In 1977, the American Nazi party's application for a permit to march through the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Skokie, Illinois resulted in a court case regarding American First Amendment constitutional rights. The issue revolved around whether the march was simply a public voicing of an opinion -- which would be protected under these First Amendment rights -- or, especially given the fact that over 15 per cent of the Jewish population in Skokie were Holocaust survivors, whether it would legally be "fighting words," a public expression intended to incite violence -- which would not be protected under the Constitution. The case eventually went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States with the ACLU, along the way, becoming involved in the process, arguing on behalf of the Nazis' right to March.
I remember, as the case wound its way through the courts, watching a press conference with some leaders of the Nazi party and their ACLU lawyer. At this conference, a reporter asked one of the Nazis how he and his party could cite such rights as freedom of speech in their own defence when the Nazi party doesn't really believe that such a right should be honoured in society.
The Nazi responded that he indeed did not believe in such a right but then added something to the effect that if the Unites States was stupid enough to extend such a right to him, he would be stupid not to apply it for his benefit regardless of what he thought of it. This answer stayed with me, as did the mocking tone of this individual. The Nazi effectively laughed: 'No, I don't share your values but if you're foolish enough to let me use them for my benefit, I'll be very happy to take advantage of you and use them.'
Watching this press conference had two effects upon me. Personally, it caused me to demand consistency within myself in my values. I felt very strongly that whatever value position I adopted, if it served my interests I must also ensure that I prima facie adopt it when it does not serve my interests as well. The thought of being like this Nazi became a conscious concern of mine. Often, when I lecture on values, I apply this case to challenge my audiences in the same manner. "Do you want to be like this Nazi?" I ask, stressing that if you support a value in one case because it serves your interest, you must also meet the challenge of supporting it when it does not meet your interests.
The second effect this press conference had upon me was to make me sensitive to individuals who are like this Nazi and who use values solely in their interest without a true commitment. This raises a dilemma for any thinking person -- but it is a dilemma of which we must be aware. Should the right of freedom of speech be extended to one who does not accept this value in the first place?
I am not saying that it should not. I am not saying that it was wrong to apply the value of freedom of speech to these Nazis who did not accept this value. What I do believe, though, is that it is important to understand the dilemma that we face in extending this value to such individuals who reject this value. What I do believe is that, in such cases, we must recognize the inherent mockery to which we can be subjected and apply this recognition in our exploration and analysis of the situation.
It is in this regard that I also experience similar difficulties when I hear a representative of Hamas critiquing Israel regarding the death of civilians. The very basis of terrorism is the idea that causing the loss of civilian life is an acceptable means by which to achieve a goal in a conflict. It is for this reason that Hamas fires rockets into civilian population centres in Israel, for whatever damage the rockets cause -- whatever terror, fear, they can generate -- is deemed to be, by them, a legitimate weapon of conflict.
I, thus, find it problematic hearing a Hamas representative using a concern for non-combatant citizens to criticize Israel. By definition, in being a member of a terrorist organization and, thus, in promoting the firing of rockets indiscriminately into civilian population centres, such an individual has already declared that he/she does not believe in a value of not attacking non-combatant civilians, including women and children.
Such a person then applying this value, which he/she does not accept, in his/her own interest, I find to be a mocking of that value -- just as that Nazi mocked American First Amendment values in regard to Skokie. If there is a problem with civilian deaths, then, how could Hamas advocate terrorism and rockets in the first place?
This is not a challenge to all who critique Israel in regard to the civilian deaths. Those who censure Hamas for attempting to cause, and causing Israeli civilian deaths -- and thus maintain a value in the avoidance of civilian casualties -- have a standing in questioning Israel in the same manner.
There is, of course, still a big difference between Hamas and Israel, for Israel only causes such casualties in the protection of its own civilians and, even then, with reluctance, hesitation and an attempt to avoid such casualties (even at the risk of its own soldiers).
My issue, though, is the mocking of the value of human life -- and this, I believe, occurs when one who does not believe in this value then uses it when it serves his/her purposes. If you don't believe in the value of human life, don't start advocating for this value when it serves your interests. You are only thereby mocking those who actually do value human life.
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