Arguments for Assault Weapons are Nonsensical

“Chris, I wish to God she had had an M4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out … and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids”

These are the words of Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), one of the least articulate defenders of an indefensible position, appearing on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. The inexcusable stance that Gohmert hints at is that which proposes that a further profusion of assault weapons is the answer to our nation’s gory woes.

We know now that Adam Lanza, who slaughtered 27 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, was armed not only with two semiautomatic handguns but also with a .223 Bushmaster rifle, an AR-15 variant capable, in its fully automatic mode, of firing 800 rounds per minute with a muzzle velocity of 3,200 feet per second and a range of more than 500 yards. The M16, the AR-15 model’s most ubiquitous version, is the service weapon of the United States Marine Corps. Its value in this capacity is clear: in the hands of a well-trained infantryman, the rifle can mow down a wave of advancing troops with prodigious and devastating force.

What Rep. Gohmert is likely unable to explain is why such a weapon might be necessary in facing down a lone, crazed gunman, even one armed with his own automatic rifle. It is not at all clear, and indeed fairly nonsensical to suggest, that an assault rifle would be any more effective in confronting a single maniac than a common handgun.

In any case, the argument for the continued proliferation of assault weapons falls flat on a number of counts. The belief that the 2nd Amendment allows for the private ownership of absolutely any type of weapon is obvious twaddle: the government broadly forbids private individuals from owning nerve gas, nuclear warheads, and landmines, to name just a few arms-not-to-be-borne.

The two most common arguments against the proscription of assault weapons are these: first, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from one another, and second, that Americans need such weapons to protect themselves from the government. The first objection is inane; impromptu vigilantism, as we have seen, has no need for the contrivances of modern mass warfare. As for the second objection, we must sadly acknowledge that the ship has already sailed. The U.S. government possesses a monopoly on the most destructive weapons known to mankind, and would be free to use them on its populace if it so desired. An AK-47 in the hands of some rural revolutionary is little match for an armored division or a laser-guided bomb.

To top the issue off, consider what the advocates of assault weapon plenitude are really suggesting. They are evidently more threatened by the miniscule possibility that our government will one day turn on us than by the simple fact that assault weapons allow the owner to commit mass murder with a minimum of effort. They are evidently quite certain that the cost of the proliferation of this weaponry is outweighed by its benefit to enthusiastic vigilantes everywhere. The cost is clear. As for the benefit— we must leave it to Rep. Gohmert to indicate even one instance when a privately-owned AR-15 has been necessary to stop crime.

-Mattathias Lerner


Stagnation Is Not An Ideological Position

Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years, has held true since it was first postulated in 1965. There are few axioms that more convincingly describe the astonishing speed and escalation of technological change over the last half-century. Processing speed has grown at an exponential rate, and with it has the breadth and consequence of the Information Age—Moore’s Law has found expression in cell phones, ballistic missiles, pacemakers and television sets. It has, in large part, dictated the pace of change of the modern world.

Naturally, some segments of our civilization lag this progress, or refuse to change at all. Some shrink from a future they find so mysterious as to be sinister, and seek refuge in superstition and self-illusion. Others stagnate in the ruins of structures inherently resistant to change. These groups, and others no less worthy of excoriation, are to be found in quantity in Congress.

In a report released this week, former World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern and two co-authors derided the world’s progress in combating climate change as “recklessly slow” and pointed the finger at rich countries for failing to evolve with the circumstances. Unlikely to spur the U.S.’s retarded development in this respect is the selection of Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) as Chairman of the House Science Committee.

Rep. Smith is notable as an earnest devotee of conspiracist thinking when it comes to global warming, once telling an audience that “We now know that prominent scientists were so determined to advance the idea of human-made global warming that they worked together to hide contradictory temperature data”. We know no such thing. Smith, like other supposed skeptics caught up in the overblown conservative glee surrounding 2009’s “Climategate”, was obfuscating the truth to a degree well within the spectrum usually known as lying.

As Chairman, Smith replaces Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), a climate change skeptic of rather little sophistication who once told a reporter that “I’m really more fearful of freezing. And I don’t have any science to prove that.”

