Contentious debates must remain civil

An opinion piece in Friday’s News accused me of a “racist worldview.” I was singled out by name. Opening up the morning’s paper, I discovered this personal attack on me, printed for all the campus to see (“Whoops! Israel killed 1,110 Lebanese people,” 9/8).

The authors of Friday’s piece critiqued my recent column on the Middle East (“Conflicting clash styles fuel Mideast war,” 9/6). I welcome their criticism. I regret that they chose to vilify me, rather than respond to my thoughts.

Our generation comes of age amid troubles, from the fight on poverty blocks from Yale to horrors in Iraq and Darfur. Now more than ever, we need humble, rational dialogue, based on respect. We must take our challenges seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

Defaming the opponent is not an argument. It is the absence of one. It distracts from the facts and stops the conversation. People of all backgrounds must be safe from libel and vicious name-calling. I’d hope at least Yale students could be safe from such character assaults.

“To kill civilians when you mean to spare them, as Israel has, is tragic,” I wrote. “To kill civilians when you mean to kill them, as Hezbollah does, is evil.” This has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with the state of mind of the actor — a principle at the core of morality and law.

Every just society distinguishes someone who harms on purpose from someone who harms without meaning to. We look not only at a person’s actions, but a person’s intent as well. That is why a cold-blooded murderer, a drunk driver who kills a passerby and someone who defends himself against a street attacker are not punished identically. All three have killed someone, but the different moral implications merit different judgments.

Similarly, that Israel left so many Lebanese dead is awful. But it is not the despicable crime that Hezbollah committed, intentionally killing Israeli civilians.

Friday’s piece cited Israel’s attack on a U.N. post. But the U.N. itself reported that Hezbollah fired at Israel from that post “on a daily basis,” a Canadian U.N. officer there said. Hezbollah places headquarters in crowded areas and rockets in houses, mosques and schools. The U.N. has charged Hezbollah with using Lebanese civilians as a human shield.

Israel faced worldwide wrath for bombing a building in Qana, a Lebanese village, killing 28 civilians. But Hezbollah terrorists launched more than 150 rockets at Israel from the area, and, after one such launch, they hurried into the very building Israel targeted. Israel’s army did not know the building held civilians. If it had known, the army said, it would not have attacked — despite the terrorist presence there.

Israel could not leave its people vulnerable just because Hezbollah “sets up shop in civilian areas, gleaning sympathy from civilian casualties,” as I wrote in my first column. Israel defended itself. Any other country would do the same.

The party that kills based on race is, in fact, Hezbollah. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, asked Haifa’s Arab citizens to flee, so his strikes would kill only Jews. Hezbollah murders Jews outside of Israel, too. It worked with neo-Nazis in Argentina to explode a Jewish community center in 1994.

Friday’s piece not only twisted what I did say; it defamed me for things I never said. My piece made a distinction based on intent. Friday’s piece represented it as a distinction based on race. “The morality of the murder depends on the ethnicity of the actor, according to Lawrence,” it said — without quoting me on the idea, because I never wrote it.

Hezbollah started this war, but Hezbollah is not Lebanon. Hezbollah and its allied parties hold just 35 of the government’s 128 seats. That is still too many. If Hezbollah rides terrorism to wider popularity, that would be alarming. But the Lebanese people may vote down Hezbollah again — mourning, as I did in my first column, that Hezbollah’s terrorism against Israel “does not even keep the Lebanese safe; it puts them at great risk.”

I am both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. I rue that Palestinian leaders never accept Israel’s peace offers. The intransigence of Palestinian leaders hurts Israel, but it hurts their own people more. Israel’s offers have been serious, proposing independence, statehood and sovereignty in East Jerusalem. Even Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, a country hardly known as Israel-friendly, said of Israel’s 2000 peace offer, “If Arafat does not accept what is available now, it won’t be a tragedy, it will be a crime.”

If Palestinians want peace, the onus is on them to respond constructively when Israel offers it. Handing a parliamentary win to Hamas, a terrorist group aiming to destroy Israel, did the opposite. But the moderate Mahmoud Abbas’ 2005 presidential win was promising.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is so complex, you could debate it forever. I will not do that in this column. I wrote it to clear my name.

To put peaceful, multicultural dialogue on the table, we must take character assault off the table first.

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

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