« A day late and a 'thank you' short | Main | Photo Friday (Vol. LVII) ['Bit of Ass' edition] »

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Individual vs. Insitutional wrongdoing

One of the joys of living in Israel is listening to people engaging in daily discussions (OK, arguments) about the actions of those they support and those they oppose.  Not surprisingly those we support are granted generous latitude, while those we oppose are held to exacting standards and the letter of the law.

I am perfectly willing to admit that I am as guilty of this sort of bias as the next Israeli.

But the basic disconnect that turns this sort of personal prejudice into something quite dangerous is the unwillingness of many people to differentiate between lawbreakers who are private citizens and those who are government agents/representatives.

Last week several bloggers linked to a very troubling news story.  It was an account of a senior police commander whose car had been torched, apparently as retribution for his role in the violent Amona evacuation.  The interview with the officer made it clear that he was not rattled by the attack.  But the mention of his family brought home the fact that this was also an attack on this man's family and their very sense of security! 

One such post about this incident was titled (appropriately, in my opinion) 'Mafia Tactics'.   I agree 100% that for anyone to intimidate or exact private vengeance against a policeman (or anyone, for that matter) is both abhorrent and indefensible.

But last night I read an article about another senior police official who, instead of being the victim of a crime, is alleged to be the perpetrator.  He is charged with causing grievous bodily harm to a demonstrator. Witnesses claim this police commander ordered the officers under his command to "lethally hit and kill everyone", and then broke a man's jaw with his boot because this man dared to try and read the name tag of the officer who had issued such patently illegal orders.

I'll admit that both of these news stories trouble me immensely. 

Private citizens using vandalism and violence to intimidate and punish government officials (or anyone else) runs counter to everything in which I believe. By the same token, police and/or soldiers brutalizing and intimidating private citizens (with tacit government and public approval) is every bit as repugnant to me.

However, the thing that far too many people seem willing to ignore in all this is that there is a crystal clear legal and moral distinction between the illegal actions of private citizens (even groups of private citizens acting in concert) and the illegal actions of governmental agents. 

A private citizen represents only him/herself no matter how much he/she may look like a representative of a larger group.  This is why the war on terror is so damned difficult to wage.  Soldiers and police aren't allowed to just bludgeon or shoot anyone who looks like their mental image of a terrorist!   And because a soldier or policeman's authority flows from the government, when interacting with private individuals (legally or otherwise), their actions represent their chain of command... as well as the government for whom they work. 

When a policeman or soldier wounds or kills a civilian in any civilized country, his/her actions immediately come under institutional scrutiny.  Questions must be asked such as: 'What orders did the soldier/policeman receive?'  'Who issued those orders?'  'Were the orders within the scope and/or limits allowed by the law?'    If any of those question receive an unsatisfactory answer, then the entire system, not just the individual actor, is scrutinized upward to every level until no more responsibility can be assigned.

Conversely, when a private citizen attacks another citizen (including a soldier or policeman) they only legally represent themselves.  Because they lack the institutional protection provided to soldiers and police (meaning they can't be found blameless because they were following orders from others), they alone are liable for their actions.  Their guilt cannot automatically be spread among others who share the same political or religious sympathies... or physical proximity. 

This isn't to say that groups of private citizens who conspire to act criminally are immune from joint prosecution.  It simply means that one can't begin from the assumption that guilt is shared among an entire group.  Each criminal connection must be proved.

This refusal to differentiate between individual and institutional wrongdoing is what has had me on edge for quite some time. 

When a religious settler throws a potentially lethal brick at a policeman during a demonstration, far too many otherwise intelligent people in this country mentally respond by condoning collective punishment against all religious settlers who demonstrate (however peacefully) against the government and its representatives. 

But when soldiers or police exceed their authority and brutalize civilians, the same people will rush to justify the action as perfectly appropriate given the opponent... or try to suggest that if there were abuses, the wrongdoing was perpetrated by individuals... not the institution/government.

Someone who has never met me might be forgiven for looking at my plaid shirt... khaki pants... pistol stuffed into my waistband... kippah and beard... and making snap assumptions about my political leanings... my feeling about violence against authority... and my fealty to democratic values.   

A private citizen is allowed to make such assumptions about me because they are legally powerless to turn their feelings into any actions that might hurt me. 

But if the person making such assumptions wears a government uniform and turns those assumptions into a justification to abuse me... that person, as well as his/her superiors and the government agency he/she represents, are collectively answerable under the law.