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform this week featured a factless fulmination by Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) on the (entirely imagined) relationship between vaccines and autism. During his bizarre tirade, which lasted over an hour, Burton gave voice to some of the most pernicious myths about vaccination to be found in the most acrid depths of the Internet, let alone on the House floor.

On the floor of the Senate, a bloc of conservative Republicans obstructed—that is to say, killed—U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). While the content of the treaty is largely based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), conservative opposition centered upon paranoid fantasies about U.N. domination and theocratic moralizing regarding aspects of the treaty guaranteeing reproductive rights to the disabled.

Common to many of these execrable disruptions of civilization’s advance is their fundamentally obstructionist character: opposition to vaccination, to humanitarian multilateralism or to the established science of climate change comes at the cost of embracing a crippling fear of the future. These objections are Luddite in spirit if not in name.

This is not to say that humanity is being held back solely by the retrograde fascinations of the willfully uneducated. Progress in addressing climate change has been agonizingly slow in coming. Each year for the past fifteen years, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have met to discuss ways of impeding and mitigating anthropogenic climate change. This year, in Doha, Qatar, advancement has been functionally nonexistent.

Failure to address climate change on a multilateral basis has been largely due to the refusal of the U.S., the world’s second-largest carbon producer, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the binding 1997 treaty that obligates industrialized nations to reduce carbon emissions. The American demurral is not unjustifiable; the Protocol is binding only for so-called “Annex I” countries and so excludes China, an “Annex II” developing nation and the world’s largest carbon producer. Since reducing carbon emissions entails considerable economic costs, the Senate’s reluctance to ratify the Kyoto Protocol—while China, the U.S.’s chief economic rival, remains unbound—is somewhat understandable.

This is an essentially structural issue. An approach to a global issue must be multilateral, and multilateralism is fraught with sticky hindrances: consensus is required, but treaties can be blocked at the international level, at the head-of-state level, at the legislative level or even by public discontent. Intergovernmental ructions are not uncommon at such affairs, but the process would be inestimably easier were the world’s most powerful nation to shoulder some share of the necessary magnanimity.

There is, on the other hand, no excuse for the antiscientific nonsense being unselfconsciously peddled by House Republicans, nor for the overwrought paranoia of senators bewilderingly terrified of a United Nations that they constantly deride as ineffectual.

Study after study after study has found no link between vaccines and autism, so one can only expect that Rep. Burton’s appeal to an anecdote from his own life—a personal research study with a sample size of one—will fail to convince those who haven’t already made up their minds. Of course, vaccine hysteria is a neat bit of rhetorical misdirection: even if vaccines did demonstrably cause autism at a significant rate, they would still be worth it. Smallpox, which was definitively eradicated in 1977, caused between 300 and 500 million deaths in the twentieth century alone. Even if the hysteria were based in fact—which it most certainly is not—the eradication of a disease that spreads quickly and kills en masse would be worth even a high incidence of autism.

Then there’s the odd issue of U.N. paranoia. The CRPD—negotiated by President Bush in 2006—seeks to make the ADA the basis for global obligations toward the disabled. Broadly, the ADA prohibits discrimination against disabled people. The CRPD internationalizes the ADA’s principles and forms a Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Objections to ratification of the CRPD are nonsensical. Most of these fantasies—the U.S. would have to pay for abortions; home-schooling would be prohibited; disabled children would be euthanized—are so far removed from any implication the text of the treaty could possible have that one is forced to wonder whether Republican lawmakers have, in fact, read the CRPD at all. To top it off, most of the CRPD’s provisions are already law in the U.S., under the ADA.

Underlying these most nonsensical protestations is one big one: the GOP believes that the CRPD impinges on America’s sovereignty. In fact, it quite clearly does not. U.N. treaties threaten national sovereignty in the same way that domestic laws threaten free will. They attempt to produce greater freedom in aggregate by limiting injustice. In any event, what precise threat to American sovereignty do Republican expostulators imagine the CRPD presents? If it must be keenly parsed or squeezed interpretively from the text, then it is hardly tangible enough to be dangerous.

