Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Logic of Deterrence from Gaza to Oakland

Israel's fierce air war against Hamas and its operatives and infrastructure in Gaza provides a window into one of the most important forces at work in our own war on crime, i.e., deterrence. Deterrence is the economic theory, dear to both criminology and state-craft, which holds that actors will alter their behavior to maximize the net sum of costs and benefits.

Both Israeli officials and citizens defend the action as necessary to restore deterrence by making Hamas understand the high cost of shooting their rockets into southern Israel. For example, in today's New York Times, peacenik David Grossman even while making the case for restraint emphasizes this logic:

NOW, after the heavy blow that Israel has dealt to the Gaza Strip, we would do best to halt, turn to the leaders of Hamas and tell them: Until last Saturday, we restrained ourselves in responding to the thousands of Qassam rockets fired at us. Now you know how severe the retaliation can be.

But as with the criminal law, deterrence works well to curb opportunism among those actors who already have strong incentives to continue non-aggressive (even if generally chilly) relations, but works very poorly to curb those actors who have no incentives to avoid the chaos of crime or war; and indeed may have psychic or political incentives to foment violence and chaos.

Is Israel's deterrence broken? There are dozens of Arab and Muslim states in Israel's vicinity. None of them, not even the broken state of Lebanon, has lifted a military finger against Israel. Deterrence works. However for Hamas and for the people of Gaza generally, the base line conditions of life are not high enough to establish the normal incentives that deterrence presumes. If life is one of bare survival and abject humiliation, even a relatively high risk of death, especially an exciting, quick, and morally honored death is insufficient to restrain their desire to inflict pain and fear on their hated enemy (at least for the masculine culture which appears to dominate Palestinian society).

Israeli's understand deterrence probably better than any other people on earth, but their basic anger and mistrust of the Palestinians, especially after the second intifada, is such that they cannot bring themselves to do what they know they must. They know they must build up a true political alternative to Hamas, in the form of President Abbas and his Fatah Party in the West Bank, but they cannot bring themselves to make the political concessions necessary to produce for Abbas gains in sovereignty and legitimacy. They know they should be creating an economic alternative to Hamas in Gaza, by creating the possibilities for economic exchange that will pull young men into the entanglements of markets and diapers rather than honor and death, but they are too angry at Hamas for the humiliating capture of one of their soldiers. So they turn in the inevitable logic of deterrence to raising the collective punishment of Palestinians ever higher, even full while knowing it only exacerbates the fundamental limits on deterrence.

The parallels with our own war on crime, almost the same age as the four decade long Israeli occupation of Palestine, should be clear. Let us pray that President Barack Obama will show the wisdom necessary to save both Israel and the US states from this destructive logic.

Happy New Year


Anonymous said...
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Hadar said...

I think the parallel you draw, Jonathan, is an interesting and important one, but it draws attention to an important nuance: if this is a general trend, it's not "governing through crime", that we're seeing, but "governing through war". That is, the problem is not so much in choosing crime as the enemy, but with the very concept of "enemy". And perhaps, being human, we cannot escape that.