Opinion » Ted Rall

Acting Like Nazis

Collective punishment isn't self-defense

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SAN DIEGO--As commander of a Nazi einsatzgruppen death squad in occupied Poland, Dr. Werner Best came to believe that the most effective response to terrorism was collective punishment. After the fall of France, he went on to draft the Third Reich's counterterrorism policy for countries occupied by Germany. Towns where acts of "passive" resistance such as the cutting of telegraph cables had taken place were placed under curfews, fined and slapped with travel restrictions. "Active" resistance--the killing of a German soldier--would be met by reprisal killings of local civilians.

Dr. Best was trying to protect German troops. Rather than be cowed, however, leaders of European resistance groups saw Best's ruthless policy as their chance to radicalize moderates who were still on the fence about their German occupiers. The insurgents stepped up assassinations of German troops. The killings prompted the Germans to shoot more local businessmen and political leaders. The cycle of violence was spiraling out of control.

Eventually Hitler himself got into the act. Convinced that collective punishment was failing because it wasn't severe enough, the Führer issued a September 1941 order to use "the harshest measures" against civilians in areas where the Resistance was active. Arguing that "only the [collective] death penalty can be a real means of deterrence," Hitler ordered that 50 civilians be executed for each German soldier killed.

Some in the German high command argued that punishing innocent civilians in large numbers would alienate the local population and lose the battle for hearts and minds. Although they were eventually proven correct, they were overruled. New reprisals, each worse than the last, strengthened the resolve of the resistance and gained them new recruits. By the end of the war, reprisals had assumed grotesquely lopsided ratios of murdered locals to dead Germans. Entire villages--Lidice in the Czech Republic (340 killed), Oradour-sur-Glane in France (642), Kortelisy in Ukraine (2,892)--were wiped out.

Even right-wingers who'd supported the Nazis were appalled. Support for the Germans and their puppet regimes declined with each new campaign of "counterterrorism." Public opinion wasn't decisive; no nation occupied by the Nazis during World War II could solely credit its resistance for its liberation. Still, collective punishment was an unequivocal tactical failure. Resistance groups and their sympathizers hastened the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Neither the United States nor Israel is equivalent to Nazi Germany, yet both countries have adopted a Nazi-like obsession with collective punishment. Israeli Defense Forces, which subject centers of Palestinian resistance in the occupied West Bank to curfews and encirclement by barbed-wire fences, taught their techniques to U.S. occupation troops in Iraq. After Islamist suicide pilots killed 3,000 Americans in the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government justified the killing of 200,000 Afghans and Iraqis as an act of "self-defense."

George W. Bush exceeded Hitler's 50-to-1 ratio.

Now Israel is "reacting" to the capture of two of its soldiers by the Palestinian resistance organization Hezbollah by invading and bombing Lebanon. Death tolls that fall disproportionately heavily upon Palestinians have long been a hallmark of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During the 2000-03 intifada, for example, at least seven Palestinians were killed by Israelis for every Israeli killed by a Palestinian. Now, as of this writing, more than 500 Lebanese civilians have been killed by Israeli bombs. On the Israeli side, 15 civilians have died in Hezbollah rocket attacks and 14 soldiers have been killed in combat.

Current ratio: 30-to-1.

"Israel has a right to defend itself," Bush said at the start of the current Middle East crisis. No doubt. But the Israelis aren't defending themselves any more than the Bush Administrative is defending us. Each is using a crime--the kidnapping of two soldiers, the 9/11 terrorist attacks--as an excuse to wage war against innocent people who had nothing to do with it. Meanwhile, the criminals--the kidnappers and those behind 9/11--are allowed to get away scot-free.

In response to criticism that Israel was using "disproportionate" force against Lebanon, its ambassador to the United Nations told a cheering mob in New York: "You're damned right we are!" Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) chimed in: "Since when should a response to aggression and murder be proportionate?"

Congressman Nadler ought to catch up on his reading. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which has been signed and ratified by both Israel and the United States and was drafted in response to the kinds of Nazi atrocities described at the beginning of this column, specifically prohibits collective punishment. As a treaty obligation, it is U.S. law. It is Israeli law.

Nothing prevents a nation from defending itself or going after those who commit heinous crimes--which include kidnapping--against its citizens. Understanding the difference between self-defense and collective punishment is what separates Israel and the U.S.--on paper, anyway--from the Nazis.

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