The fate of hostages

With the deaths of over 50 Lebanese being attributed to an Israeli air strike, the whole issue of hostages and the lives of the innocent in times of war has come to the forefront. I’m not going to go into the particulars of that incident, as they are still emerging, but it is a good opportunity to discuss the ethics of such situations.

The concept of a hostage is an ancient one, and as most time-tested traditions, is a simple one: do what I demand or I will hurt this third party. In olden days, it was considered necessary that the hostage be someone with a connection to the party of whom the hostage-taker was making demands; we have “evolved” to the point where the hostage merely has to be an innocent third party. (Or, at least, plausibly innocent; false or willing hostages are new variations on the theme.)

Hezbollah has taken this ancient, simple philosophy and made it into an art form. They kidnapped over 30 Americans in Lebanon between 1982 and 1992, several of whom they tortured to death. In fact, they were the main players in the Beirut hostage-taking frenzy of that era, grabbing anyone they thought they could use as a bargaining chip. They hijacked at least one airliner, murdering an American Navy sailor who just happened to be on board. They have repeatedly invaded Israel and kidnapped Israelis to barter for captured prisoners — occasionally brutally killing them first. They set up permanent stations near, around, and even within the posts of the UN peacekeepers.

Hezbollah, though, has in the last few years achieved the unimaginable: they have taken a large portion of a sovereign nation hostage. Southern Lebanon is pretty much their country, and the legitimate Lebanese government is powerless, impotent, and irrelevant where Hezbollah holds sway.

In their recent fighting with Israel, they have put that potential to good use. They use homes and mosques (and, I suspect, schools and hospitals) as weapons depots. They launch their attacks from residential neighborhoods, sidling up next to homes and apartment buildings before firing their rockets and missiles.

This puts Israel in a bind. Under the strict interpretation of the laws of war (itself very nearly an oxymoronic phrase), it is the obligation of combatants to maintain their distance from innocents, those who might be harmed due to their proximity to legitimate targets. In fact, the blame for such casualties is clearly (and rightly) placed on Hezbollah in this case, and Israel is fully within their rights to attack and destroy any place that Hezbollah is using for offensive purposes.

So the legality of Israel’s actions — if they can prove that Hezbollah had been using such positions, and I believe they can — is beyond debate. The question then is whether or not they should.

The belief that seems to be at the core of Israel’s decisions is this: one does not make concessions to hostage-takers. The principles that law enforcement apply do not hold when expanded beyond an individual or small group; when the hostage-takers are part of a very large organization numbering possibly in the tens of thousands, with several other groups in ideological agreement, concessions become precedents.

Every time Hezbollah threatens innocents (either actively, with rocket and missile bombardments, for example; or passively, through human shields), Israel is placed with a harsh choice. Do they spare the innocent and give in to the demands? In the short term, it’s easy; in the long term, though, it endangers far more people. Once you’ve established the currency in which you are willing to pay, you can rest assured of a long line of people willing to sell you more.

It’s a basic principle of economics: you get more of whatever you subsidize. If you start “paying” for the lives of innocents, you’ll get offered more and more opportunities to buy their safety.

Once you pay the Dane-Geld, you never get rid of the Dane.

The way Israel seems to see it is that if they demonstrate that they will not be deterred by Hezbollah hiding behind the innocent, and in fact it is a losing tactic (it ties Hezbollah to a fixed position, and limits their ability to hide or flee), they will stop doing it. In the long run, they think, it will save more lives than it will cost. It’s an arguable position.

The choice between right and wrong is sometimes easy. But far too many times the choice is between two bad choices, and we have to decide which will not lead to the most good, but cause the least long-term harm.

I think Israel has made the right choice this time. I feel tremendous sympathy for those whose lives Hezbollah has placed at risk. I feel sympathy for those Israelis who will have to carry out the attacks against Hezbollah, regardless of the consequences for those innocents.

And I am filled with rage and contempt for those members of Hezbollah who have put their own survival and their own political ends above any and all sense of compassion, responsibility, or integrity.

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