If you gaze long enough into an abyss,it will gaze back into you

December 18, 2023 09:18
Photo: Reuters

Recent events have caused me to return – time and time again – to the harrowing words of Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Since the massacre on October 7th, the Israel-Hamas conflict has reached heights and intensity unseen in the past few decades, thwarting not only any hopes of a political solution or partial resolution to the crisis at hand (which could well have been misplaced to begin with), but also any material attempt by external and regional stakeholders in facilitating normalisation of relations between Arab states. Peace is ever-so necessary, yet fundamentally elusive. There can be no peace – not because peace is undeserved, but because of the nature of political machinations.

The abyss of war is an intricate one. The ethics of war is inherently murky, and filled with retrospective, ex post rationalisations anchored in biases, heuristics, and vested interests. People believe what they want to believe. On the question of the ‘first mover’, there is always a temptation to point fingers at the Other, and argue that the Other instigated it first. Some would cite the innate purpose, telos, and avowed goals of Hamas – a terrorist organisation that built its legacy upon anti-Semitic hatred and equating the Palestinian right to self-determination with an unbridled right to vengeful violence, sanctioned by a minority of the Palestinian people. Others would suggest that the Israel state – especially the one led by the incumbent ‘leader’ over the past two decades – must bear responsibility for its failure to accommodate the pleas and demands of the people living in Gaza and West Bank.

Both sets of arguments lean heavily into the view that whilst it is unjust to be the primary aggressor, to be the first mover, it is just to deploy force in retaliation, in defense, and in deterring further advances by the Other. Both logics draw upon facets of history – perhaps true, but by no means complete; perhaps valid, but by no means the whole picture – in establishing their case. This does not, by the way, mean that they are functionally or morally equivalent: we must be wary of drawing such equivocating and erroneous conclusions. One side could well be more ‘right’ than the other – but what does that mean, and what solace and comfort would that deliver to the millions of Palestinian and Israeli people who have been thrusted into a Gordian knot of destiny over the past two centuries?

This does, however, suggest that we must look beyond selective conceptions of history, to ground and justify arguments concerning millions of lives-or-deaths, and many multiples of that when it comes to the impacts on regional peace. The principle of proportionality is what holds us back from falling into the very abyss. Proportionality matters, because there can be no justification for beating up a verbally hurly bully to the point of death, or detonating a suicidal bomb that kills tens of innocent pedestrians – even if the cause is nominally ‘right’ or ‘appropriate’. When we speak of proportionality, we really must grapple with two questions.

Firstly, is it right that the individuals we affect, in fact are impacted by the fall-out or effects of our actions? No one amongst those killed on October 7th consented to being turned into fodder, to the absolutely abominable, excruciating, and barbaric treatment they were subject to. Not the teenaged son attending the music festival; not the mother seeking to fend for her children; not the thousands killed and hundreds taken hostage by the wanton terrorist cells. And whilst the bombing campaign rages on against Gaza, we must make no mistake: the deaths of the innocents, of those who have few places to turn to and have been deprived of the opportunity to grow, to raise children of their own, to live their lives in peace and with dignity – must not be justified in name of ‘collateral damage’. Collateral damage may be – in some cases - necessary; egregious killings are not necessary. Fighting fire with fire would give rise to the unbridled flare-ups of even more fire, and we are seeing this aphorism in live action today.

Secondly, are there no better means that are both instrumentally effective and morally restrained? A violent, murderous campaign targetting civilians – even if, in the eyes of those perpetrating these attacks, they are residing upon territories to which they do not have full territorial rights – lacks tact, lacks restraint, and is vulgar. It is vulgar because it treats human lives as a means to an end, and the destruction of families and the civic fabric of communities as a tool with which terror can be struck into the hearts and minds of those who are seldom responsible for terror.

Yet on the other hand, a self-defense campaign that only leads to more radicalisation, more fragmentation and balkanisation, more emboldening of extremists, cannot possibly be a politically sound solution. The systemic and fundamental abuses of the privilege of violence by any party would only lead to the haemorrhage in public support for itself – culminating in the isolation of the perpetrating regime. The price we pay in name of avenging injustice and preventing further injustice, should not and cannot be without limits.

It is easy to pontificate from afar. As an outsider, there is only so much we can and should claim to know. We should also make no pretense in suggesting that the situation in the region is anything but a quagmire, a troubling storm of crisscrossing moral principles and counter-principles, lies and truths, wrongs and more wrongs. As observers, as spectators, however, we are naturally less compelled, less likely to be drawn to the edge of the abyss – the tempting, cajoling, and alluring sink that threatens to suck one in, spit one out, devoid and bereft of any semblance of humanity. We must resist the temptation of giving into the abyss, even whilst remembering that this is by no means easy.

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Assistant Professor, HKU