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What is the Death Penalty For?

On October 12th of last year, when Robert Pruett was executed by lethal injection, the State of Texas chose to use a single heavy dose of barbiturate in lieu of the standard three-drug cocktail. A week earlier, a state legal agency in California had rejected a similar procedure: anti-death penalty groups say it increases the risk of a botched execution. This prospect is not hypothetical. Over the past several years, the drugs used in lethal injection cocktails have become almost impossible to obtain. Some states, in their haste to eliminate prisoners, have deployed experimental execution procedures that resulted in less-than-humane deaths.

This is the great irony of lethal injection: while it spares viewers the spectacle of the gallows or the electric chair, it is considerably more error-prone than competing methods of execution. The so-called “botch rate” for lethal injection is 7.1%. Compare this with the firing squad, which successfully did its nasty job in 100% of cases between 1890 and 2010—though, in every case, it left behind a bullet-riddled corpse. It seems likely that when people refer to lethal injection as “humane,” they have the audience in mind.

The United States is the only Western country in which capital punishment persists. In terms of the absolute number of inmates executed per year, America often finds itself in the good company of nations such as Saudia Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Indonesia. The Saudis deploy a swordsman to behead citizens for such crimes as adultery and apostasy. The Iranians and Iraqis prefer a hangman, the Indonesians a firing squad. Americans favor the sterile anticlimax of lethal injection.

On Election Day a year ago, a revanchist impulse found success not just in the Presidential election but in plebiscites across the country. Nebraska’s voters reinstated capital punishment in a statewide referendum. Oklahomans changed their state constitution to emphasize their right to put criminals to death. In California, a proposal to ban the death penalty failed, but its mirror image—a proposal to speed up the process—succeeded.

The practice of the death penalty in the United States is, however, riddled with problems. These include the demonstrable frequency of wrongful conviction, the disproportionate use of capital punishment on black versus white Americans, and the absence of any convincing evidence that the practice makes Americans safer.

A widely cited 2014 study in the journal PNAS found that approximately 4% of those sentenced to die in the U.S. are innocent. The authors used data about exonerations to arrive at what they stressed was a conservative result. The figure makes explicit the implicit bargain at the heart of America’s death penalty: for every twenty-four guilty men we send to the death chamber, we attempt to murder an innocent one.

Organizations like the Death Penalty Information Center maintain a list of those executed prisoners who were likely innocent. The descriptions of these cases read like a generalized indictment of the American justice system. Richard Masterson (executed in 2016) was convicted thanks to the testimony of a fraudulent medical examiner who had falsified his credentials. The prosecutors who sent Lester Bower (executed in 2015) to the death chamber were shown to have withheld potentially exculpatory material. Cameron Todd Willingham (executed in 2004) was found guilty of setting a fire that killed his entire family, though a group of prominent arson investigators repudiated the investigation techniques used to convict him and though prosecutors seemed to have elicited perjury from a jailhouse snitch.

Empirical support for a deterrent effect is vanishingly scarce: a recent survey found that nearly 90% of American criminologists believe such evidence is nowhere to be found. Studies claiming to find evidence of a deterrent effect have been dismantled again and again by social scientists. Such studies tend to make unfounded assumptions about murderers’ perceptions, fail to take into account the effect of other (noncapital) punishments, and arrive at fantastically optimistic conclusions about the efficacy of capital punishment that are, in the words of one pair of economists, “outside the bounds of credibility.”

Capital punishment is plagued as well by persistent racial inequity. Amnesty International has found that, though black people and white people are murder victims in roughly the same proportions, 80% of those executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976 were sentenced for murders involving white victims.

Even in the face of all of this, it is not uncommon to hear the claim that the death penalty might still be a good idea because it saves taxpayers money. In reality, capital cases cost far more than others in almost every U.S. state. At the federal level, the costs of a death penalty trial are many multiples of the cost of one in which only a life sentence is at stake.

