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  • Moynihan's Law: Why The Good Guys Always Get The Worst Press

    There's something I've been meaning to put up for discussion here and to see where it develops, but as I am generally loathe to initiate discussions even remotely related to the Arab-Israeli conflict (I get too much of it everywhere I go), I suppose I needed a kind of push to actually post it. Today, this push came in the form of the following statement from Human Rights Watch:

    Human rights groups argued Wednesday that a detailed probe into Hamas's firing of Kassam rockets at Israeli communities is not necessary, because it constitutes such a "blatant" war crime. By contrast, Israel's actions are more complex, and therefore do require such investigation, they said.

    War crimes, said Sarit Micha'eli of B'tselem, are those actions that violate Article III of the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that Hamas was in violation of the requirement of distinction between civilian and military targets.

    "It makes it quite easy regarding Hamas. It is quite clear that they are attacking and targeting civilians. When someone straps a bomb on themselves or fire missiles at civilians, the details are less important. It is clearly a war crime without even looking at the details," she said. "Even if they fired a Kassam missile as a military target, the fact that it is an inaccurate weapon, it would still count as an indiscriminate attack."

    "With Israel things are more complicated because Israel states it does not deliberately target civilians and that it safeguards them. With Israel, you have to investigate each specific incident because even if a civilian is killed in an attack, it doesn't mean its necessarily a war crime. Targeting civilians is a war crime, but the damage to civilians in a given situation isn't indicative of a war crime."

    "The Israeli authorities deny everything, so one has to prove what happened in a way that you don't need to do with the Palestinian rockets," said Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International.
    On the face of it, the HRW logic may seem to be valid, until you consider its immediate corollary: if the blatant, in-your-face war crimes require no investigation while the hypothetical ones must necessarily be investigated, then the easiest way to avoid getting bad press from human rights advocates is to be overtly and shamelessly savage. If you do your utmost to abide by the international law, the smallest of your failures will come under immediate and persistent scrutiny, and headlines the world over will scream "HRW launches war crimes probe". But if instead you engage in wanton murder of civilians and brag about it, you're safe from a sustained stream of bad press. Whatever condemnations you earn will be infrequent and low-profile by comparison, and everyone will quickly move on to obsessing over the failures of those who actually try to behave.

    This paradox is known as "Moynihan's Law": The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there.

    You can see Moynihan's law at work in many political and social discussions. Freedom of speech, for example, is applied most vigorously to precisely the people whose speech is most obviously malicious- Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites of all stripes, Muslim ideologues inciting their communities to riots and assassinations and talking about the need to overthrow the social order of their host societies, defenders of and apologists for terrorism, et cetera. Meanwhile, brutal suppression of free speech of genuine liberals in Iran, Russia or Cuba attracts none of the passion and debate that surrounded the trials of David Irving. The slightest incident of racism- on the level of an offensive graffiti- in the United States of America is front page news, but discussing the all-pervasive anti-Jewish racism exercised as state policy throughout the Middle East is like talking about the weather- boring, pointless, let's move on to something more man-bites-dog, shall we? (And how much mention does the Chinese racism get? What about the routine discrimination and abuse of Azeris, Armenians and other "persons of Caucasian ethnicity" in Russia? Had I not known better from personal experience and people I personally know, I'd be inclined to believe that none of it exists- because if it did, surely it would have merited some coverage?)

    And then, of course, there's the most widespread form of Moynihan's law- the "yes, but". Yes, 9/11 was obviously a horrific crime BUT those people have grievances- and then the entire discussion that follows becomes about the supposed injustices committed by the liberal democracy of America against some of the most oppressive societies on the planet, while the horrific crime of 9/11 becomes no more than lip service. Yes, terrorism enjoys immense popular support in the Muslim world BUT there were a few Christians out there who blew up some abortion clinics, and can we please just turn it into a general condemnation of religion, with emphasis on Christians naturally, so that we didn't have to acknowledge the obvious? Yes, I condemn Palestinian terrorism BUT can we move on to talking about the latest HRW probe of alleged Israeli war crimes now? Somehow, it's rarely the other way round. You don't often read in, say, The New York Times or The Guardian that yes, those people have been wronged here and there, but did they have to become such murderous bastards over it?- unless, that is, the people in question are actually taking great pains to NOT act like murderous bastards.

    What I am wondering about is whether it is a universal trait of human psychology, a Western cultural quirk or strictly a systemic problem of modern journalism and the media. Any thoughts?
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Moynihan's Law: Why The Good Guys Always Get The Worst Press started by Womble View original post