Intentions And Goals Are Everything

At the risk of boring everyone with another Sam Harris post…. here’s another Sam Harris post. It’s an extract from a long interview he gave to Salon. Despite the fact that he has been attacked by Salon. Funnily enough most of the attention this will get will be because Sam explained what the problem is with Salon and that bit they cut from the interview. Fortunately Sam’s published the whole thing on his site.

But the bit I’m pulling out leads into his views on Israel.

And it starts from the point of view of “intentions and goals” as the interview says. This is a central point I’ve made over and over. It is the root of the asymmetry in casualties and what you can learn from who gets killed here.

When Palestinian children die under IDF fire it was NEVER the intention.

When Jewish children die at the hands of Palestinian terrorists it was the intention.

Sam makes this crystal clear invoking something I’ve said, glibly, many times:

we know that the Israelis aren’t genocidal because it is well within their power to commit genocide today, and they’re not doing it. That’s a very important difference.

As I have said many times, Jews have excelled in so many areas (except professional golf): so why do we suck so badly at genocide! Ever since we started “genociding” the Palestinians their population has grown and grown.

If you ever see anyone quoting numbers killed as basketball statistics without pointing out this fundamentally true imbalance, you have nothing further to learn from that person.

Here’s the part of the interview I’m talking about from Sam Harris’s website:

Do you think that’s true because there’s a difference in terms of the intentions and goals that America pursues in the world, relative to other nation-states? And how might our intentions and goals look to people on the receiving end of our foreign policies?

I’m glad you asked, because many people appear totally confused about this, especially on the Left. Intentions are hugely important. In many cases, intention is the only thing that differentiates a truly evil person (or regime) from one who is a mere victim of circumstance. A surgeon performing an appendectomy is not the same as Jack the Ripper just because he’s cutting another person with a knife—and this remains true even if the patient dies. Needless to say, we make such distinctions in our criminal justice system all the time. The difference between first-degree murder, manslaughter, and a tragic accident is largely a matter of what the defendant intended to do and why.

I understand the importance of intention in that context, but it’s more complicated when you apply that logic to something like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I know you’ve written about. You’ve argued that there’s a discernible difference in intentions here. But this conflict, like many others in the world, is asymmetrical. One side has more refined and advanced methods of killing and certain luxuries that the other side doesn’t, and you might say that one side is extreme by virtue of their circumstances. I’m not interested in drawing a moral equivalence. But I am asking if you think these distinctions matter when you’re talking about intentions and goals and tactics in a geopolitical context?

Generally speaking, I think we have to listen carefully to what people say they want out of life and take these declarations at face value. And when they say they want to go over to the next valley and murder every man, woman, and child, we should believe them. Given the fact that human beings have repeatedly shown themselves capable of genocide, it doesn’t take an especially morbid imagination to accept that people who say they want to commit genocide will do so, if given the chance. In the case of Hamas, we have an avowedly genocidal organization (just read its charter) that was democratically elected. And this occurred in the context of a wider culture that has nursed a genocidal hatred of Jews for generations—and expressed this hatred in everything from its scripture to its textbooks. I’m not saying that the Palestinians don’t have any rational grievances against Israel. Of course they do. But their culture has also been poisoned by religious hatred. And this same hatred exists throughout the Muslim world. Ayaan Hirsi Ali remembers being instructed as a teenager in Somalia to pray for the destruction of the Jews. Needless to say, neither she nor her teachers had ever met a Jew. In fact, they had very likely never met anyone who had ever met a Jew. And yet this annihilationist hatred was still central to their worldview.

Sure, but there are genocidal instincts and commands strewn through the Christian tradition too. They just happen not to be operative at this moment in time.

Yes—and they are not operative for historical and theological reasons that we can understand. We must find some way recapitulate these changes in an Islamic context.

Returning to your original question, we know that the Israelis aren’t genocidal because it is well within their power to commit genocide today, and they’re not doing it. That’s a very important difference. Given what is being said on the Palestinian side, and given the atrocities they’ve perpetrated with their limited means, we have every reason to believe that if the power balance were reversed, and the Israelis were an impoverished minority living within and beside a well-armed Palestinian state, we would see a very different outcome.

To be fair, though, that’s a counterfactual and we don’t really know what would happen if that were the case, if in fact it was Jewish settlements and neighborhoods that were being oppressed and occupied and backed by major powers for decades. It’s hard to know what people will do when they lack the luxury of options, when moderation fails.

It is a counterfactual, but recall what I said about the Palestinian Christians, Tibetans, Native Americans, and so forth. Not every oppressed group readily becomes a death cult. Not every religious ideology can spawn ISIS. There is no reason for us to pretend that all belief systems are the same.

The reality is that the Israelis, for all their faults, have been more restrained in their use of force than the U.S. has—if for no other reason than that they are more vulnerable to world opinion. Every Palestinian child the IDF kills inches Israel ever closer to the brink of exile from the community of nations. Thus, when four children are blown up on a beach in Gaza by an Israeli missile, one thing should be absolutely clear: The missile went astray.Children were not the target because, even by the most self-interested and cynical calculus, killing Palestinian children is disastrous for Israel. Intentions matter—not to the dead children, obviously, or to their grieving parents—because intentions are the only guide to what a person or nation will do next. What people intend to do, the story they tell themselves and others about why they are pursuing specific goals, is the best indication of what they will do if they acquire the power to do it. The Israelis currently have the power to kill as many Palestinian children as they want. The fact that they kill so few, amid circumstances that have all the hallmarks of “collateral damage,” tells us something about them. The fact that the Taliban enters a school in Peshawar and methodically butchers 132 kids, after forcing them to watch their teacher being burned alive, tells us something about them.

The roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem - Photo: Brian of London

The roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – Photo: Brian of London


Brian of London

Brian of London is not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy. Since making aliyah in 2009, Brian has blogged at Israellycool. Brian is an indigenous rights activist fighting for indigenous people who’ve returned to their ancestral homelands and built great things.