For now, the death penalty continues, despite the abundance of evidence suggesting that the American justice system is engaged in an expensive, unequal, and potentially torturous endeavor with no evident social value and a nontrivial likelihood of murdering an innocent person. Lethal injection is used almost universally.

Since Texas pioneered the procedure in 1982, lethal injections have made use of a three-drug cocktail: an anesthetic, which is supposed to numb the prisoner to pain, a paralytic, which immobilizes him, and potassium chloride, which stops his heart. Without anesthetic, a patient receiving a high dose of potassium chloride experiences something similar to having fire or electricity course through his veins, or to being burned alive from the inside. It is an excruciating sensation with no evident analogue in normal human life. With sufficient paralytic but insufficient anesthetic, the condemned experiences this torture but, being paralyzed, shows no significant outward signs of agony. This is the reason a paralytic is part of the cocktail: in the event of a botched execution, it spares the audience a gruesome spectacle.

Sometimes even the paralytic is not enough to conceal a mangled execution. It was likely for the comfort of the audience that, 16 minutes into the 2014 execution of Clayton Lockett, the blinds separating the viewing room from the execution room were closed: a typical execution by lethal injection lasts approximately 8 minutes. The Guardian‘s Katie Fretland, who was present at the execution, reported that, three minutes after receiving the drugs, Lockett “struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney.” Ziva Branstetter, from the Tulsa World, described seeing Lockett’s body “writhing and bucking”, and related that, ten minutes into the execution, Lockett “appear[ed] to be in pain.” 43 minutes after first receiving the injections, Lockett was finally declared dead of a heart attack. A lawyer for the next inmate scheduled to die told reporters that Lockett had been “tortured to death.”

Oklahoma delivered Lockett a previously untested combination of midazolam, vecuronium bromide, and potassium chloride. The amount of midazolam administered as anesthetic was insufficient to dull Lockett’s awareness of the potassium chloride slowly killing him, and he died in agony.

Before the execution, Oklahoma’s punitive machinery had threatened to jam. The increasing reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs like sodium thiopental meant that death penalty states were forced to think creatively: some states bartered with each other, while others reportedly bought drugs on the black market. In summer 2011, the DEA seized several states’ supplies, citing questions about the manner in which they had been procured. Some news outlets reported that Oklahoma had purchased its supply of midazolam using petty cash, in order to make its source more difficult to track.

The extended details of Clayton Lockett’s crime are almost too horrible to contemplate. During a home invasion robbery that expanded to include kidnapping and rape, Lockett and his accomplices abducted a nineteen-year-old named Stephanie Neiman. Asked whether she would contact the police, Neiman affirmed that she would, and Lockett shot her. His accomplice, Shawn Mathis, then buried her alive.

To read the full account of this crime is to understand immediately why some people might want Lockett not just executed, but perhaps tortured. His is the kind of crime that makes thinking almost impossible. After Lockett’s execution, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times made his way to Perry, Oklahoma, where Neiman was killed, and found a population largely untroubled by the circumstances of Lockett’s demise. “If anyone ever deserved the death penalty,” said the district attorney who prosecuted the case, “Lockett did.”

Anyone who has discussed the death penalty is likely to have heard or expressed variations on this theme: the condemned deserve to die; the dead deserve justice; the state has an obligation to restore order to the world; ruthless murderers have forfeited their right to live. The language changes, but every such argument is fundamentally the same. It is not at all uncommon to feel, deep down, that some people deserve to die. Though this feeling is palpable, it is difficult to justify except by appealing to the simple fact of the rage itself.

It is not uncommon, either, for the defenders of the death penalty to appeal to their audience’s rage and disgust when arguing their positions. In 2015, the Nebraska State Senator Bill Kintner took to Facebook to express his thoughts on capital punishment. He posted a photo of a decapitated corpse to his timeline and accompanied it with a useful caption: “According to the Nebraska Legislature, the thugs that did this should just be locked away and well fed for the next 50 years of the [sic] lives. Anyone think the Legislature is thinking clearly?”

