what is or is not “disproportionate” in war are unreliable because they are necessarily forward-looking and speculative. Wait: make that unreliable unless Walzer himself is making them:

Israel’s Gaza war was called “disproportionate” on day one, before anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who they were. ((But what about calling something “disproportionate” after you know for sure that hundreds of people have been killed and lots of them weren’t fighting you? Who cares, right? Let’s concentrate on looking ahead, lest the sight of blood behind us offend our delicate philosophical sensibilities.)) The standard proportionality argument, looking ahead as these arguments rightly do, would come from the other side. Before the six months of cease-fire (when the fire never ceased), Hamas had only primitive and home-made rockets that could hit nearby small towns in Israel. By the end of the six months, they had far more advanced rockets, no longer home-made, that can hit cities 30 or 40 kilometers away. Another six months of the same kind of cease-fire, which is what many nations at the UN demanded, and Hamas would have rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And this is an organization explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. How many civilian casualties are “not disproportionate to” the value of avoiding the rocketing of Tel Aviv? How many civilian casualties would America’s leaders think were “not disproportionate to” the value of avoiding the rocketing of New York?

We linger on that for a moment, as Walzer no doubt intends us to, before reading on:

The answer, again, is too many. We have to make proportionality calculations, but those calculations won’t provide the most important moral limits on warfare.

Yet coincidentally, the other “moral limits on warfare” he goes on to discuss (significantly more hastily than the less “important” argument about disproportionality, which he has nonetheless expended some effort trying to win) turn out not to imply any criticism of Israel’s recent actions at all, but serve as well to illustrate how it’s all Hamas’s fault.

I feel an illustrative nanodrama coming on.

PRESIDENT HUHFUHRR: (Looking into camera from behind a mahogany desk, on which rests a CRYSTAL BALL that he is rubbing gently.)

My fellow liberal democrats, I say to you tonight that we must bomb the living shit out of Terroristia because, given the combination of bloodthirsty ideology and excellent education that prevails there, all its children will inevitably grow up to become genius scientists who hate our freedoms, and in the course of things they will naturally invent a superweapon and use it to blow up the entire Planet Earth.

(He pauses to let the enormity of this scenario sink in to the loyal citizenry.)

That being so, our terrorist-loving critics can hardly call our plan to incinerate a million of Terroristia’s toddlers tomorrow “disproportionate” to the value of saving the entire human race!

(He allows an expression of sadness for the regrettable deaths of a million toddlers to pass across his face, before recomposing his features into a glare of heroic resolution.)

(There is a NOISE, and then PROFESSOR URANU shuffles onto camera at HUHFUHRR’s left and fidgets.)

HUHFUHRR: Ah! Professor Uranu! Our liberal democracy’s most eminent just-war theorist! I was just explaining to the people our plan.

URANU: (nervously) Yes, well, I think there’s a bit of a problem with it. A million toddlers is too many.

HUHFUHRR: Too many?

URANU: That’s right. Though of course you are entirely accurate, and let me say frightening, in your prediction as to what will happen if we don’t do anything.

HUHFUHRR: So we are right to incinerate a certain amount of toddlers, just not a million?

URANU: That sounds very reasonable, Mr President.

HUHFUHRR: How many, then?


HUHFUHRR: Give me a number, man! You aren’t the kind of squeamish terrorist-lover who would cravenly claim that incinerating any number of toddlers at all is wrong?

URANU: (drawing himself more erect) Of course not!

HUHFUHRR: So how many?

(URANU thinks, counting on his fingers.)

URANU: (shrugging) Half a million?

HUHFUHRR: Splendid! I will tell the generals.

URANU: (holding up one finger) There are other limits on warfare, too, Mr President.


URANU: For instance, have we tried other means to our end?

HUHFURHH: Well, some others. Of course we haven’t negotiated with the bastards but —

URANU: (quickly) That’s all right then. Second, who is responsible for putting civilians in the line of fire?

HUHFURHH: (outraged) Obviously they are, since they’re going to teach their children to build a planet-busting doomsday weapon!

URANU: Excellent point, Mr President. Thirdly, are we acting in concrete ways to minimize the risks we impose on civilians?

HUHFURRH: Sure, we’re only targeting the young children. Anyone older won’t have time to become a genius scientist and invent the Armageddon bomb.

URANU: A wise answer, Mr President. That was a hard question anyway, given that we have to take into account the world-liquidating intentions of everyone in Terroristia.

(URANU reaches to lay a hand on PRESIDENT HUHFURRH’s shoulder, then thinks better of it, and tries to make it look as though he just wanted to stretch his arm. HUHFURRH stares at him, and then shakes his head.)

HUHFURRH: So, Professor, is that it?

URANU: Indeed it is! (He peers down into the CRYSTAL BALL and adjusts his bow tie, then clears his throat.) I give you my authoritative judgment that no one has the right to criticise this war of ours.

HUHFURRH: (beaming insanely into camera) Good night, and God bless just-war theorists!

(Fade, to the musical accompaniment of Nik Kershaw’s “I Won’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me”.)

  1. 1  Steven  January 10, 2009, 9:18 am 

    See also: dsquared at Crooked Timber.

  2. 2  Ken  January 13, 2009, 12:55 am 

    Does Michael Walzer actually wear a bow tie?

  3. 3  Peter Jackson  January 15, 2009, 12:22 pm 


    I’m afraid this is an example of what I was talking about in my comment to ‘Speak’. The use of scare quotes around the word ‘argument’ as though Walzer’s piece is self-evidently ridiculous, the lack of any attempt to discuss the issue raised, and then the shift into some Dr Strangelove fantasy; all of this assumes that you are indisputably correct and that all your readers will agree with you and post comments agreeing that Walzer is a tit.

    Unreliable assumptions, as it turns out.

  4. 4  Steven  January 16, 2009, 11:25 am 

    I’m afraid this is an example of the kind of comment that I find very tedious, based as it is on nothing more than the commenter’s assumed skill in mind-reading.

  5. 5  Dan G.  January 16, 2009, 2:50 pm 

    Walzer is a tit.

  6. 6  Alex  January 20, 2009, 11:12 am 

    Walzer is a tit.

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