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Sniper’s War and Anti-Terrorist Terrorism

“Better ways must be found to deal with such confrontations.”

IDF soldiers hold their weapons

(Photo: Israel Defense Forces/flickr/cc)

Have you ever been sniped at – a bullet “cracking” as it just misses you? Probably not, unless you’re ex-Army or Marines, a grunt fighting on foot, like my friend Ben Whitney (a pseudonym), a Vietnam vet and professor of history who has good reasons for wanting our joint piece to appear under my name only.

Snipers play an important, but not unproblematized, part in formal warfare, where trained soldiers are fighting one another. But using snipers to control situations where civilians are protesting, demonstrating, even rioting, as in Gaza last month where Israeli snipers fired upon Palestinian civilians participating in the “Great March of the Return,” raises serious moral issues that we all need to work through with our minds and our hearts.

What we are discussing here is a kind of organized terrorism that is not confined to any one nation or to any single trouble spot in the world. The movie “Detroit” centers on sniper fire upon police and National Guradsmen during the Detroit race riot of July, 1967. In the city of Austin in February, 2015, an estranged husband was shot and killed by a sniper while allegedly pointing a rifle at a police helicopter dispatched to circle and monitor the scene. To some it seemed an excessive use of force. The 27-year-old man, named Sawyer Flache, had hurt no one and had no history of any violent behavior.

Many soldiers appreciate the talents of a Chris Kyle, America’s sniper, who won accolades for his stories of racking up more than a hundred “kills” in Iraq. But chances are some don’t, especially if, like Ben Whitney, they’ve narrowly escaped a sniper’s bullet. Put yourselves where they have been. Feel how cold-bloodedly unpredictable, yet personal it is. The sniper peers through his scope and calculates, “Not that one, no, not him – yes, HIM” and squeezes the trigger. By delivering death, sudden, silent and random, snipers instill fear and anxiety into the enemy. They bring terror. Read Iraq War vet Brian Turner’s now classic poem “Here, Bullet” (2005) and you’ll get the sniper’s message: “…here, Bullet, here is where the world ends, every time.”

Snipers, shooting at trained soldiers like themselves, are part of modern warfare. But what about Israeli snipers shooting at desperate crowds of Palestinian civilians, at best armed with rocks and sling-shots?

Such actions would be regarded as unlawful in United States military circles and provoke public outcry. Our national reaction to the Kent State shootings (four dead and nine wounded civilians) on May 4, 1970 is still alive and unresolved fifty years later. The complex judicial issues, federal and civil, played out over nine years and reached no clearer moral or legal directives than this: “Better ways must be found to deal with such confrontations.” A U.S. District Court judge, while acquitting eight former guardsmen, strongly cautioned: “It is vital that state and National Guard officials not regard this decision as authorizing or approving the use of force against demonstrators, whatever the occasion or the issue involved.”

Even Chris Kyle noted that “the fact that an Iraqi had a gun would not necessarily mean he could be shot,” adding “make an unjustified shot and you could be charged with murder” (read American Sniper [2012], pages 170-71). But Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the state of Israel have long chosen not to be bound by such civilized restraints, as their army and state maintain the right to defend themselves and their borders against unarmed demonstrators across a buffer zone three football fields (300 meters) away.

The IDF have used tactics and weapons of formal warfare against civilians before, including cluster bombs dropped on Lebanon, fuel-air bombs dropped on Gaza, and bee-hive rounds. The lopsided box-score recently from Gaza reads Israeli snipers 112 dead (men, women and children) – Palestinian slingers 1 (one injured Israeli soldier).

Israel, as the occupying force in Gaza, should adhere to the international laws of war regarding the legal treatment and protection afforded civilians. Read the Geneva Conventions and Protocols regarding the use of weapons of war among a civilian population. They prohibit the use of battlefield weapons against women and children in particular, and civilians broadly. But, Israel continues to use snipers against the weakest of targets.

As the United Nations Human Rights council has voted (Friday, May 18th) for an inquiry into the use of disproportionate force in Gaza, it would be helpful to remember the one clear lesson of Kent State: “Better ways must be found to deal with such confrontations.” Kids with sling-shots and stones will never be a match for snipers and their rifles. And but for chance’s strange arithmetic, as unforeseeable as a sniper’s bullet, the kids in Gaza could be any of our kids.

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Tom Palaima

Tom Palaima, a MacArthur fellow and professor of Classics at University of Texas at Austin, has long taught and written about the human  experience of war and violence.

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