How to Swiftly and Transparently Justify a War Crime

Every war produces linguistic leitmotifs in the form of linguistic tics specific to the culture of the actors in that war. Israel’s war on Gaza has spawned a specific one that is now endlessly repeated in both Israel and the West.

Via Shutterstock.

April 08, 2024 04:48 EDT

A week after Hamas attacked Israel in October, this headline appeared: “Reuters calls for a thorough, swift and transparent investigation by the IDF after Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah killed, others wounded.”

After the slaughter last week of seven members of the staff of World Central Kitchen, an atrocity that shocked the world, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu reassuringly announced: “The IDF is conducting a swift and transparent investigation and we will make our findings public.” 

C-Span quoted State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller who “says the U.S. wants to see a ‘full, swift, and transparent investigation’ into the killing of the aid workers.” White House National Security Spokesman, John Kirby called for “a broader investigation to be conducted and to be done so in a swift and comprehensive manner.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Swift and transparent investigation:

An organized effort aimed at disseminating a rapidly produced and easy-to-see-through distortion of the truth.

Contextual note

Where Blinken says “thorough,” Miller says “full,” whereas Kirby prefers “comprehensive.” They are all reading from the same hymn book, provided initially by Netanyahu, but graced by minor variations to the official lyrics, presumably in an effort to demonstrate their creativity and affirm their personality. But their creative pleonasms add nothing new as they appear to agree on one thing: to cover for acts of wanton destruction.

Kirby expressed his hope that “those findings will be made public and that there is appropriate accountability.” He appears to admit that if the findings prove embarrassing,  as is most likely, they won’t be made public. Under questioning from a press corps clearly troubled by the attack, Kirby at one point was reduced to this awkward waffling: “We look forward to that investigation being thorough and qui- — and swiftly done and, as I said, that — that it’ll be transparent, the results of it, and that if there’s accountability that needs to be had, that it will be had.”

Kirby’s choice of vocabulary, reinforced by his body language, appeared very revealing. Anyone listening would have noticed that he began to say “quick” but interrupted himself to substitute “swiftly done.” Presumably, he realized that the idea of quick could appear to contradict the idea that it might be thorough, which he had just solemnly affirmed. “Swiftly done” is clearly a better choice. Quick implies haste.

Even more significant is Kirby’s choice of verbs. “We look forward to the investigation being thorough” is far more noncommittal than “we expect” or, even more affirmatively, “we will insist.” As an essential backer of Israel, Washington presumably has the moral authority to use its pressure in the interest of establishing the truth. Some legal minds have even pointed out that the US has a binding legal obligation to assess the degree to which a nation it aids militarily may be committing war crimes and to act accordingly by refusing to provide weaponry.

Kirby goes on to assert speculatively: “If there’s accountability that needs to be had, that it will be had.” Spoken in these conditional terms, he treats the idea of accountability as a kind of remote possibility, something he doesn’t expect to see. In other words, his default position appears to be that, when Israel is concerned, accountability is never a priority. At least he is correctly describing historical reality. American officials in the military, the State Department and right up to the president have all acquired the habit of adhering to the idea that “we will support Israel no matter what.”

Kirby makes this principle clear. “Right now, we are continuing to support Israel because they continue to need military assistance because they continue to face a viable threat.” To make his case he feels the need to concatenate two successive “because” clauses. This piling on stands as a rhetorical admission that support is unconditional, meaning any true accountability is unthinkable.

Politico offered this assessment: “President Joe Biden was privately enraged by the deadly strike and in a public statement upbraided Israel for it, calling for ‘accountability’ to those responsible and demanding more humanitarian assistance be allowed into Gaza. But two senior administration officials said that is as far as he and the White House will go for now.” Politico’s headline reads:

‘Angry’ Biden not changing Israel policy after deadly strike on aid workers.”

The scare quotes around ‘angry’ indicate a measure of doubt about the sincerity behind Biden’s rage.

Historical note

In a moment of creative speculation, thinking outside the box, I wondered whether the choice of the adjective “swift” proposed by Netanyahu and all US spokesmen might not be an unconscious allusion to the 18th century satirical writer Jonathan Swift, the author of “Gulliver’s Travels.” Swift excelled excelled at exposing hypocrisy, most famously in his mock government white paper that bore the title: “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.”

Swift employed an extreme form of irony in his “Modest Proposal” as he mockingly argued that an eminently practical solution existed to reduce the risk of starvation in Ireland. It consisted of selling Irish babies to the English, who could easily afford to purchase these culinary delicacies. In other words, feed Irish babies to the British elite to reduce poverty in Ireland.

Israel has never been interested in cannibalism. But its actions have added a further level of irony to Swift’s already black humor, making the satirist’s cannibalistic tale sound slightly less horrendous than what has actually been taking place in Gaza. Swift cleverly invoked a form of humanitarian concern as he claimed that shipping babies as food for discerning Englishmen was a response to the fear of famine in Ireland. Israel, in contrast, has been indiscriminately slaughtering all civilians, including entire families in their homes, with a majority of the victims being women and children, not for relief of the afflicted or food for the privileged, but just to cynically eliminate as many as possible.

The obscenity of this campaign has led some to believe history has reached a point of no return. It was only three decades ago that Francis Fukuyama, in a celebrated essay, announced the impending end of history as the forces of liberal democracy triumphed over the totalitarian movements that had come to the fore in the 20th century.

In the meantime, we have seen that history still had its word to add to the conversation. No one, however, expected that the worst of totalitarian crimes, wrought by the Nazis against the Jews, might, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat, be replicated with growing enthusiasm by some of its own designated victims. Israel has changed the rules of the game of war in the 21st century. It has reverted to a mentality similar in significant ways to what the worst 20th century totalitarians attempted. The only seemingly reasonable and civilized way to deny that is to quibble, as most defenders of Israel do, over the definition of the term, genocide.

The US government refuses even to acknowledge that purely linguistic debate. Instead, it prefers to invoke investigations that will be characterized as “swift” before they even begin, then referred to as “ongoing” but incomplete as time goes by, and later, after an indefinite lapse of time, dismissed as “old business” as the facts concerned are overtaken by more recent events requiring the next round of swift investigation.

This logic became clear when Kirby responded to a journalist’s question about the US evaluation of other reported war crimes over the past six months. “I’m telling you,” Kirby insisted, “the State Department has looked at incidents in the past and has yet to determine that any of those incidents violate international humanitarian law.” He is certainly aware of the assessment of the International Court of Justice that drew a clearly emitted the contrary hypothesis.

This is the time-tried tactic of complaining that so long as there is no smoking gun, no accusation need be taken seriously. In Gaza, however, there are hundreds of square kilometers of smoking rubble and, as of last week, seven new charred bodies before hundreds more to come.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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