Farewell Fair Play
by Paul Kurtz
Something awful seems to be happening to the traditional American sense of fair play and goodwill. The public response in support of the victims of September 11 notwithstanding, in general there seems to be a decline of empathy and altruism. Perhaps I am overreacting, but this deficiency seems to assume many forms.
What immediately comes to mind is our treatment of prisoners. I refer first to the great flap that emerged worldwide over the Bush administration's refusal to place the prisoners of war captured in Afghanistan under the rules of the Geneva Convention. They are "unlawful combatants," we were told; or they are "dangerous and our guards need to be protected"; or, in still another statement, "They do not deserve any better." I've always thought that the Geneva Convention provided commendable rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war, rules that all civilized nations should follow. The prisoners are being treated "humanely," we were told. Surely, we would want our own soldiers, if captured anywhere in the world, to be treated in accord with the Geneva Convention. How can we demand this in the future if we violate these rules today? President Bush relented after much criticism at home and abroad and grudgingly declared that Taliban prisoners would come under the Geneva Convention, but not members of the Al Qaeda. Many critics believe that this concession does not go far enough.
"The Quality of American Mercy Is Not Strained"
This cavalier dismissal of the Geneva Convention has disturbed civil libertarians in the United States and our allies throughout the world. So has the treatment of thousands of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, recently apprehended by the Justice Department and held incommunicado and without bail. They are "terrorists," says the administration; but how do we know unless they are indicted and put on trial and processed through the American system of justice? Will the infamous deed of September 11—which we all abhor—and the fear of future terrorist acts so erode our sense of justice that we will abandon our traditional adherence to democratic due process?
Perhaps there is something deeply amiss, for a similar vindictiveness is often displayed as well in our treatment of American prisoners, incarcerated for a wide range of infractions. The War on Drugs in particular has taken a vast toll on the American sense of balance, and its result seems close to the development of a police-state mentality. Bursting into homes at all hours to jail alleged drug offenders—even for possession or use of marijuana, for example—seems like an extraordinary overreaction. Drug offenders are considered "wicked." Not that I wish to encourage drug use, but shall we abandon our free society to rout out drug use while we permit cigarette smoking and the abuse of alcohol, the two most noxious drugs available? From all reports, brutality in American prisons seems to be intensifying. Has vindictive justice gotten the best of us? I was interested to see William Bennett, the paragon of Christian virtue, railing against sin recently at a convention of American conservatives, defending the harsh tactics of the drug police. Whatever happened to the quality of mercy among those who express the Christian faith?
Another painful sign of the retributive mentality is seen in the fact that we still exact the death penalty; indeed, the United States is the only democracy that does. Our European allies are offended by capital punishment, and many countries now are refusing to honor extradition to the United States if the accused would risk suffering the death penalty. It is highly questionable that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. Surely we need to deal with those who commit heinous crimes. I would myself recommend life imprisonment for such offenders without the right of parole. But should not one of the aims of incarceration be rehabilitation, and should not a civilized society exert efforts to educate and reform offenders so that they may be returned to society? Instead we seem to have an exaggerated sense that punishment is good for its own sake and that those who commit crimes deserve retribution.
It seems to me that what is happening in the United States is that we have been overtaken by a religious sense of retributive justice and that this has taken on exaggerated proportions. Surely one of the purposes of punishment and incarceration is to protect society from criminals. Granted, but beyond that do we need to provide cruel and unusual punishment? Whatever happened to compassion?
The Bloated Defense Budget
I am also dismayed that the end of the Cold War has not reduced our military budget. We seem so frightened by enemies, domestic or foreign, that we are willing to spend vast sums on armaments and reduce our expenditure on domestic programs, such as medical insurance for those who lack it. The United States has also reduced foreign-aid assistance throughout the world. The ministers of the wealthy Group of Seven nations have recommended that these nations donate 0.7 percent of gross national product for international-aid programs for the poorest nations of the world. The United States currently provides the lowest percentage, only 0.1 percent. Secretary of the Treasury Paul H. O'Neill is a strong opponent of this aid, one reason why the United States is now known as "Uncle Scrooge."
President Bush's proposed military build-up would exceed that of the Reagan years. The administration proposes to increase defense spending by $120 billion over the next five years—at a time, incidentally, when it proposes that taxes be reduced and the deficit increased. It is interesting that the United States now spends an estimated 50 percent of all arms expenditures in the world. The Religious Right seems to need demons, real or imaginary, to guard against—formerly they were Bolsheviks, socialists, left-wingers, liberals, secular humanists, child abusers, drug fiends; there are now terrorists in place of the anarchists of earlier epochs. H. L. Mencken wryly observed: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." How true this is of the American political scene today.
The America that we love has in the past defended democracy and human rights and offered aid to those suffering disasters worldwide. Has this America become a swashbuckling military power, pursuing a unilateral foreign policy insensitive to the views of the world—such as the abrogation of international treaties? Are we no longer the hope of the world, but a nationalistic state pursuing our own self-interests? Today Afghanistan is defeated. Will we follow the president tomorrow by putting out of commission Iran, Iraq, and North Korea? I fear that America will lose its cherished friends and allies throughout the world, and her self-respect, and pursue imperialist policies that may be turned against us in the future by new coalitions of adversaries.
Why Not a Palestinian/Jordanian State?
A New Holocaust?