I have never once sought to excuse or soft-pedal violence on the part of setters.  In fact the leadership of the settler movement has been consistently and outspokenly critical of any violent acts and/or incitement.  But legally such actions, no matter how repugnant, are the actions of individuals.

Yet there seems to be no corresponding official denunciation of police and/or military wrongdoing.  Whatever small measure of scrutiny such institutional wrongdoing receives typically only comes after much denial and justification.

The police and army cannot function in a democracy if they are perceive as being an instrument of one half the population against the other.  They cannot legally deal with religious settlers as a homogeneous enemy entity and mete out collective punishment against 'those people' as a group.  We may all look alike to outside eyes, but we are all still individual citizens with individual protection under the law.

If I see a settler raise his/her hand illegally against a uniformed representative of the government, I'll personally restrain them and even turn them in to the authorities.  But if I want to peacefully demonstrate while wearing my beard, kippah and plaid shirt, and a policeman is given the tacit backing of the government (and half the Israeli population) to bash in my skull, then democracy has failed.

One is an example of individual wrongdoing that requires stiff and unflinching individual punishment.  The other is a symptom of an institutional and systemic malignancy that must be aggressively purged from top to bottom.


Posted by David Bogner on February 23, 2006 | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Individual vs. Insitutional wrongdoing:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

what does a citizen do when faced with a governmental agency perpetrating abuse, when the supervisor, upper echelons of government and courts condo such action?

Posted by: dave | Feb 23, 2006 6:49:27 PM

(I first typed out a "from the gut" comment, about settler hypocrisy in condemning violence from one side of the mouth and supporting it from the other and "what is undemocratic is the use of scare tactics and threats to block governmental laws supported openly by a clear majority of MKs and the Israeli public (according to most polls but we'll wait until March 29 to talk about that).

But then I realized that most of you don't want to hear that and it would only cause trouble and it would not connect us all, which is what this country needs most right now.

So instead, I erased all that so you wouldn't have to hear it and started posting constructively, I hope.)

Maybe I am a dupe and I have fallen for, and continue to believe, Sharon's propaganda machine. But in politics (and in other areas of life), truth is only secondary to the perception of truth (that is a quote I heard once but I don't remember who it is from; anyone?). And it is clear that the perception of truth in the Center and Left camps that seem to make up the majority of the Israeli voting public is that the settler leadership supports violence as a tool to stopping future disengagements. And that the settler leadership couldn't give a darn about the will of the people (which is about to reaffirm their belief in disengagements by a wide margin).

We see leaders of the Ye"sh council and right wing MKs at every hafganah, spewing hatred ("Olmert is bad for the Jews" sure made those of who support his policies (supporting him is harder than supporting his policies, I assure you) feel like your Jewish brothers - not). We hear them screaming about police tactics but we never hear them utter a word about those living illegally or burning cars or collecting cinder blocks before demonstrations. We hear them using "undemocratic" at every opportunity but ignoring the fact that the Gaza Disengagement was passed by the Knesset and that polling shows wide support for Kadima's policies.

Maybe, as Treppenwitz claims, they are condemning violence and asking, unequivocally, that future demonstrations are peaceful. But we just don't hear it. And maybe they will all lie down peacefully when the next withdrawal is voted on by the Knesset and implemented. But we didn't see it in Gaza.

And maybe we are selectively deaf, biased and stupid sheep blindly following a comatose hero.

That all may be true. But it is the perception we will take with us to the voting booths at the end of March.

If I am falling for it (I've posted before about my ex-Right ways and my settler relatives and my kippah srugah and, I want to add now, I believe we made a mistake not transferring the Palestinians in '67 and '73 when we had chances and excuses) then you really can't blame those pre-biased, secular policemen faced by the fear (right or wrong) of attack?I don't think they, or The Government, thinks that they are beating up on poor innocent peace-loving hippies. I think they think they are fighting fire with fire.

The anti-disengagement camp and the settlers and the Right need to change their tactics. They need to get us to sympathize with them. That means clear, unequivocal obvious, on-the-side-of-buses statements that there will be no violence against policemen or soldiers. That means stopping their children from extremism (this is one tactic that really rubs us wrong). That means clear statements supporting Knesset votes. It means reminding us that you are heroes of the State by acting like heroes of the State.

Because if we all continue this polarized debate where only extreme views are held as valid then we will all lose. But those of us on the losing side of the population and the votes will lose the most.

Posted by: President, Kippot Srugot for Kadima | Feb 23, 2006 7:20:36 PM

... there is also the "boy who cried wolf" aspect to this story:

While the wrongdoing by the police officers was photographed and documented, we have no solid evidence as to who torched the car.

