Friday, April 11, 2003

The Martyr

There are different paths to martyrdom, all ending in death. Rachel Corrie’s path was in front of an Israeli bulldozer that was about to demolish a home in Gaza. She had put herself directly in harm’s way and therefore bears responsibility for her own death. She may have wanted it that way because it is a requisite of martyrdom that those who meet this fate are in some measure responsible for the outcome.

Whether the bulldozer operator acted with deliberate intent to harm or kill is an issue that can be debated but not decided. It’s hard to believe that he did not see the woman in his path and it’s hard to believe that he wanted to kill. It turns out that the widely-circulated picture of Rachel Corrie with a bullhorn and wearing a fluorescent orange jacket that presumably was taken before she was crushed to death was, in fact, taken earlier that day.

When the circumstances surrounding a tragedy are in dispute, judges and juries may decide and editorialists and others may offer opinions. In the end, the truth remains elusive.

When wars are fought, there are split-second decisions and miscalculations that result in the death of innocent people. In Iraq, Russia has claimed that a U.S. fighter plane knowingly fired on a vehicle transporting diplomats out of Baghdad and journalists have claimed that an American tank deliberately shelled the Palestine Hotel, fully aware that the place housed journalists. In these instances, as well as Rachel Corrie’s, we can never ascertain the full story. Those who offer their opinions believe what they want to believe, not because the facts point conclusively in that direction but because ideology or another commitment compels them to take a particular position.

All that we can know with certainty about Rachel Corrie’s last moments is that her share in bringing about the tragedy is significantly above the level of contributory negligence. Human shields cannot discount the prospect of being killed and while we must not rejoice over the horrible death suffered by someone who was hostile to Israel, it is also true that her family’s grief is the result of her actions.

Whether her story amounts to martyrdom is a question that is likely to be decided by public relations and not by any moral compass. As a rule, those who are elevated to martyrdom have an eye for the camera or a public display. There are many who bravely go to their death for a just cause away from the arena or camera or someone writing it all down for posterity. They are no less heroic on account of their anonymity, yet as a practical matter, they are ineligible for designation as martyrs.

Whatever history’s judgment, I do not accept the notion that Rachel Corrie’s actions were heroic. It has been said that she acted out of humanitarian ideals, which I am certain is how she felt about what she was doing in the Middle East. Unfortunately, she was a selective humanitarian, a status that is shared by too many who announce that they are on the side of peace or human dignity or other noble causes.

Admittedly, we are all selective in that part of us which may be noble, as we need to be in view of the long list of just causes that can be enlisted in. I cannot claim that my espousal of the rights of others is as passionately felt as my devotion to the rights of Jews and I imagine that much the same can be said of those who have other nationality, religious or ethnic identities. The selective humanitarians I have in mind act out of more universalistic motives and yet their field of activity is narrow, invariably in support of a tarnished cause and against those who while they are certainly flawed are not evil.

The New York Times reprised Deborah Sontag for a Magazine Section back-page piece on Rachel Corrie. It was called “One Last Sit-In.” Despite the title, we are not provided with any examples of activism other than volunteer service as a human shield in the Middle East. Of the 150+ members of the United Nations, at least half are routinely engaged in serious violations of human rights and more than a few have deliberately killed innocent civilians in numbers that dwarf the loss of Palestinian life in the Intifada. This does not make the loss of life any last painful, but it does make Rachel Corrie and the organization in which she was involved selective humanitarians.

There was even selectivity within her limited field of concern, for there is no evidence that suicide bombings, terrorism or the death of Israeli citizens ran at all counter to her humanitarian impulses. She came to a single hotspot and took one side in that conflict and while, as Ms. Sontag writes, “in Lebanon, women began naming their babies after Rachel Corrie,” her sole mission was to oppose Israel.

It’s trite to ask why the humanitarian human shields have a propensity to pop up in Ramallah to protect Yasir Arafat and in Gaza to protect Hamas and never in Iran, Iraq, the Congo, Columbia, Rwanda, Serbia and any of the other places where they can demonstrate their commitment to peace, hatred of oppression, empathy for the oppressed. Their pattern of activism is not accidental and I doubt that it springs solely from concern for Palestinians. The emotional compound that inspires their choices includes powerful strands of anti-Israel feelings.

We are not likely to get the full story of Rachel Corrie’s death. We do know that her life was marked by anti-Israel sentiments. This is sufficient reason to question her alleged martyrdom.