Indeed. The epidemic of inflammatory remarks by self-serving Western politicians who seek career benefits (or stock profits) from whipping up ignorant voters has been more dangerous over the past seven years than the Islamic terrorism which opened wide the doors to such behavior in the first place. Not only do such remarks made it more difficult to find rational solutions and raise the likelihood of extremist “quick fixes” that will exacerbate the very insecurity they are supposedly addressing, but the constant repetition of outrageously extremist remarks of the type made by Mofaz, as well as neo-cons and extremist Protestant “political preachers” in the U.S., creates a cancer that eats away at the moral integrity of society. Just as Hitler endlessly repeated the Big Lie to entice Germans into supporting anti-Jewish pogroms to pave his way to control of the German state, the propaganda campaign against the mythical Iranian nuclear monster paves the way toward a war society dominated by the military-industrial complex.
Political figures like Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai with the courage to speak out against such reckless irresponsibility are all too rare. How many denounced Hillary Clinton for her obscene “we will obliterate them” remark or the mad doctrine of preventive war and the constant Bush/Cheney threats that “all options” are on the table?
But to create a responsible, moral political culture, much more than just denunciations of warmongering are needed. If society deems it improper to make racial slurs, how much worse is the advocacy of war against a whole people, race, or religion? Irresponsible remarks that add to a war fever are not just dangerous and wrong but direct incitements to mass murder. How else can one describe a needless war? A “needless” war is a war caused by inflammatory rhetoric rather than political realities. Inflammatory rhetoric is improper because it promotes action based not on need but on the rhetoric itself, i.e., the rhetoric creates a twilight zone distortion of reality.
In the real world, Iran has an outspoken leadership but, in practice, a rather cautious foreign policy characterized by repeated offers to negotiate as an equal; has no colonies; and has no armies in other people’s lands. Iran is ruled by a politically combative group of factions...that are in agreement that Iran has as much right to nuclear technology as any other country and outraged by the discriminatory treatment to which Iran is being subjected on this issue. The latest U.S. NIE on the subject judged that whatever Iranian nuclear weapons program may have existed appears to have been on hold for several years, and is still short of actually creating even the most primitive sort of actual weapon. Israel’s nuclear weapons program, in contrast, is well developed, ready for war, and years (probably decades) ahead of anything Iran could even dream of. And Israel’s program is not on hold. Israeli politicians regularly threaten Iran, and Israel’s track record of invading its neighbors suggests that its threats should be taken seriously. Also in the real world, regional superpower Israel has not relinquished its “right” to use those weapons…even in an offensive, first-strike war, while Iran has repeatedly rejected the morality and rationality of even possessing such weapons.
In the twilight zone rhetorical world, Iran is an irrational and aggressive bully that only understands the language of force, implacably hostile and terrifyingly powerful, a country that would commit suicide by employing whatever primitive WMD capability it could acquire against one of the world’s great nuclear powers backed up by the world’s greatest nuclear power. Nuclear Israel, in contrast, is an innocent, democratic, pioneering society trying to live in peace but under threat of immediate destruction.
To justify war by the rhetorical evocation of an imaginary world is morally outrageous and should be recognized as a crime. Inflammatory rhetoric about war by public figures is the moral equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire consuming a whole nation and should be punished accordingly.
Politicians who advocate war should be put on “administrative leave” pending public trial for “endangering the good of mankind.” Given that they chose to pose as leaders, the burden of proof of innocence should be on them, and the bar set high. People who want to be leaders should be expected to set standards of behavior superior to the average person. The shocking reality is that today the situation is often the reverse: politicians behave with a level of irresponsibility that would not be tolerated in the general population. The man in the street is not allowed falsely to scream “fire” in a crowded theater; he is not allowed to advocate discrimination against minorities. So how can we justify allowing politicians to lie in order to build support for a war?
If the theater is indeed burning, screaming “fire” is still a questionable tactic, but at least it gets people’s attention. In contrast, if the danger is merely that the theater does not have sufficient fire extinguishers to put out some possible future fire, then screaming “fire” and provoking people to trample each other is, to put it politely, "inappropriate"…and murder charges may result. Aggressive rhetoric about war is all the more inappropriate. If a war cannot be justified by careful analysis, then it cannot be justified.
Establishing a legal process for judging the permissibility of words uttered by political figures would underscore the seriousness of the crime and encourage people to think about the implications. Questions that society now evades would be center stage. For example:
- Should the advocacy of a war of choice be considered a crime?
- Should the advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons be considered a crime?
- Should the advocacy of the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state be considered a crime?
- Should the advocacy of the use of force to prevent a state from building (not using) weapons be a crime?
- Should warning that war will be “inevitable” unless some action is taken by the opponent be a crime?
- Should threatening that “all options are on the table” be a crime?
- Should the above be considered crimes at the same level or should the seriousness of the violations be scaled?
- Should hostile rhetoric by a regime with the power to carry out its threats be considered more criminal than the same rhetoric by a regime that is obviously helpless to do anything more than talk?
And the penalty? Merely getting society to the point of considering what penalties should be imposed for inciting war would be a huge step forward; more important than the actual penalty because the fundamental purpose is to raise the moral bar, to set a standard of responsible behavior. But for egregious cases, I would suggest: suspending the speaker from all public office for some period of time without pay and condemning the speaker to working on his or her hands and knees removing land mines and gathering up unexploded cluster bombs, followed by hospital service in a war zone.