Given that the police tried to fudge the story of MK Eitam's injury just 2 weeks ago - a fudge that was only uncovered when a videotape of the entire event was replayed before the Knesset committee -
and given the known use of agents provacateurs in the past to besmirch the settler movement, we should proceed with skepticism.

I know your intentions are noble, but I am quite weary/wary of those in the settler camp who quickly jump to denounce/renounce at the merest whiff of rumor. It's definitely a misstep in the PR game.

Posted by: Ben-David | Feb 23, 2006 7:24:16 PM

This is increasingly troubling, and the most troubling part about it is that the law is appearing more and more ambiguous and amorphous. If people/government agents feel free to act in such a manner, it means the system of legal redress of grievances is not functioning properly, and neither is a system of checks and balances which keeps law from being abused by government agents. I just hope this doesn't spread any further. Obviously, it would be extremely naive to suggest depoliticizing the law altogether, but some steps need to be taken to make sure that everyone has a say in the legal process and there's no need for "independent action" of this sort. I am not familiar with Israeli legal system, nor who should do the oversight, considering how muddled politics tend to be in general, but perhaps people more familiar with the way it works, can make some constructive suggestions.

Posted by: Irina | Feb 23, 2006 8:35:39 PM

From where I sit I see an awful lot of fingerpointing from both sides.

It would be productive if there was more listening and less talk, but I don't expect to see that happen.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 23, 2006 9:03:12 PM

In fact the leadership of the settler movement has been consistently and outspokenly critical of any violent acts and/or incitement.

I'm far from a leftist, and it's unclear to me that the Yesha Council and all but the most moderate settler leadership have the slightest genuine concern about violence against Israelis, let alone against Palestinians. Sure, they make their perfunctory disclaimers, but until they make it crystal clear that the people and communities drivng the violence are persona non grata, it's meaningless to me.

None of which, of course, is an excuse for any police misconduct or the failure to investigate it.

Posted by: JSinger | Feb 23, 2006 10:34:40 PM

"When a religious settler throws a potentially lethal brick at a policeman during a demonstration, far too many otherwise intelligent people in this country mentally respond by condoning collective punishment against all religious settlers who demonstrate (however peacefully) against the government and its representatives."

I feel that that I am missing something (due to reading/listening to overseas news sources) when I read the above statement. In which way have religious settlers as a group been subjected to collective punishment for the actions of a few?

Posted by: Lisoosh | Feb 23, 2006 11:39:30 PM


Uh, like at ...... Amona. Have you bothered to look at the videos or read the statements of the kids who report just sitting down waiting for the police and they were struck, kicked and stepped on as if they were brick throwers? Granted some kids on the roofs threw some stuff. I think Davids point is that this in no way gave the goons ...er .... police license to go after ever kid there with deadly force.

in general: It looks to me, from this distance, given these comments, like Israelis are generally a people who can accept, for political reasons, state instituted extreme violence against children. What's next? Just shoot them in the streets?

Posted by: Scott | Feb 24, 2006 4:39:46 AM

Treppenwitz - Well written I thought. While I know you don't need anyone's approval, I figure you are curious what people think when they read your works.

Posted by: Seattle | Feb 24, 2006 6:55:55 AM

Quote from Scott: "Israelis are generally a people who can accept, for political reasons, state instituted extreme violence against children."

First of all, you haven't been watching the news over the past few decades if you think a few smacks with a baton is "extreme violence". See what they do to demonstrators in Africa, China, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan and other places and then talk about extreme violence.

Second of all, none of the violence against children has been "state instituted". Whether it be against Palestinian children throwing gasoline bombs or settler children throwing unknown (from the viewpoint of the cop) substances, it was in self defense. Now, we can all criticize the level of froce used in such self defense and whether it was reasonable in light of the circumstances, but we won't know since we weren't there.

Posted by: President, Kippot Srugot for Kadima | Feb 24, 2006 8:24:30 AM

I knew if I left the comments open people would ignore the central issue of individual vs. institutional wrongdoing and use it as a springboard for their own agendas... and I was right.

President... You seem like a very bright guy and I would hate to lose you as a reader or commenter. But you are so deep in denial about certain things that I'm going to have to ask you to just take a break from treppenwitz for a while.

First of all, I don't give a rat's ass what happens in Africa or China. Is that really the standard to which you hold the Israeli government?