There is no analogue to Moore’s Law that might pertain to civilization as a whole. Progress does not compound. Human rights do not multiply at logarithmic frequency. Peace dividends pay no interest and good health is not contagious. It takes a massive effort of will to implement structures that will preserve liberty and protect welfare, and to ordain the proliferation of these virtues worldwide.

The fact is that this will seems woefully absent from amongst some of the only people in a position to exert it. Instead, willful ignorance reigns; the enthusiastic propagation of unfounded fear seems to be a primary value. It is imperative that this regressive ethos not be treated as simply another political view, nor as a tolerable variance of personal opinion. This is a perspective premised firstly on an uncompromising resistance to change and a rejection of all that challenges even the least justifiable intuitions. It is among the most dangerous credos promulgated today, and it must be combatted by the intolerance it so richly deserves.

-Mattathias Lerner

The Nonexistent Drone Rulebook

Last week, the New York Times published a piece revealing that the Obama administration, prior to this year’s presidential election, sought to develop a set of explicit rules for the use of armed drones. In the article, an administration figure suggests that this push—really a temporary nudge, as it turns out—reflected fears that President Obama’s successors might not wield the drone program with the same discipline and circumspection as has the President.

In the eyes of the American left and the global mainstream, the drone program has not, of course, been deployed with any sort of perspicacity. Pakistani cricketer-cum-politician Imran Khan has ably harnessed public outrage over the U.S.’s ongoing drone campaign in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) to reinforce support for his political party, Pakistan Tahreek-e-Insaf. The Pew Research Center found that global attitudes toward the drone war are predominantly negative, with disapproval reaching rates as high as 89% in Egypt and 90% in Greece. In the U.S., where opposition is minimal as compared with other countries, a public debate nevertheless continues with regard to the legality and indeed the morality of drones.

The first recorded use of an armed drone in a targeted killing occurred on February 4, 2002, when the CIA succeeded in executing a “tall man” later identified as Daraz Khan, aged 31, along with two companions. Unfortunately, those directing the drone failed in another respect: they had misidentified Khan, a local villager, as Osama bin Laden.

The armed drone debuted in its most prevalent and least popular capacity—that is, outside a recognized war zone–in Yemen on November 3rd, 2002. On that day, an RQ-1 Predator operated by the CIA discharged a Hellfire missile in a successful effort to dispatch Abu Ali al-Harithi, an Al Qaeda operative and one of the architects of 2000’s U.S.S. Cole bombing. Liquidated alongside al-Harithi was Ahmed Hijazi, an Al Qaeda recruiter, as well as four unidentified Yemenis.

Hijazi was a naturalized U.S. citizen and, like the four nameless passengers also riding with al-Harithi, he was collateral damage.

Since that first lethal attack, the vast majority of drone strikes have been conducted in Pakistan’s tribal regions, where the CIA and special operations forces are waging an undeclared war against Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. The New America Foundation reports that since 2004, drones have killed between 1932 and 3176 people in 337 attacks. Between 1487 and 2595 of these were militants. While the non-militant casualty rate is lately down from its 2006 high of 60%, the drone program remains overwhelmingly unpopular.

A September 2012 study found that the civilian toll of the CIA’s Pakistani drone operations extends well beyond the not-so-simple fact of collateral damage. The inexplicably callous tactic of the “double tap”, in which drones return to inflict additional casualties on those who have flocked to the scene of a completed strike, has ensured that Pakistani rescuers are now deterred from assisting the victims of drone attacks, militant and non-militant alike.

The study also chronicled the psychological trauma suffered by populations living in drone-infested areas. To imagine living in a place where homes and automobiles are periodically obliterated without warning is to imagine the terror and stress of living in Pakistan’s border regions, under constant threat of death by Hellfire missiles.