The occasion was the passage of LB268, which briefly ended capital punishment in the State of Nebraska. In order to pass the bill, the legislature overrode the veto of Governor Pete Ricketts, who was unhappy enough about the result that he threatened to execute his state’s ten remaining death row prisoners, on shaky legal justification and seemingly out of spite, after the bill was passed.

Kintner’s social media offensive mirrored the rhetorical techniques he had deployed during the floor debate over the bill, when he discussed the murder of 13-year-old Danny Eberle by the serial killer John Joubert:

“Joubert placed the helpless and bound Danny in the trunk of his car, drove to a secluded area–and this is in Senator Crawford’s district–and dragged Danny into the cornfield. In that cornfield Joubert pulled out a knife and ordered Danny to lie on his stomach. He took off his pants while the young man pleaded, please, don’t kill me. He slowly stabbed Danny but the wounds were not mortal enough, and then Danny was still alive when Joubert sliced the back of Danny’s neck. To make sure he was dead, he sliced a seven-inch gap into Danny’s legs all the way down to the bone. … Death was not instantaneous. Danny was aware for three to four minutes while Joubert inflicted nine cuts to the body before succumbing to death from loss of blood.”

A search of Kintner’s remarks for a more sophisticated argument is fruitless. He, and the others arguing in support of the death penalty, inhabited a world in which nothing mattered except the full sanguinary horror of the crimes of the condemned. The defenders of the death chamber felt that the facts of each crime were sufficient, and they described each horrific scenario in hopes that the full measure of human savagery would make their point for them.

Rarely, during the debate over LB268, did an anti-abolition argument take a form more sophisticated than that of Bill Kintner’s Facebook post. State Senator David Schnoor told the chamber that he was pro-life but that he was not “pro-life for the murderous savages because we will give you stories of what has happened in our state, and they are sickening.” He told a lurid tale that challenged Kintner’s in terms of detail, and quoted liberally from the Bible. Senator Merv Riepe read aloud the dictionary definitions of the words “innocence” and “evil” and, in keeping with the general theme, related the particulars of another brutal murder. Senator Mike Groene put the case in esoteric terms, telling the chamber that society needed to send “a strong message to evil.”

A rhetorical abyss yawned between the two sides. Contrast the true-crime style of debate with the testimony of a retired judge named Ronald Reagan, who had served on the three-judge panel that sentenced Joubert to death and who came before the legislature to argue against capital punishment:

“Iowa, a state without the death penalty, was less than two miles east of the kidnapping site. It wasn’t ignorance or stupidity that kept Joubert from taking his victim across the river. The legal consequences of his action simply played no part in his decision, nor does it in any other murderer’s. The general principle is affirmed by studies that show that bordering states, one without a death penalty and one with, have no higher murder rates than the non-death penalty state. The principle is in effect regionally, as well. The death penalty is now used almost exclusively in southern states. If capital punishment was a general deterrent, the per capita murder rate in those states should be lower, yet the reverse is true. We can repeal the death penalty, and there will be no detrimental harm to public safety. Given the time and resources attendant to capital cases from the police, prosecutors, and the court system, life without parole is the most efficient and effective penalty.”

Reagan and his fellow abolitionists came before the legislature ready to participate in the kind of reasoned discussion that is now rarely seen. They were met with fallacy and evasion. Their facts and statistics were not so much challenged as completely ignored. The opposition was united in a strategy that openly prized disgust over debate.

Behind each sophistic defense of the death penalty— behind photos of headless corpses, hazy platitudes about justice, and grisly chronicles of murder—is a perilous detachment from the common good. Whether they consciously accept it or not, advocates for capital punishment endorse a compromise entailed by its use. In exchange for the vaporous promise of Mike Groene’s “strong message to evil,” they risk subjecting an innocent person to the torture experienced by Clayton Lockett.

