Killing by Remote Control: The Bulldozing of Morality

by Kim Petersen

Dissident Voice
November 10, 2003


In March, the courageous American volunteer Rachel Corrie, while serving in Gaza Strip, became the first American murdered by a made-in-the-US bulldozer driven by Israeli occupation forces. (1) This is soon to become less likely to reoccur but for reasons other than compassionate-minded folks would hope for. Reuters reported recently that Israel would soon be deploying remote-controlled bulldozers. (2) The remote-control technology for the massive bulldozers supposedly addresses an Israeli concern for the safety of the "indomitable drivers." Israelis have been using bulldozers to flatten the homes of Palestinians and on too many occasions the people inside the homes.


In cognizance of international law, according to the Israeli High Court, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes has the status of a judicially-sanctified war crime. (3) It is a ruling contrary to international law. In Article 52 of the Geneva Conventions it states clearly: "Civilian objects shall not be the object of attack or of reprisals." Article 57 requires the Occupiers to: "Take all feasible precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects." The use of US-made Caterpillar bulldozers to perpetrate war crimes is also a violation of US law contemptibly overlooked by US government officials.


Caterpillar also bears culpability for exporting its product to Israel with foreknowledge that its bulldozers are used to demolish the homes of Palestinian civilians. Nonetheless, it declares in its statement on social responsibility that "it firmly adhere[s] to ethical business practices." With its "high ethical standards for conducting business," Caterpillar risibly claims "to improve the lives of our neighbors around the world." *


Inducing people to war


Nazi war criminal Herman Göring echoed military philosopher Carl Von Clausewitz’s maxim that war is an extension of politics. Despite the average person’s opposition to war, Mr. Göring maintained that this could be easily overcome by whipping up fear and patriotism in the populace.


One can hardly construe the military-lopsidedness between Israel and Occupied Palestine as a war. Indeed, Palestine doesn’t even have a military. This unevenness dwarfs that on the Iraqi battlefield that pits the Iraqi resistance against two aggressor UN Security Council members. Yet Mr. Göring’s words ring true. The Israeli state has striven to dehumanize the Palestinians and with the stripping away of Palestinian dignity the Israeli state apparatus has run roughshod over international law and Jewish history.


Normally most humans couldn’t fathom taking the life of another human and normally most humans wouldn’t want to place their lives in jeopardy to kill other humans. Certain psychological manipulations are employed to induce humans to overcome their aversion to killing and being killed.


Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance


Cognitive dissonance, first expounded by Stanford University social psychologist Leon Festinger, refers to the incongruency between behavior and belief. To the extent that behavior is contrary to one’s belief system, that individual will experience discomfort. The greater the discord between action and belief the greater the distress felt. According to Mr. Festinger, to avoid that distress the individual will attempt either: to restrict information to that which reinforces his or her conduct; to seek the reassurance of others; or to justify the behavior and change attitude(s) correspondingly.


One method by which the Israeli Occupation Forces attempts to overcome the cognitive dissonance of the fighters is through troop camaraderie. Each unit member should also internalize the Israeli regime’s declamation that they are defending a 3000-year-old land claim to Biblical Israel as well as accept the demagoguery of the high command, which depicts Palestinian areas as hornet nests of terrorism.


Obedience to Authority


Convicted Nazi-war criminal Adolf Eichmann was executed for his complicity in the insanity of the Jewish holocaust. He averred that he was only doing what any military man does: following orders. Writer Walter Goodman ridiculed Mr. Eichmann as "a paltry killer by remote control." (4)


Psychologist Stanley Milgram designed an experiment to study people’s obedience to authority. In Mr. Milgram’s experiment one subject, the Teacher, upon direction from the experimenter clad in a white laboratory coat, was required to administer a shock in successively higher voltages to another subject, the Learner, whenever the Learner made a mistake. Despite inducing a palpable discomfort in a number of the subjects, most of the Teachers in the experiment would administer shocks to the Learner until the final warning marked XXX which was preceded by another warning indicating “Danger: Severe Shock.” This was interpreted as evidence of obedience to authoritarian figures. The experiment has been replicated across cultures and gender under varying conditions.