The apparent goal of the CIA’s war in the Pakistani tribal areas is to liquidate the Pakistani Taliban and to extirpate the remnants of Al Qaeda’s leadership in the region. This is a noble goal, and were it possible to neutralize each and every one of these savage theocrats with the push of a button and without the death of innocents, the imperative to do so would be clear. Indeed, half of this wish has been a reality for the last decade: it is possible to kill with the push of a button, but it seems the hand hovering above this button is capricious and shortsighted.

Perhaps the single most damning feature of the drone program, speaking in strictly practical terms, is the inflation of target value. As many as 94% of those targeted and killed by CIA drones are low-level fighters; less than 2% are so-called “high value targets”. The deployment of a resource as robust as the Hellfire missile in pursuit of easily replaceable local pawns hardly seems worthwhile. It is more than possible that the replacement rate for ordinary militiamen must approach 100%, particularly in a culture for which revenge is a major moral pillar. It also seems likely that the inimical conditions being cavalierly nurtured by the constant presence of armed drones in the skies over Waziristan are precisely those that abet the development of extremism.

Suppose drones have killed 2000 low-level militants. Suppose, for the sake of this back-of-the-envelope calculation, that each of these have been replaced. Suppose as well that the conduct of the drone war and the terror which it evidently instills in the people of FATA have generated just 100 new militants. This scenario yields a replacement rate of 105%: the drone war here has in fact generated new Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

If this seems implausible, consider what this war looks like in the bigger picture. The U.S.’s main enemy is not terrorists—not disaffected or unbalanced young men eager to vent their stored aggression or achieve the rewards of an imaginary paradise. America’s, and indeed civilization’s enemy is the ideology that molds these young men into bloodthirsty, psychopathic ideologues. The jihadist creeds that transform common thugs into genocidal terrorists create imaginary enemies—the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, for example—but they truly thrive when given the opportunity to indicate a real event as the source of their grievance. America’s drone war has for ten years been a gift to jihadist propagandists—one that seems to have yielded few concrete results beyond international censure.

The unspoken assumption of any war is that the civilian casualties sustained in its course are outweighed by the lives saved by its successful outcome. This might be a possibility in Waziristan were the CIA’s drone program restricted to high-value targets; indeed, documents recovered from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound seem to reveal that drones were at one point eliminating senior Al Qaeda figures faster than they could be replaced. But there is little utility in guiding Hellfire missiles toward foot soldiers, particularly at the risk of killing innocents as well. If a strike aimed at a low-value militant also kills an innocent bystander, the strike constitutes nothing beyond the murder of a civilian (due to the replaceability of such a soldier). This is a phenomenon to which the world is not blind.

The development of a rulebook for drone strikes—a set of legal standards beyond the technocratic aggrandizement of the Administration’s “disposition matrix”–might contribute some moral authority to the program, to say nothing of practical value. As of now, the utility of drones, as well as the morality of their deployment, is sabotaged by their liberal overuse, by an inexplicable lack of transparency and accountability in the program, and by the seeming lack of any concrete strategy whatsoever. It is an urgent matter.

-Mattathias Lerner

Snippet: Human Shields

The argument was put to me recently that Hamas’s tactic of concealing itself and its rocket launchers amidst civilian populations makes itself, and not the IDF, the real murderer of Gazan children. By this narrative, Israeli airstrikes are the necessary instruments of a fatal circumstance orchestrated wholly by Hamas; when Palestinians are killed in a strike aimed at a Hamas position, it is thus as if they were killed at Hamas’s own hand.

Here is the inimitable Alan Dershowitz, putting the issue his way:

“Although Israel goes to great efforts to reduce civilian casualties, the Hamas tactic is designed to maximize them. The international community and the media must understand this and begin to blame Hamas, rather than Israel, for the Palestinian civilians who are killed by Israeli rockets but whose deaths are clearly part of the Hamas tactic.”

It must be noted that this is an accurate account of Hamas’s strategy. But the assessment—that Hamas, by placing these people in harm’s way, bears full responsibility for their deaths—is off the mark.

