Recent events in the Middle East have prompted vigorous exchanges on this site. Definitive judgments regarding these matters depend on detailed historical analysis; and engaging in historical inquiry is not my comparative advantage—nor is it that, I suspect, of most participants in conversations here. I want to resist the temptation to engage in amateur historiography. Instead, bulding on the more general remarks I offered here about war some time ago, I’d like to suggest a move to a higher level of generality by articulating what I hope are some principles on which, as libertarians, participants in BHL discussions of recent events in the Middle East, and future of events of a similar nature, might be able to agree.
1. Racism is indefensible. Making blanket assumptions about people in light of their ethnic or cultural heritage is an unwarranted refusal to take seriously their particularity and to allow them to transcend stereotypes. Claims about what “the Jews” or “the Palestinians” want or do or believe or intend should be treated with persistent suspicion.
2. Ascribing collective guilt is never acceptable. Unjust acts are committed by particular people who are themselves responsible for their own actions. Groups don’t make choices or shoulder blame, so it’s unacceptable to denounce some people because of the misdeeds of others. There’s no general reason to imagine that a particular Israeli Jew is in any way responsible for the behavior of Israeli politicians or military personnel, or that a particular Palestinian is in any way responsible for the behavior of Palestinian politicians or military personnel.
3. Most people aren’t fundamentally motivated by bigotry and prejudice. Instead, when they engage in conflict, they’re pursuing comprehensible goals—for security, for prosperity, for redress—even when they’re employing clearly unjust means. Bigotry and prejudice are real, and despicable, but they’re not at the heart of most people’s choices.
4. Aggressive force is unacceptable. Initiating the use of force against others violates the minimum requisite of civilized interaction. Force may reasonably be used against people’s bodies or possessions only to prevent, defend against, or secure compensation for an unjust attack (and this means that only the minimum amount of force reasonably required for these purposes may be employed). By contrast, it may not reasonably be employed to exact revenge or to intimidate. Thus, deliberately targeting noncombatants is unequivocally wrong.
5. Discrimination in the use of force is essential. Even someone who is justified in using force—and I make no claims here about the justification for any instance of the use of force in the current conflict—acts unreasonably when failing to discriminate between legitimate targets—in general, those who are engaging or actively threatening to engage in the unjust use of force and who may thus reasonably be stopped—and everyone else. Failing to target noncombatants isn’t enough, however. It’s also essential to avoid imposing risks of harm on them unreasonably. For some libertarians, this will mean avoiding all collateral damage. But I hope that even those who do not take this position will agree that I act unreasonably in imposing the risk of collateral harm on others, even in the course of using force defensively, when I would be unwilling to see my loved ones or myself subjected to similar risk in comparable circumstances.
These principles hardly resolve disputes over the current conflict. I hope, though, that they can provide some common ground for participants in the conversation.