Mr. Milgram concludes: "For many people, obedience is a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed a potent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy, and moral conduct." (5)


Mr. Milgram downplayed the role of sadism in his findings. He harkened back to the writing of Hannah Arendt on the trial of Mr. Eichmann:


Arendt contended that the prosecution’s effort to depict Eichmann as a sadistic monster was fundamentally wrong, that he came closer to being an uninspired bureaucrat who simply sat at his desk and did his job. For asserting her views, Arendt became the object of considerable scorn, even calumny. Somehow, it was felt that the monstrous deeds carried out by Eichmann required a brutal, twisted personality, evil incarnate. After witnessing hundreds of ordinary persons submit to the authority in our own experiments, I must conclude that Arendt’s conception of the banality of evil comes closer to the truth than one might dare imagine. The ordinary person who shocked the victim did so out of a sense of obligation -- an impression of his duties as a subject -- and not from any peculiarly aggressive tendencies.


One Teacher who administered shocks to the maximum level in the experiment remarked, "What appalled me was that I could possess this capacity for obedience and compliance to a central idea, i.e., the adherence to this value was at the expense of violation of another value, i.e., don’t hurt someone who is helpless and not hurting you."


Mr. Milgram maintains that morality has not vanished but has been displaced. A diffusion of responsibility has allayed any extreme discomfort felt by subjects. Says Mr. Milgram:


The essence of obedience is that a person comes to view himself as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and he therefore no longer regards himself as responsible for his actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred, all of the essential features of obedience follow. The most far-reaching consequence is that the person feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear -- it acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by authority.


In other words, for many of us, morality is subordinate to our obedience to an authority figure.


Zionism and the Moral Dilemma of the Jewish People


Mr. Milgram notes that the further the subject could dissociate him or herself from the direct task of administering a shock, the likelier would be the co-operation with the experimenter. Likewise, the safety of the bulldozer drivers would also have the additional military advantage of distancing the driver from the in-the-face reality concomitant with the destruction of someone's home and any occupants inside. That the bulldozer, a despised symbol of the Israeli occupation, has become a long distance instrument of destruction is hardly surprising. It is part-and-parcel of the direction in military technology, a direction which places the human combatant as far from the violence as possible. Implicitly this human is no longer a combatant in the traditional sense of the word. To label those who serve in such a proxy function as fighters, combatants, or soldiers demeans those who risk their lives on the field of combat.


While the distancing of the killers from their carnage may spare them psychological grief, such a development eases the taking of human life and herein is the great danger. The relentless advance of military technology threatens to turn us all into "paltry killer[s] by remote control."


The bulldozing of homes becomes equivalent to the cowardly launching of missiles from US-made Apache helicopters. The erstwhile fighters are relegated by technology to joystick-wielding poltroons. This technological thrust of militarization poses grave questions for the future of mankind. Scenarios of a Frankenstein arise; one scenario might envision a citizenry completely detached both physically and psychologically from the ramifications of warfare. It may be that a future Orwellian war is waged as a virtual reality -- the effects of which might not be simulated.


Israel attempts to rationalize the egregious war crimes it inflicts on the dispossessed Palestinians. Yet, notwithstanding the verisimilitude of Mr. Milgram’s hypothesis of a shift in the focus of morality, the essence of morality still remains.


Lawrence Kohlberg was a Harvard University developmental psychologist who sought to assess moral development. He developed a continuum composed of three levels with six stages. He theorized that the orientation to law, order, and authority reflects a middle or conventional level of morality. Most people don’t make it past this level according to Mr. Kohlberg. Post-conventional morality represents a higher level of moral reasoning that rejects unquestioning obedience to authority with an emphasis on rationally-based principles. The highest stage of Mr. Kohlberg’s theory is that of universal principles guided by conscience. It is a stage to which all humans should aspire.


Elementary morality states that all people must apply equally the same level of morality to themselves as they do to others.