This is a view that fully disregards the agency of the Israeli generals. Israel’s military leaders do have a choice: even if it were true that the options on the table were to indiscriminately bomb Gaza or to suffer complete annihilation, they would in no way be compelled to do the former. IDF bombs are not the instruments of fate. If Hamas were to believably threaten Israel with utter destruction, Israel would bear at least some small grain of responsibility for the casualties suffered in its justifiable response.

Factually speaking, however, Israel is not facing complete annihilation at the hands of Hamas. The choices the IDF makes are the result of some combination of dogma and cost-benefit analysis; there is agency here, and Israel’s response is neither preordained nor automatic. The same is true of the manner in which it does ultimately respond. Is every airstrike necessary? This is doubtful. Likewise, unintended civilian casualties are still casualties; the IDF does not get credit for good intentions.

Thus Israel must bear at least some of the responsibility for these deaths. What does it matter if 51% of the blame falls on Hamas’s shoulders? Does the 49% role Israel plays in the death of a Gazan innocent pale in comparison to the utility of the airstrike that kills her? It is unlikely that it does in every case, nor even in most. While Hamas clearly holds the blame for the inflation of casualties, the choice to fall into this trap is not in any respect predestined—-the choice in every instance lies with Israel.

-Mattathias Lerner

The Dangerous Plight of Stateless Peoples

A map of the world circa 2012, adjusted so that the size of a country correlates with the news coverage it receives, will feature some notable distortions. The U.S. will occupy something like half the globe, Israel at least a quarter of the remaining half. The Central Asian republics will be well nigh nonexistent, as will Australia and much of South America and Africa. Almost thoroughly evaporated from this unnavigable projection will be Southeast Asia, although its largest mainland country will be pulsing and throbbing, ever larger by the day.

This latter nation is Burma, known as Myanmar since its renaming by the military junta in 1989. Over the past two years, Myanmar has undergone a steady process of liberalization: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November 2010, and the military junta was dissolved in March 2011. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 40 of 45 open seats in the April 2012 parliamentary elections, despite dozens of reported irregularities.

But there is something else going on in Burma. Since May 2012, vicious ethnic riots have seethed in northern Rakhine state, pitting Rakhine Buddhists against Rohingya Muslims and resulting in the displacement of a hundred thousand people and nearly a hundred deaths.

The Rohingya are a stateless people, shunned for centuries and denied Burmese citizenship by the 1982 Citizenship Law. There are 800,000 Rohingya in Burma, the vast majority of them in Rakhine State. The Rohingya, who are Muslim, are the descendants both of Arab traders who settled in the area during the 8th century and of Bengali migrants, most of whom moved to Rakhine (then known as Arakan) during the British colonial era.

The end of the Second World War saw the beginning of a Rohingya insurgency in Western Burma. These fighters identified as mujahideen: theirs was a Muslim jihadist movement aimed at an autonomous Muslim state in Arakan. Nevertheless, the Burmese government’s campaign of repression against the Rohingya has not been thus far limited to the pacification of these jihadist elements. From the forced deportation of those deemed illegal immigrants to official discrimination against Muslims in Rakhine, it has long been clear that Muslims are unwelcome in Burma.

The violence this year started, many claim, with the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine Buddhist woman in late May. A reprisal attack that killed ten Muslims ignited the fury that has continued for months. President Thein Sein, a relic of the dying junta, declared a state of emergency in Rakhine in early June and Rohingya fled en masse to squalid refugee camps—a non-solution that President Sein nevertheless touted as the “only solution”, short of complete deportation. Reports from Burma evidence this same striking degree of prejudice on the part of soldiers, policemen and government officials.

The predominant trope in the Burmese narrative of the Rohingya is that they are “foreigners”, “illegals”, that they are not Burmese but Bangladeshi—even though many families have lived in Rakhine for generations. This is perhaps unsurprising, an antiquated tribal model of citizenship not particularly uncommon in the developing world. It is nevertheless not to be tolerated, and even were it granted some credence, the uncomfortable fact would remain that the violence in northern Burma has spread indiscriminately to Muslims who are neither Bengali or Rohingya.