By hazarding this, society gains nothing. Perhaps an entry on some cosmic moral ledger or a warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of Bill Kintner’s stomach. But the death penalty is useless. It satisfies no moral imperative; it saves no lives; it serves no purpose other than to satisfy a gut feeling that is no more justifiable than the base animal rage that drives a person to murder in the first place.

The results in Oklahoma, Nebraska, and California are, fortunately, upstream ripples in a river flowing steadily toward abolition. Poll data from Gallup shows that support for the death penalty has declined by twenty percentage points since its peak in the mid-nineties. The number of actual executions has also diminished: in 1999, the U.S. saw ninety-eight; in 2016, there were only twenty. In many states, judicial authorities have demonstrated reluctance to seek the death penalty.

Nonetheless, most Republicans and a large minority of Democrats continue to support the death penalty, and the parlous circumstances of political debate in the United States are all but certain to conquer rational conversation on the topic. The way of thinking and arguing typified by Kintner et al. is no longer simply tolerated and accepted. Emotional reasoning is, rather, the main driver for policy at the national level, particularly in the executive branch. The tendency to moralize shrilly, to appeal to the mystical power of the anecdote, to favor passions over reasons, is one that bridges America’s deep political divide. As capital punishment itself dies a slow and necessary death, abolitionists will have to contend with the moral and rhetorical attitudes that have sustained the enterprise into the twentieth century, and that threaten to obliterate what little reasoned conversation there remains to be had in the United States.


Amnesty for South Sudanese rebels

The ongoing rapprochement between Sudan and South Sudan manifested today in the ragged and tired forms of 3,000 soldiers of the South Sudan Liberation Army, crossing the border from Sudan and handing over their weapons. A South Sudanese official told the BBC that the SSLA rebels, like most others, had been pardoned by President Salva Kiir.

The nation of South Sudan is only two years old, but the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983, was officially terminated in 2005 by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Progress over the last eight years has been slow but steady: last month, the two Sudans came to an agreement on border security and localized demilitarization; last year, they completed negotiations on economic relations.

Economic interdependency is the stickiest part of this whole issue: unified Sudan was dependent on oil revenue, but the Sudanese split means that 75% of that oil is in the South. The South is landlocked, which means that it depends on its northern neighbor’s pipeline infrastructure as a means to profit off its reserves. Without its share of South Sudan’s oil revenues, Sudan is nothing but a war-riven kleptocracy with a war criminal as its leader. 

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is, of course, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. While the Court found insufficient evidence to put Bashir on trial for genocide, he is wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is the same man who has, smilingly, shaken hands with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on multiple occasions, grimacing perhaps on the inside but advancing the cause of reconciliation with each successive agreement. 

One imagines that Kiir himself grimaces inwardly to shake hands with such a man. But, justice notwithstanding, it does seem that both parties are doing what’s necessary to ensure at least some small measure of stability. The Sudanese model is worth attempting to replicate, even as it mirrors the Irish model. In many respects, the Sudanese situation is made inestimably more complicated by the presence of oil reserves, the fabulous corruptive opportunities of which have promiscuously hampered development all over Africa. 

It all does seem to be working, to a point. Fighting last year forced thousands into refugee camps, and South Sudan has on more than one occasion threatened to suspend the flow of oil through the north as a punitive measure against Sudanese incivility. Obviously, this doesn’t work: the South needs that money as much as the north does– perhaps more, since it’s lacking a fundamental infrastructure of its own.

We’ll see what happens. The region has twice lapsed into civil war in the past half-century, and twice recovered. All we can do is hope that this time, it sticks.

Al-Nusra and Ansaru

The Economist this week mentions the recent excrescence of a group called Ansaru from the broader ranks of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Already more than a year old, Ansaru broke from Boko Haram over what its leadership referred to as “inhuman” behavior toward Nigeria’s Muslim umma. In the year-and-a-half since its creation, Ansaru has abducted a French national, taken and killed hostages, attacked Nigerian soldiers, and staged an audacious prison break. 

