Earlier this month, Representative Ilhan Omar, one of only three Muslim members of the US House and member of the progressive “squad”, once again found herself under the political spotlight after asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken a fair and simple question about the US’s persistent opposition to International Criminal Court (ICC) inquiries into alleged war crimes in Israel and Afghanistan.
At a virtual hearing on June 7, she said “We have seen unthinkable atrocities committed by the US, Hamas, Israel, Afghanistan, and the Taliban,” and asked Blinken where the victims of these crimes should seek justice, if not at the ICC.
While she had merely stated a fact – atrocities committed not only by Hamas and the Taliban but also the US and Israel are well documented – her comments enraged many of her colleagues in Congress.
She has been accused of being “anti-Semitic” and “un-American” – baseless charges she repeatedly faced since the beginning of her tenure in Congress for speaking up for Palestinians and criticising US foreign policy strategies. Moreover, she has been condemned for allegedly “equating the United States and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban.”
While these attacks, like many others before them, were primarily aimed at silencing Omar and her criticism of Israel and the US, they also had another purpose: preventing people, including members of Congress, from questioning the deeply entrenched belief that all state violence is inherently legitimate, while violence perpetrated by non-state actors is inherently criminal or terroristic.
This belief ensures that violence by state actors remains categorically incomparable to other forms of violence, and most importantly, beyond moral reproach.
By publicly acknowledging that not only Hamas and the Taliban but also the US and Israel have committed “unthinkable atrocities”, Omar created an opportunity for the legitimacy of state violence to be questioned, and hence found herself at the receiving end of attacks by politicians who are heavily invested in preserving the status quo.
The recent controversy surrounding Omar’s statement was not the first instance where the argument of “false moral equivalence” was used by state actors to avoid accountability. For years, politicians from the US, Israel, and beyond tried to shield themselves and their countries from scrutiny by claiming violence by state actors should never be compared to violence by “terrorist entities”.
But what actually makes state violence more moral or more legitimate than non-state actor violence beyond the assertion by powerful people that this is a fact? In light of persistent claims that there can be no moral equivalence between state actions and acts of terrorism, it is important to ask what moral equivalence is, exactly, and what would make two types of violence morally equivalent.
To determine whether there can be moral equivalence between two things, first, it should be determined whether those two things can indeed be empirically compared using a set of variables applicable to both.
When it comes to state and non-state violence, we can readily identify specific points of comparison against which each form of violence can be weighed. We might, for example, use the following criteria to ascertain whether violence perpetrated by states can be legitimately compared with the violence perpetrated by non-state actors:
- The intended target of violence
- The rationale for violence
- The number of civilian casualties
When compared using these criteria – and there are many others that can be used for the same purpose – it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that there can be no comparison or moral equivalence between the violent actions of state actors like Israel and the US, and non-state entities like Hamas and the Taliban.
Nevertheless, state actors persistently refuse to point to specific criteria for comparison when they claim there can categorically be no “moral equivalence” between their actions and those of their non-state adversaries. And for good reason.
By ensuring that there are no set criteria to compare these two types of violence, they guarantee that they would not face scrutiny from or be censured by the international community when they indiscriminately kill, maim and torture civilians to further their interests and protect their hegemony – after all, how can a logical equivalence be made between two sides when there are no set criteria for comparison?
The US has enacted deeply unconstitutional policies, justified tactics that inevitably led to abuse, and ultimately killed millions of Muslim civilians in the course of its so-called “war on terror”. But it faced no censure or condemnation from the international community – the victims of this war were denied justice because they were killed by a state supposedly exercising its legitimate power, not a “terrorist entity”.
And this is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the rhetorical tactic of categorically denying any possibility of moral equivalency between state and non-state violence. It leads to the value of victims’ lives being determined by the status of the actor that killed or injured them – those killed by “terrorists” deserve justice, but those killed by states are merely footnotes in history.
This is why Israel’s violent actions and policies against Palestinians, which resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and immeasurable human suffering over the years, are seen by many as more morally acceptable than Hamas’ significantly less consequential “terrorist attacks” on Israel.
Those who accused Representative Omar of “falsely equating the US and Israel to Hamas and the Taliban”, wanted to silence her criticism of the US and Israel.
But in the process, they inadvertently opened the door for empirical comparisons to be made between violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors. While such comparisons – made using well-defined, standardised, and logical criteria – can help provide some justice to many victims of state violence, they will also likely help prove the point that there is no moral equivalence between the violence of the US and Israel and that of terror groups.
Indeed, the violence of Israel and the US is unique – it is unfettered, unchecked, unlimited in scope, and incomparable in death and destruction.
There is no moral equivalence.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.