The inciting rhetorical use of citizenship recalls another, quite analogous situation twenty years past and a continent away, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The Banyamulenge are an exceedingly small ethnic group in DRC’s South Kivu province. They belong to the Tutsi ethnic group, but unlike the Tutsis of Rwanda, unlike the Tutsis of neighboring North Kivu, and unlike the Tutsis who arrived in South Kivu during the Rwandan revolution of the late 1950s, they do not speak Kinyarwanda. The ancestors of those who came to be known as the Banyamulenge arrived in what is now DRC beginning in the seventeenth century, with huge influxes occurring in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Zaire, as DRC was then known, passed the 1981 Citizenship Bill, restricting Zairean citizenship to only those descended from pre-1885 residents of Congo. The Banyarwanda—peoples with ethnic origins in Rwanda—were restricted from running for office, and tensions between the Tutsi of eastern Zaire and the rest of the country rose steadily. The autocratic government of Mobutu Sese Soko initiated a campaign to differentiate “non-Zairean” Banyarwanda from the rest of the population.

With the victory of a Tutsi insurgency over Rwanda’s Hutu government, a million Hutu came streaming over the border, bringing with them many of the perpetrators of 1994’s Rwandan genocide. The Banyamulenge of South Kivu felt perhaps quite justifiably threatened by the presence of anti-Tutsi genocidaires close to their homes and villages. Laws passed by Zaire’s government in the wake of the Great Lakes refugee crisis declared all Banyamulenge refugees on Zairean soil, effectively stripping them of citizenship.

The Banyamulenge sought arms and comfort from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), now in control of neighboring Rwanda. Ultimately, Banyamulenge militias joined the Rwandan- and Ugandan-backed Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), which advanced on Kinshasa and overthrew Mobutu Sese Soko.

There are few good lessons here. The overthrow of Mobutu’s senile and corrupt autocracy was as bloody as it was inevitable, as dangerous as it was productive. The participation of the Banyamulenge in this endeavor may or may not have been ordained from the start; nevertheless, the Zairean authorities might have postponed their gory fates had they not so capriciously deprived the Banyamulenge of their rights—indeed, these repressed and dispossessed Tutsi constituted much of the ADFL’s fighting force.

It is too late to reverse the Burmese government’s institutionalized suppression of the Rohingya, and far too late to repair the yawning cultural abyss between them and their Buddhist neighbors. It is worth noting, however, the data to be found in Wikileaks cables and elsewhere about the worrying maturation of the Rohingya mujahideen: young Rohingya men journeying to fight in Afghanistan, visits by Rohingya representatives to Al Qaeda training camps in Bangladesh, the arrival of Taliban envoys to meet with Rohingya jihadists.

Jihadism flourishes among the oppressed, and any list of the world’s most oppressed peoples must surely include the Rohingya. It is evident that what the Rohingya are suffering in Burma is a campaign that threatens to approach genocide, and their continued marginalization at the hands of the state and state-sponsored forces will only escalate in the absence of convincing outside pressure. The world, and Burma’s reformers, have a responsibility to end this bloodshed and guard the Rohingya against future atrocity. They also have a responsibility to understand the lesson of the Banyamulenge—indeed, of all peoples whose victimhood finds solace in revanchism—and to be thoroughly aware that what goes around comes around.

-Mattathias Lerner

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

Two-Party Paradise

With President Obama’s victory in the 2012 Presidential election, the hopes of all those anticipating a precipitate electoral shift in Gary Johnson’s favor have been dashed. Governor Johnson, who stood for the Libertarian Party, nevertheless garnered a respectable 1.1 million votes—a number which seems somewhat less respectable when you consider it falls just shy of 1% of total votes cast.

Why did Governor Johnson so thoroughly fail to charm America’s electorate? His economic positions fall distinctly outside the field’s mainstream, but in that respect they hold substantial allure for the half of American voters who have embraced a Republican economic policy formulated largely by non-economists. Johnson’s thoughts on social issues are decidedly liberal: from his advocacy for drug decriminalization to his pro-choice stance on abortion, the Governor represents the values of America’s liberal voters more closely than do most Democratic candidates. He is also a triathlete. From a purely demographic standpoint, Gary Johnson should be President.