Ansaru has, in public communications, drawn a comparison between its relationship with Boko Haram and Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban. This was perhaps a strategic PR decision– the group is now allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

While Ansaru does seem to have been formed as a reaction to Boko Haram’s haphazard killing of Muslim civilians, it’s probably best not to view them as principled devotees of a less explosive, more goal-oriented brand of Islamist insurgency (see above misbehavior). Where Boko Haram dedicates itself to the expulsion of un-Islamic elements from Nigeria, Ansaru has branded itself with AQIM’s jihadist cred and taken a more global tack. To the extent that a global jihad movement does exist, Ansaru is part of it. 

There is something redolent here of the appearance of Syria’s Al-Nusra Front in the same month and year as Ansaru. Al-Nusra claims 5,000 full members, Sunni jihadists all, and maintains allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Before Al-Nusra appeared, we in the West were hearing reports of Sunni jihadists amidst the ranks of the Free Syrian Army. The group’s public debut verified those rumors. Since that debut, it has taken part in operations with the FSA, conducted suicide bombings, and imposed its very own no-fly zone over Aleppo. Al-Nusra fighters have gained a reputation on the ground in Syria as aggressive, disciplined warriors– and, oddly, as a fairly polite and conscientious group. 

What’s interesting here is the way that more strictly Islamist organizations have emerged from a hodgepodge of violent grievances with vaguely Islamic themes. This is a pretty predictable process, and it’s one that we’ll probably see again as Islamic insurgencies continue to pop up in the unstable developing world. Consider the ongoing debate about the “roots” of extremism: do young men frustrated with their circumstances simply channel their violent impulses into Islamism as a convenient outlet? Or is it jihadism that finds these people and contaminates them with a savage ideology?

 Al-Nusra and Ansaru offer a clue: while supposedly jihadist groups may spring up in unstable environments as a convenient mode of cohesion among men who share both religion and grievance, the truly fanatical are wont to form their own, yet more stringently dogmatic groups.

Anders Aslund’s Austerity

Anders Aslund’s new piece on Foreign Policy’s “Think Again” blog makes a convincing case that well-managed austerity, not Keynesian stimulus, is the path to recovery and growth. His points are well taken– food for thought, if nothing else. Aslund cites a paper that came out of UMass Amherst last week, in the wake of the revelation that the conclusions of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff’s 2010 paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt”, were compromised by some subtle spreadsheet errors.

“Growth in a Time of Debt” claimed to find that a debt/GDP ratio exceeding 90% corresponded to a sharp drop in growth. This had the effect of solidifying 90% in the consciousness of some as a kind of magic number, a cap on public debt beyond which an economy was sure to collapse. These numbers have been conclusively challenged in the UMass paper – “Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff” – authored by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin and cited by Aslund.

The problem with Aslund’s new FP piece is the following line, from which the rest of the article draws substantial legitimacy: “According to economists at the University of Massachusetts, GDP growth falls substantially – and predictably – with rising public debt”. This is half-true. The numbers Aslund provides via the UMass study – average annual real GDP growth of 3.2%, 2.4%, and 1.6% relating to debt ratios of 60-90%, 90-120% and 120-150% respectively– are correct. But this drop-off is no way “substantial”, certainly not in the revelatory way presented originally by “Growth in a Time of Debt”. We’re speaking here of differences in GDP growth of 0.8%. With a margin of error of 0.5% in GDP growth reporting, we could be talking about a cost of between 1.3% and 0.3%.

The charts provided by the UMass researchers evidence close-to-negligible GDP growth losses with a debt/GDP ratio between 35% and 90%. There is a slight downturn above 90%, but it’s nothing compared to the nearly 2% cost to growth seen between 0% and 35% debt/GDP.

