Today we had a long conversation with a representative of Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is a really interesting organization and I plan to say more about it as time goes on, but I wanted to highlight one specific element of the representative's presentation.
During the course of our talk with him, the representative played a leaked video clip taken at a West Bank checkpoint. You can watch it yourself:
If you choose not to watch it, I'll briefly summarize the content: the video basically follows a team of IDF soldiers at a West Bank checkpoint. During the course of the video, IDF soldiers beat several Palestinian men who fail to cooperate with their orders. The video also contains interviews with the soldiers, who basically admit that they feel they need to abuse Palestinians at the checkpoint because they're scared and they believe that asserting their dominance through physical force will ensure their safety. At the end of the video, a title card reveals that upon the leak of the video, the ringleader of the abuse was court-martialed and sentenced to jail time. However, many members of his unit signed an open letter arguing that such abusive behavior was common at checkpoints, and that the ringleader was being scapegoated.
When I saw this video, I saw more than just IDF soldiers: I saw Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, Michael Slager, and Eric Casebolt (unfortunately, this list could be much longer). What happened at this checkpoint is somewhat similar to the phenomena underlying police abuse in the U.S., right? The abuse occurred in the context of a society that has demonized a certain population for generations, labeling members of that population violent, crime-prone, and uncivilized. (Relatively) young people then join a military or quasi-military police force. Their training emphasizes the mortal risks of their work and (probably implicitly) the inhumanity of many of the people they'll meet on a daily basis, but doesn't provide equivalent training in cultural competency, deescalation, etc (most of my basis for my argument about IDF training comes from my conversation with the Breaking the Silence rep; for a good discussion about the "warrior mentality" among police in the U.S., check out this article in the Harvard Law Review). These people are then given guns, a small share of the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and are sent out into the communities they're taught to fear, often alone or in small groups of other equally fearful people. Is it any wonder that the response is abuse and violence?
I think police accountability in the United States is a huge issue, and I think the country would probably be better off if more individual police officers were held criminally accountable in the event of violent misconduct. I know less about oversight of IDF soldiers operating in the territories, but I see no reason why that principle shouldn't hold true in this context, as well. Nevertheless, I'm not sure that exclusively holding individual officials accountable for their misdeeds while ignoring systemic responsibility is either just or productive. Both Americans and Israelis have created social and political structures that put police officers and soldiers, respectively, into situations where they're likely to fail at their jobs in a way that results in horrible violence and abuse. When this comes to light, we often respond by scapegoating the individuals responsible (when we do anything) instead of using these incidents as an opportunity for introspection about the types of societies we've created.
After the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that "This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended." I think this is an idea that both Americans and Israelis should take seriously.