Johnson couldn’t have won, of course. The United States is home to a deeply entrenched two-party system, and has been for a century and a half. In the 2012 Senate race, all but two seats were taken by Democrats or Republicans. There are no independents in the House of Representatives.

What is the genesis of the two-party system? And why, in the United States, is it so exclusive? There are other countries dominated by two parties, but in few nations is two-party control so seemingly indelible as in the U.S. The last American President who was neither a Democrat nor a Republican was Millard Fillmore, who left office in 1853. The multi-party Congress gasped its last breaths in the elections between 1866 and 1872. The 1874 House featured only eight independents out of 293 Representatives, all of whom were either Democrats or Republicans. The Senate that year was dominated almost completely by those two parties, with the exception of one Independent Republican.

The prevailing explanation for two-party supremacy in political science circles has long been Duverger’s Law, which states that the voting system (“first-past-the-post”) used by the U.S. and several other democracies is mathematically ordained to eliminate third parties. First-past-the-post (FPTP) voting is simple: citizens vote for one candidate per seat, and whoever gets the most votes wins. The problem, according to the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, is that this system discourages third parties from standing for election and citizens from voting for them. The mechanism by which Duverger claimed this occurs is uncomplicated; if a party comes in third or fourth in a “winner-take-all” election in which the party with the most votes claims all the spoils, there is little incentive to stand again. Likewise, voters feel (frequently correctly) that they are “wasting their votes” if they choose a party that has been demonstrably uncompetitive.

This is a convincing enough narrative. But some political scientists have poked plausible holes in it as the source of the two-party system with one simple point: plenty of countries that use FPTP have multi-party systems. India (arguably the most vigorous multi-party system in the world) uses it, as do Japan and South Korea. India features six major political parties; two are dominant in Japan, but third parties hold 97 of of 480 seats in its House of Representatives and 63 of 242 in its House of Councillors. Likewise, South Korea features four major parties– although the two minority parties hold only 13 of 300 seats in its National Assembly.

There are a few things to consider about this alleged rebuttal of Duverger’s Law. First, here’s a list of countries with FPTP or some close variant thereof:

Antigua and Barbuda
The Bahamas
Cayman Islands
DR Congo
Cote d’Ivoire
The Gambia
North Korea
South Korea
Marshall Islands
Papua New Guinea
St. Kitts and Nevis
Saint Lucia
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
Solomon Islands
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos
United Kingdom
United States

All right. It’s worth noting, although it’s not particularly relevant to this conversation, that of these 66 countries, only seven (U.S., U.K., South Korea, Canada, Barbados, Bahrain and Japan) are “developed” (that is, lying in the top quartile of the U.N. Human Development Index). Common to nearly all of the rest of the countries on this list are a host of political, economic and social difficulties that necessarily disrupt any analysis of their electoral systems. Some are too small to exhibit determinate characteristics of a partisan system, while others are so corrupt as to make electoral analysis meaningless. Still others are in a state of transition. For the purposes of this assessment, we’ll use only the seven developed countries and India.

Of the eight countries under consideration, three (Korea, Bahrain and Japan) use a variant of first-past-the-post incorporating additional features. Japan and South Korea use parallel voting, in which FPTP is employed alongside a different electoral system. In South Korea, FPTP is used for 246 seats in the National Assembly, while 54 are filled with proportional representation (PR is relatively straightforward: seats are allocated in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote received). In Japan, 180 of 480 seats in the House of Representatives are allocated using PR, as are 96 of 242 in the House of Councillors. The National Assembly of Bahrain, which in many respects is only nominally a democracy (since the King appoints the powerful upper house of the legislature), uses first-past-the-post block voting in its lower house. In this system, voters select as many candidates as there are open seats. If there are X open seats, the X candidates with the greatest number of votes occupy those seats.