Again, Aslund’s case against the case against austerity is convincing, and clearly worth a conversation. But he can’t sell austerity as a cure for economic woes based on the UMass numbers, which serve as a refutation of the Reinhart/Rogoff figures, not a reinforcement.

Unpacking Gaza

My Facebook news feed has been positively lousy, over the past few days, with pithy missives regarding the latest Gaza crisis. Most of these are in English, although some are in Arabic or Hebrew. What is common to the vast majority of messages is an evident sense of outrage at the way the media is handling this newest outbreak of violence. Those who are “pro-Israel” feel that the media has largely ignored the thousands of rockets that have fallen on Southern Israel during the last decade, and that journalists have incorrectly portrayed “the Palestinians” as peace-seeking. The “pro-Palestinian” posts typically express the sentiment that American newspapers and TV networks value Israeli casualties over Palestinian ones, and that they do not question the legitimacy of Israel’s bombardment.

These hasty, one-sided memoranda, one would reflexively assume, cannot reflect the diversity of thought on this topic. One would be wrong.

There is, in fact, astonishingly little diversity of thought— even amongst otherwise thoughtful journalists and commentators. A good rule of thumb is this: if it is particularly easy to pigeonhole someone’s comments as pro-Israel or anti-Israel, as pro-Palestinian or anti-Palestinian, then it is true, ex vi termini, that these comments are without nuance.

It is a claim made frequently on both sides of this divide that, in fact, the issue is itself without nuance. Israel, we are told, is a genocidal settler state, a fascistic theocracy, an expansionist power with its eye on total regional dominion. Palestinians, the riposte comes, are terrorists to a one: Muslim extremists, savages, vicious barbarians who want to “push Israel into the sea”. We are advised that we, too, would understand the acute simplicity of the issue were we to simply “do our research”.

This is all nonsense, of course. It is also laziness– the sententious reductivism of those who refuse to recognize that moral frameworks cannot always be grafted onto the chaos of real life.

How, then, to approach Israel’s latest incursion into Gaza? Consider the early tenets of just war theory as laid out by Saint Thomas Aquinas, utilizing Augustine:

  1. War must be conducted by a legitimate authority; Aquinas speaks of “Princes” and “Kingdoms”
  2. War must be conducted with just cause, e.g. to “avenge injuries” or to “restore what has been unjustly taken”
  3. Those who wage war must have right intention; peace must be the end goal

Those who claim to support Israel accept the first stipulation as a matter of fact. Their “just cause” is the protection of Sderot and the citizens of Southern Israel. Similarly, those who place their rhetorical weight behind Palestine surely believe that Hamas meets the first requirement: it is, after all, the democratically elected government of Gaza (in fact, of all Palestine) and in any case their sole armed representative. To meet the second requirement, they need only indicate the status of the Gazan Palestinians as a stricken, confined and mistreated people.

And what of Aquinas’s third necessity? At the beginning of this month’s skirmish, did either Hamas or the IDF have a reasonable expectation of a peaceful victory? Was peace, in fact, the goal of either side?

Clearly not. The IDF, and Israel, had far more to lose in the way of stability by killing Ahmad Jabari than they had to gain in the way of strategic position. And all Hamas has ever achieved by lobbing Qassams and Iranian-made Fajr rockets toward civilian populations is the invitation of censure and additional violence toward the civilian populations which are forced to host it.

So why engage in this bloody farce? Haaretz’s Aluf Benn has made the notable point that Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to seem strong before January’s elections. This is quite cynical on Benn’s part, and all the more so on Netanyahu’s if it is indeed true. Regardless, Southern Israel has been bombarded with rocket fire almost unceasingly for the past decade, and the IDF has long reserved the right to respond when and how it sees fit.

Hamas, for its part, is little match for the IDF, which has shown itself able and willing to decimate Hamas’s military infrastructure and liquidate its members (along with their friends and families). By most standards, this should have deterred the Islamic Resistance Movement from baiting Israel in the way it has done for years.

