"Sickening Slaughter," Continued

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Feb. 1 2013 10:40 AM

"Sickening Slaughter," Continued

William Jacobson, who doesn't like it when people point out that his big Elizabeth Warren scoop was a bust, scorches me for defending one of Chuck Hagel's quotes. In 2006, during the 34-day Israel-Lebanon conflict, Chuck Hagel went to the floor of the Senate calling for a ceasefire to end the "sickening slaughter on both sides." Both Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. David Vitter truncated the quote, and asked Hagel why he'd accused Israel of committing "sickening slaughter."

Jacobson argues that the truncation didn't matter.

At best Hagel was drawing a moral equivalence between Israel and Hezbollah... Cruz’s line of inquiry was not “bogus.” Israel went far out of its way to avoid civilian casualties and probably cost itself a military victory because of that, while Hezbollah fired rockets into civilian area for the purpose of hurting civilians.  That’s not a “bogus” distinction, it’s the core of Hagel’s misaligned view of the Middle East.

Now, this is a solid point. Israel's 2006 Operation Change of Direction was targeted at destroying infrastructure used by Hezbollah -- bridges, TV stations -- and killing Hezbollah leaders. In intent, Israel's action and Hezbollah's actions were not comparable.

The results, unfortunately, were felt by civilians. More than a thousand Lebanese people died in the conflict -- the government doesn't distinguish between combatants and civilians, but we know that civilians died, in a military operation that basically failed. The Israeli government calculated that 43 of their citizens were killed by Hezbollah rockets. Jacobson says that Hagel drew a "moral equivalence" by acknowledging that civilians were being killed on both sides. Well, asking us to accept that framing is asking journalists to be propagandists, and to speak differently about one civilian casualty than we speak about another. I think the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were morally justified; I also think that the results of the bombing were sickening. Out of the context of a hearing like this, you'd never think to split those hairs.

The anti-Hagelians have plenty of fodder to prove that the nominee is less reflexively defensive of Israeli policy than previous Defense Secretaries. It's true. He is. But Cruz was taking a comment about military horror and twisting it to make Hagel sound like he accused Israel, and only Israel, of war crimes. And it wasn't true.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.