These countries all feature multi-party systems, but their application of alterations to FPTP voting makes them poor tests of Duverger’s Law. Indeed, South Korea’s and Japan’s partial utilization of proportional representation means that third parties will not, in fact, be discouraged from standing for election and, in turn, that voters will not be discouraged from choosing them. Bahrain’s electoral system is marred by corruption, royal interference, and skewed and sectarian district lines: it is difficult to view the country as a laboratory for any type of democracy.

Of the remaining countries utilizing FPTP, Barbados and the U.S. both feature two-party systems that most analysts regard as fully entrenched. In point of fact, however, the fact of bipolarity is nearly as inescapable in other FPTP countries as in the U.S. and Barbados. Consider first the House of Commons, the British Parliament’s lower house: approximately 85% of seats are either Labour or Conservative. In the House of Lords, this number is much lower, at 57.5%. Do these numbers, particularly the latter one, disprove Duverger’s Law?

Not exactly. The mechanism of Duverger’s Law does not necessarily preclude the formation of third parties; rather, it predicts that, if formed, weaker parties will fuse with stronger ones in order to survive. For much of its existence, Britain’s parliament has been bipolar. Whig and Tory supremacy before World War I was broken only by the brief materialization of Irish nationalism in third-party form following the lifting of legal restrictions on Catholics in the 18th and 19th centuries. Parliament shifted comfortably into the Conservative/Labour dichotomy and held in that vein until the appearance in 1988 of the Liberal Democrats, a third party formed in a merger of the Liberal (formerly Whig) Party and the short-lived Social Democratic Party.

The formation of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition (the “Cameron Ministry”) in 2010 seems to indicate that the Lib Dems are being absorbed into Labour as predicted by Duverger’s Law; Britain has not seen a coalition government for half a century, and the intervening time has been bipolar. With the Cameron Ministry counted as a unitary force, third parties hold only 6.3% of seats in the House of Commons. In addition, there is a sizable contingent of independent MPs–”crossbenchers”–in the House of Lords. Eliminating those who are not party-affiliated from the count, 90.2% of the remaining seats in the House of Lords are controlled either by the Cameron Ministry or Labour.

While Canada does enjoy a vigorous third-party atmosphere, it is hardly multipolar. 93% of seats in its Senate are either Conservative or Liberal, while 85% of those in its House of Commons belong to either the Conservatives or the New Democrats. The New Democrats are, as befits their name, newcomers to the Commons scene. Indeed, until the breakup of the coalition led by the Progressive Conservative Party in the 1980s, the PC and the Liberal Party were the two controlling groups. The dismantling of PC’s large coalition left an opening for third parties that lasted for a number of years, but the New Democrats have now closed this gap in achieving the status of Official Opposition.

Consider India, then, where there can be no assertion of real bipolarity: the two largest parties of the 15th Lok Sabha hold only 68.7% of seats. These two parties—the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–hold dominion over the country’s political landscape, and have done for years. Nevertheless, the profusion of political parties to be found in India is truly astonishing. Of course, India has been an independent democracy for less than seventy years, and for much of that time (until 1977), the INC was in control of Parliament.

Where does this leave Duverger’s Law? It’s certainly not proved, at least not without supplements or necessary corollaries. But hardly is it disproved. In the countries we’ve looked at, we have found features or phenomena that either confirm or make irrelevant the mechanisms of the Law. In the U.S., third parties hardly ever enter onto the national stage; in Britain, they swiftly form alliances that melt back into bipolarity. Which of these options actually occurs seems down to systemic idiosyncrasies and perhaps to something as ostensibly mundane as which electoral powers are devolved to the local level.

Obviously, there is something to the dictates of Duverger’s model. But all models are by definition incomplete and uneven, and this one is exceptionally so. Perhaps the most instructive information provided by Duverger’s Law is not how well it predicts party bipolarity, but how much data is so clearly left out. This in itself is invaluable. FPTP does ordain a two-party system at least in some sense, but not inevitably and only based on the states of other, hidden variables. The contribution of Duverger’s Law is that it exposes the existence and importance of these variables; the work to be done now is to discover what they are and how they affect party structure.

-Mattathias Lerner