Israel’s most intransigent defenders claim this phenomenon as proof that Hamas is composed entirely of savage jihadists who will gladly sacrifice their own lives to kill innocent Jews. Doubtless, these people are to be found in the movement. But rocket fire seems a bizarrely unreliable path to martyrdom. If Hamas’s membership is truly as uniformly fanatical as some claim, then we would see far more incidents like 2008’s Kerem Shalom suicide bombing, in which three Hamas members self-detonated at an IDF border crossing.

The truth is that the Palestinians of Gaza have little recourse beyond rocket fire. America’s patronage of Israel and dominance over the U.N. Security Council ensure that Palestinians have little or no voice in their own fate. They are subject to incredible barriers to movement, to Israeli control of food and goods, and to the overwhelming force of the Israeli military. The only way most Gazans can project their aspirations beyond Gaza’s heavily-guarded border is by packing them into pipes, wrapping them in explosive, aiming them toward Sderot and setting them alight.

This is wrong—unequivocally wrong. It’s wrong in the same way that it’s wrong to target terrorists even when there’s no hope of avoiding the death of innocents, as the IDF does. And, in the same way, there is little recourse to do otherwise.

The number of innocent Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces dwarfs the number of innocent Israelis killed by Palestinian terrorists. This is a fact. Another fact: nearly every innocent Israeli killed by Palestinian terrorists was an intended casualty, while the IDF claims that all civilian casualties are unintended.

These facts are fundamentally meaningless, but partisans in this debate cite them with the damning certainty that they lie on the path to the moral high ground. For many Jews and Israelis, the fundamental truth of the Palestinian resistance movement lies in events like 2002’s Park Hotel Massacre, which killed 30 innocents, or in the Dizengoff Center suicide bombing, which killed 13. For Palestinians and their supporters, the nature of the Israeli enemy was exposed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008, during which nearly a thousand innocent Palestinians died as a result of IDF bombardment of Gaza.

The Palestinians have a legitimate grievance: their wholesale dispossession as a people in 1948, their second-class citizenship in the Israeli state, the military occupation under which they exist in the West Bank and the blockade they suffer in Gaza. Nevertheless, it is completely impossible to justify the actions of the Palestinian resistance movement for the first forty years of its existence. From suicide bombings to the massacre of innocents in Israel and elsewhere, Hamas’s predecessors took the moral low ground and held it tenaciously for decades. The unconscionable activities of these groups escalated until the Second Intifada, which traumatized a generation of Israelis—the generation of Israelis that is today piloting fighter planes, conducting commando raids and strip-searching Gazan commuters. The Palestinian resistance movement has seen the dividend of its strategy of killing innocents in the blockade of Gaza, the wall surrounding the West Bank, and the continued intransigence of the Israeli government.

Indeed, Hamas are the bad guys. They are the heirs to successive generations of psychopaths and child-killers. But their endorsement by the Palestinian people should not condemn the Palestinians: these people have few other good options.

Israel, for its part, has a responsibility to be magnanimous. This is the crux of the issue. While Hamas may be (and is) wrong in lobbing rockets into Israel proper, it is the representative of a repressed people that views the Qassam as a symbol of resistance to a far more powerful adversary. And while Israel may be (and is) entitled to respond to attacks upon innocents, its responses frequently kill far more non-combatants in Gaza than are killed by the original rockets. The obvious implication of Israel’s willingness to conduct such disproportionate retribution is that Palestinian lives are worth less than Israeli ones.

Whether it was originally necessary or not, Israel has forced the inhabitants of Gaza into an open-air prison from which there is no real escape. In doing so, it has taken responsibility for the lives of the Gazan Palestinians and ordained the continuance of their feeble resistance. It is Israel’s responsibility to refrain from inflicting civilian casualties on Gaza.

-Mattathias Lerner