Sieges – the blockading of a specific geographic area in order to deprive its inhabitants of the necessities of life – are as old as warfare. And warfare is at least as old as recorded history. Sieges have the great benefit of injuring those under siege with relatively little risk to the besiegers. And they are often radically effective: those under siege have the choice to surrender or starve. Naturally, most of those doing the choosing are the military leaders while most of those doing the starving are ordinary civilians.
Today, Israel is in the process of besieging the tiny Gaza Strip—a small piece of land with an enormous civilian population. They have little choice as to whether or not to take some sort of military action. Allowing Hamas, a terrorist organization, to attack Israel and take hostages without a military response would empower not only Hamas but multiple similar groups to decimate Israel. Yet the human cost of a siege—let alone an invasion—is almost beyond measure.
The history of Israel in the Middle East is extraordinarily complicated, and the ethical questions related to the different players are argued around the world. Should Israel exist? Should it have been founded as it was? What are the rights of displaced Palestinians? Is a two-state solution possible or appropriate? And how does ethnic, religious, and racial history play into these huge questions?
Without attempting to solve the currently insoluble problem of the Middle East, a website called wagingnonviolence.org explores how our perceptions of human nature impact our thoughts about the current situation in Gaza. Author Stephanie Van Hook, echoing Albert Einstein, asks “Do you see a friendly universe?” Van Hook argues that if we see the universe and the people in it as “unfriendly,” we feel justified in dehumanizing others—thus setting the stage for actions we would never take against friendly human beings. She concludes “Taking a cue from Einstein, then, the most urgent struggle of today is to reclaim the human image and restore its dignity. “
Would a vision of shared humanity really change our attitude toward war? While the concept that “we are all human beings together” is compelling, it has rarely been our perspective throughout history. Far more commonly, human beings band together and face one another as us-versus-them. This is true around the world, and it has been true throughout recorded history. It seems to be true when resources are scarce—but also when resources are plentiful. The need to circle wagons, protect borders, and keep the “others” at bay seems almost basic to human nature.
Is it really possible, outside of academia and rare, carefully curated communities, for us to see ALL of humanity as “us” versus “them?” Historically—and into the present day—the answer has almost always been No.
Do you have a different perspective on human nature and dehumanization of the other? Please share your thoughts in the forum!