Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Sharp Criticism"

Here’s an interesting bit of copy from today’s New York Times:

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported finding what it called shocking scenes on Wednesday, including four emaciated children next to the bodies of their dead mothers. In a rare and sharply critical statement, it said that “the Israeli military failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law to care and evacuate the wounded.”

You know, I think that remaining markedly silent in ordinary or barely exceptional circumstances is marvelously productive of breaking points. The less you speak, the more weight your voice tends to carry when it is raised. And what’s more, the less frequently you are inclined to speak, the more confidence you can have in the significance of a subject that forces language from your lips. I think it is largely because of the strength of my belief in those sentiments that I often find I grow frustrated with myself whenever I go on speaking too long, or get mired in idle talk. I flirt with the idea of vows of silence, which would promise me time enough to reflect on would-be words, and avoid the mistake of speaking too soon and too carelessly. But then I worry. I worry because it is easy to imagine the dire tragedy of reflecting so long, then opening your mouth again to say only “I haven’t learned anything.”

Worse than never seeking one’s breaking point is building toward it, only to lose grip of the object of it, to miss the sight of its power. That, I fear, is the circumstance the Red Cross has come to, with this empty statement, and the New York Times should be ashamed of its use of such strong and beautiful adjectives in grossly mischaracterizing it. A “rare” statement perhaps it was – if the organization keeps to the habit of not speaking out for the people on behalf of whom it ostensibly works, then yes, any statement whatsoever that it makes is technically a rare one. But by no reasonably objective measure can the above words be termed “sharply critical.” To say that the Israeli military “failed to meet its obligation under international humanitarian law” is the geopolitical equivalent of reprimanding a subordinate in one’s workplace for not filling out the forms deemed necessary by office policy. It carries little more emotional and moral weight than does accusing someone of a traffic violation, which, while illegal and potentially dangerous, is by no means barbarous and roundly detestable.

No, a “rare and sharply critical statement” would be to say that the Israeli military is personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents; that it is guilty of murder – wholesale murder that with each stage of escalation more closely verged on the genocidal. It would a rare, sharply critical statement to say the Israeli military has come to the endpoint of transforming itself into the monster it thought it was fighting. Statements like these are sharp criticisms. Statements like these are proper to the events that, pray God, have left the region now, and they are the sorts of statements that normally silent parties such as – I suppose – international relief organizations should make when next they feel compelled toward the point of breaking their silence.

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