And as for "Whether it be against Palestinian children throwing gasoline bombs or settler children throwing unknown (from the viewpoint of the cop) substances, it was in self defense." Are you rocked in the head? Again with the acid libels????? I can't remember EVER hearing such a bone-headed blanket statement in my life!

And to your parting shot of "Now, we can all criticize the level of froce[sic] used in such self defense and whether it was reasonable in light of the circumstances, but we won't know since we weren't there.".. I've watched the film of the entire incident from beginning to end. I've spoken with people who WERE ACTUALLY THERE! The police in Amona came out and used inappropriate and illegal force against the settlers... and no amount of equivocating will change that.

I am so angry right now that someone so intelligent could be so willingly obtuse about such a basic aspect of democracy. Your distaste for the settlers has tainted every last trace of your common sense and I would respectfully ask that you take your wisdom somewhere else for a while.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 24, 2006 8:42:37 AM

Got it. I thought this was an open forum where everyone is heard. But I guess the viewpoint of 2/3 of the Israeli electorate is based on denial and therefore not worth listening to. That is why the Right has become the minority.

Posted by: President, Kippot Srugot for Kadima | Feb 24, 2006 9:55:52 AM

Gee, for once it wasn't ME gettin yelled at.

I've plumbed the recesses of my mind (shallow as it may be) and I can't come up with the smallest shred of an excuse for what those govt. agents did to those kids.

Posted by: Scott | Feb 24, 2006 10:25:41 AM

President... 2/3 if you're not very good at math. The split between those who support the settlers and those who appose them is actually pretty closely matched. And yes, while this is a place where people can express themselves freely, I get to chose the topics. If every time I post about anything political you take it as an invitation to lie, exaggerate and vilify... well, I've already told you what I think.

Scott... Don't take this as an invitation to act up. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 24, 2006 10:55:28 AM

Last comment: if you re-read my comments you will see that I was doing my best to talk about how others |(leftists, centrists and policemen) perceive the Right, not about the actual facts.

I was asking you to ask yourself: "why are we perceived this way and are our current actions helping or hurting us in light of the way the political winds are blowing?"

Only then, to paraphrase my first comment to this post, will middle israel be reminded by your actions as heroes of the State that you are heroes of the State.

Posted by: President, Kippot Srugot for Kadima | Feb 24, 2006 1:04:43 PM

I knew if I left the comments open people would ignore the central issue of individual vs. institutional wrongdoing and use it as a springboard for their own agendas... and I was right.

The point is that organized settler mayhem *is* institutional. The nut who threw his dog out the window a few days ago is a case of individual wrongdoing, not Amona.

Posted by: JSinger | Feb 24, 2006 5:49:53 PM

President... And that's where you stepped in it. My post wasn't about perceptions, it was about the law. Private citizens represent only themselves. Police and army represent the government... even when acting against orders or illegally.

jsinger... Like president, you have taken it upon yourself to ignore my post and spew wrong-headed crap to further your own agenda. First of all, I think you are using the term 'institutional' in place of 'systemic'. I used the term institutional to describe a government institution where individual acts still legally reflect on all members of the same group.

But even if you had not experienced vocabulary trouble, you would still be dead wrong. The disengagement from Gaza and all the associated demonstrations went off with almost no violent incidents. Those incidents that did take place were loudly denounced by the settler leadership and placed under a microscope by the press. If you were willing to look at the number of people who took part in demonstrations and the actual disengagement vs. the number of actual documented acts of violence, you would come up with a tiny percentage... far from systemic (or institutional). The government and the press has painted a picture of settlers as dangerous/violent that has no basis in reality. Isolated incidents are not how one determines the nature of an entire group... unless one is predisposed to bigotry.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 25, 2006 11:28:09 PM

not to make a comment that seems a little out of place, given the weight of the discussion at hand, but i like how you nonchalantly slipped into your description of your appearance the part about the "pistol stuffed into" your "wasteband"...not many people can pull off writing that description as you have. as always, you rock!!!

Posted by: tnspr569 | Feb 26, 2006 7:17:32 AM

tnspr569... Trust me when I tell you it loses a lot of its coolness when you have to wear this uncomfortable hunk of metal on your belt all the time. I would much rather do without.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 26, 2006 10:16:53 PM

I'm not saying it's cool or anything like that. I wasn't even aware of the fact that you wore it all the time. Is it required of you as a member of your local security force (wrong term, I know...)? I was saying you rock just in general- I didn't think that you liked that part of the description upon which I commented.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Feb 27, 2006 12:15:10 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.