Six million Jews were lost in the Nazi holocaust of World War II. Will the nearly six million Jews now living in Israel suffer a similar fate? This stark reality may very well confront the world one day unless this festering conflict is resolved. Israel has borders that are barely definable and hardly defensible. Apparently the only thing that stands between it and destruction is Israel's strong defense forces, including nuclear weapons and the United States.
In my view a creative solution of the impasse between Israel and Palestine that should be explored is to have Palestine merge with Jordan and create a greater Palestinian/Jordanian federation, which could provide a viable homeland for the Palestinian people and enable them to achieve the statehood that they so passionately desire. This state would include the 94 percent of the West Bank and the one-third of Jerusalem already offered by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and rejected by President Yasser Arafat. Since the Gaza Strip is not viable and is filled with a great number of refugees, there could be an exchange of populations and territories. (The Israelis might vacate the settlements on the West Bank, ceding them to the new Palestinian/Jordanian state, and the Arabs would in turn cede the Gaza Strip to Israel.) The condition would be that Israel's right to exist be recognized by Palestine and other Islamic states.
I should say right off that I am here speaking personally and not on behalf of this magazine, which represents a wide range of differing political viewpoints. May I wax autobiographical: I was in Germany as a GI with the American Army of Liberation during and immediately after World War II and witnessed the freeing of the survivors of Dachau, Buchenwald, and other concentration camps. When many of these displaced persons told me that they intended to go to Israel to establish a Jewish state, I said that I thought that this was a mistake. I was particularly skeptical of the Old Testament story that God had promised Israel to the Jews. How could fewer than one million Jews, I asked, stand against hundreds of millions of Arabs? Thus, I had serious misgivings about Zionism, and I recommended that survivors stay in Europe or immigrate to other countries of the world. These hapless individuals told me that they had nowhere to go and that most countries would not welcome them.
A Jewish state was established by the United Nations in 1948. Arab armies immediately tried to crush it, but without success. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who lived in Israel at that time fled, or in some cases were driven out. Hundreds of thousands of other Jews (estimated at up to 850,000) were forced to leave other countries in North Africa and the Middle East, from Morocco to Egypt and Syria, where they had lived in many cases for two millennia or more. Israel managed to survive in spite of repeated invasions by Arab armies. And it was able to reach accords with both Egypt and Jordan, returning large sections of the occupied land. Any effort to sign a peace treaty with Syria or with Arafat and the Palestinians, as we are well aware, has been to no avail.
To my mind the Oslo Peace Process and the Mitchell Plan seem most promising, and the proposals of Prime Minister Barak a reasonable compromise. Israel would return most of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem, which could be the capital of both the State of Israel and a new Palestinian/Jordanian state. But this plan failed because of the Palestinian demand for the right of return to Israel proper. Given the emergence of suicide bombers, this would have made Israel untenable and its destruction inevitable. This is apparently what Hamas and Hezbollah fervently wish. The carved-up and emasculated state that Arafat insisted upon would make Israel unsustainable, always open to attack; nor would it be sufficient for a viable Palestinian state, divided from the Gaza Strip.
The key point is that Israel now exists de facto. To give America and Canada back to the Indians or Australia back to the Aborigines would be impracticable. Likewise to insist that Israel allow the right of return of all Palestinians would not be feasible. Israel fears that the Muslims might eventually overwhelm the Israelis and convert the state into an Islamic theocracy.
No doubt there is some basis for justice on all sides of this tragic situation. An end must be put to the bloodshed of senseless attack and retaliation. The Palestinians want statehood. Israelis want a state with defensible borders.
In my view the Palestinians deserve a state, but there are underdeveloped lands to the east. Therefore I would suggest that a new Palestinian/Jordanian federation could provide the Palestinians with a viable nation and that forging such an agreement would enable Israel to live peacefully behind secure borders. As part of this solution I would recommend that the United Nations guarantee peace by monitoring the borders during a period of, say, fifty years.
But this would require an end to religious terror and intolerance. Religions, when taken literally, degenerate into fanaticism. When ancient texts—either the Koran or the Bible—are used to justify present political realities, the result is bloodshed and conflict. A necessary condition of peace is almost certainly that both the Palestinian/Jordanian state and Israel be secular and democratic. I would suggest that the world community work with the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians to come up with a new creative proposal—to create a new Palestinian/Jordanian state and an Israeli state that can live in peace with its neighbors.
A brief historical note is perhaps useful: In ancient days "Palestine" referred to the present state of Israel, the West Bank, and large sections of Jordan. The entire region was occupied by the Turks for centuries. After their defeat in the First World War in 1920, Britain was awarded a mandate over the entire region of Palestine and Jordan (then known as Transjordan). In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain declared its intention to establish a Jewish National Home, and it designated the Arab State as Jordan in 1927. Jordan annexed the West Bank in 1950, but this was occupied by Israel after being invaded by Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War. Subsequently there were bloody conflicts between the Palestinian refugees and Jordanians. The Palestine Liberation Organization and Arafat were expelled from Jordan, though 60 percent of present Jordanian citizens were originally Palestinian refugees. There have been intermit-tent efforts to incorporate the West Bank and Jordan. I suggest that this option be explored anew. If this is to be achieved it is important that Chairman Arafat work out a modus viendi with King Abdullah of Jordan. To integrate Jordan and the West Bank could make for a genuinely sustainable and durable society co-existing peacefully with Israel.
Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and founder of the Council for Secular Humanism.
[Mukto-mona] [Articles] [Recent Debate] [Special Event ] [Moderators] [Forum]