That a people who survived the Nazi ouster and genocide should, with the backing of empire, pervert its own history through the expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian people and inflict penury, humiliation, and a slow-motion genocide on the remaining Palestinians speaks volumes to immorality. The insidious agenda of many Zionist Jews has tainted the entire Jewish nation such that it is now invites comparisons to Nazi Germany.


Those who dare to speak out against the state of Israel’s war crimes are attacked vociferously with, what is now through frequent misuse, the bedraggled epithet of anti-Semitism. This is patently absurd. Not only that it is intellectually inane. To label opponents of Israeli apartheid and racism as anti-Semites is to engage in ad hominem attack, the wicked purpose of which is to deflect attention away from war crimes.


The occupation of Palestine characterizes the subornation of Israelis by a scofflaw government.


Yet the Jewish people are not monolithic. Various Jewish groups and citizens do reject the evil occupation. Conscience does come to the fore. Importantly, a growing number of brave Israelis are now refusing to serve in Occupied Palestine. The Zionist state has come down hard on this new generation of moral leaders in Israel. These refuseniks, as they have become known, are honored by the words of the renowned physicist Albert Einstein who was alarmed by the seeds of destruction he recognized in the Israeli state. Mr. Einstein saw salvation in people like the refuseniks.


Said Mr. Einstein: "The pioneers of a warless world are the young men (and women) who refuse military service."


Kim Petersen lives in Nova Scotia and is a regular contributor to Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk


Related Articles and Resources


* The group Jewish Voice for Peace has a website that seeks corporate responsibility from Caterpillar: http://www.catdestroyshomes.org/ 


* A joint campaign of Progressive Portal and Jewish Voice for Peace that sends letters to the Caterpillar board of directors holding Caterpillar accountable for the criminal use of its products by the Israeli army. The aim is to get Caterpillar to stop selling bulldozers to Israel:



** "Upholding our Reputation for Integrity": Caterpillar and Israeli War Crimes by Neve Gordon


** The Meaning of Rachel Corrie by Edward Said



Other Recent Articles by Kim Petersen


* Not Getting It: The Mind of Thomas Friedman

* Thermogeddon: Canada Thaws

* Scaremongering Against Muslims, The Importance of Reading, and Media Titillation

* Japan’s Dark Side

* Biometric Boondoggle: Canada Wastes Big Bucks to Bring “Civil Libertarian” Alan Dershowitz to Stump for National ID Cards

* Recalcitrance and Exasperation

* CBC and the Dearth of Political Issues

* Stretching Credulity

* Dispelling the Orwellian Spin: The Real Foreign Terrorists

* Salmon Propaganda

* The Broken Iron Rice Bowl

* China, Neoliberalism, and the WTO

* An Act of Cowardice that Must Surely be Unrivalled in History: Challenging the   Assumption of Valour

* The Buck Stops Here or Does It?

* US and Them

* Superpower in Suspended Animation

* Scarcely a Peep in Mainland China

* Verifying the Evidence

* Pulp Fiction at the New York Times: Fawning at the Feet of Mammon

* Hoodwinked?

* Canadian Predation in Africa





(1) Steve Niva, "Rachel Corrie, Nuha Sweidan and Israeli War Crimes," Dissident Voice, 18 March 2003: http://www.dissidentvoice.org/Articles2/Niva_Corrie-Sweidan.htm 


(2) Corrie Heller, "Israel to get remote-control bulldozers -- institute," Reuters, 31 October 2003: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L31286741.htm 


(3) Jeff Halper, "The Message of the Bulldozer," Media Monitor Network, 12 August 2002: http://www.mediamonitors.net/halper11.html 


(4) Walter Goodman, "Crime and Punishment: The Trial of Eichmann," New York Times, 30 April 1997. Available on the University of Pennsylvania Department of English website: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/eichmann-tv.html 


(5) Stanley Milgram, "The Perils of Obedience," Harper’s Magazine, 1974. Available on think - truth/wisdom unabashed website: http://home.swbell.net/revscat/perilsOfObedience.htm 





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