Wednesday, July 26, 2006

What is a civilian?

As I listened yesterday to a talk show host gushing praise about an Alan Dershowitz column I only heard with half a mind. As he read from the piece I kept hearing the word "civilian" again and again. In the restricted space of about a dozen paragraphs the word appears at least twenty times as Dershowitz sketches a taxonomy of civilians as neatly as any science teacher ticking off categories of Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species. With cold-blooded disinterest he lays it out in plain English.

...the recognition that "civilianality" is often a matter of degree, rather than a bright line, should still inform the assessment of casualty figures in wars involving terrorists, paramilitary groups and others who fight without uniforms — or help those who fight without uniforms.
Bevity being the soul of wit, he concludes with this gem:
Every civilian death is a tragedy, but some are more tragic than others.

Get ready, reader. I'm about to tell you that he's right. He's not right in his conclusion, but he is spot on with his observation. As I listened to the solemn reading of this column, with the word civilian drumming again and again, I was struck with the same idea that Dershowitz was discussing, but I was coming to a different conclusion. I realized that he was spelling out in clear language that the word civilian no longer has meaning. Let me explain.

When I was introduced to US history, sometime about the sixth grade, I recall the teacher telling us that one of the reasons the colonists were able to fight against their militarily superior colonial masters was their willingness to fight them any way they could. The most dramatic example was that the English Army, conforming to the protocols of the day (now referred to as "rules of engagement") was decked out in red uniforms, hence the term "Redcoats." They made wonderful targets in the colonial landscape where ordinary citizens (Civilians?) could easily hide behind trees and bushes, wearing the equivalent of modern camouflage uniforms, working as snipers to pick them off one at a time.

Those old muskets were nowhere near as easy to use as today's repeating weapons. It took a long, dangerous amount of time to prepare for one shot, and without the right training, cover and coordination the shooter could be killed after a single shot before he could get the wadding in place for another one. Such were the trials and tribulations of our heroic Sons of Liberty.

I'm afraid these seductive images were playing out in my memory as I listened to the words of Alan Dershowitz being intoned by the talk show host. At some level he reminded me of a lector during the liturgy, reading from one of the Epistles. I almost expected him to conclude, "Here endeth the reading."

This morning I see the piece has inspired a lot of discussion. I see no reason to jump into what Fayrouz has so aptly terms this "dialogue of the deaf." My only reason for mentioning it this morning is to agree with a couple more observers with a better gift for language than I.

PZ Myers, who knows something about taxonomy, writes at Phyrangula, directing his readers to a couple other places, including Juan Cole, who in turn links to Billmon. This morning I don't have the time, energy or inclination to underscore the points these people are making.

If anyone can plow through these various reactions and come away with the notion that great populations of people can be won over (uh, different concept from defeated, by the way) by killing selective numbers of their friends, family and neighbors, I doubt that anything I write will penetrate that midset.

Hearts and minds, indeed.

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