Sometimes a word in headlines becomes so incendiary that it’s hard to keep the reader reaction to it in proportion.
In that sentence, the word proportion — from the Latin pro portione, “according to each part” — can mean “balance, symmetry, corresponding in magnitude or intensity.” But “corresponding” is not the same as “equivalent”; rather, the noun and adjective proportional deals with the relationship among parts. As used in today’s headlines and polemics, it carries a special sense of “not excessive.”
The warfare was started last month by the terrorist group Hezbollah, “the party of God,” which crossed the Lebanese border to kill three Israeli soldiers and seize two as hostages, accompanied by missile attacks on Israeli towns from launching sites often inside Lebanese villages. This attack, widely considered “unprovoked,” provoked a fierce military reaction from Israel. The ensuing counterattack — aerial and artillery bombardment of suspected terrorist positions, missile launching sites as well as Lebanese sea and air supply lines and power stations — not only infuriated the Arab “street” but also raised ethical and diplomatic questions. It opened a controversy centered on a word, and that limited field is the subject of this language column.
With the world’s newspapers and TV screens filled with pictures of subsequent widespread Lebanese civilian suffering and deaths, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations declared that the airstrikes at bridges and power stations, which Israel explained was to interdict the flow of ammunition and communication to the terrorists, was “a disproportionate use of force.” In The Washington Post, under an “It’s Disproportionate” headline, the columnist Eugene Robinson viewed the response as “collective punishment” and wrote: “Of course Israel has the right to defend itself against Hezbollah’s rocket attacks. But how can this utterly disproportionate, seemingly indiscriminate carnage be anything but counterproductive?”
In an adjoining column, Richard Cohen countered that for Israel, “proportionality is madness.. . .It is not good enough to take out this or that missile battery. It is necessary to re-establish deterrence: you slap me, I will punch out your lights.” Next day in The Post, under a “Disproportionate in What Moral Universe?” headline, the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote: “The word that obviates all thinking and magically inverts victim into aggressor is ‘disproportionate.’. . .When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again.”
From these usages, it is evident that the current meaning of disproportionate in this legal/diplomatic context is not “asymmetrical, unbalanced,” which aims to state an objective fact, but is “excessive, uncalled for,” which makes a subjective judgment. But that meaning raises the question: “excessive” in relation to what? (I’m a pro-Israel hawk but here in On Language am determined to stick to semantics.)
In a backgrounder distributed a few weeks ago by the Council on Foreign Relations, one of its staff writers, Lionel Beehner, explained that a doctrine of proportionality, originating in the 1907 Hague conventions, holds “that a state is legally allowed to unilaterally defend itself and right a wrong provided the response is proportional to the injury suffered. The response must also be immediate and necessary, refrain from targeting civilians and require only enough force to reinstate the status quo ante. That said, experts say the proportionality principle is open to interpretation and depends on the context.” In the present case, a tit-for-tat limitation would deal only with a specific provocation and not an underlying, continuing threat.
The council writer, in noting that proportionality is open to interpretation, quotes Michael Newton, professor of law at Vanderbilt University: “It’s always a subjective test, but if someone punches you in the nose, you don’t burn their house down.”
That was an unexpectedly colorful figure of speech from a lawyer; my researcher, Aaron Britt (who’s leaving D.C. for San Francisco, and I’m looking for his successor), tracked Newton, an international criminal-law expert, to Baghdad, where he is finishing a stint as adviser to the Iraqi tribunal trying Saddam Hussein and other accused war criminals. Professor Newton e-mails: “The doctrine of proportionality for conducting war — the so-called jus in bello (“law in war”) — is one of the cornerstones of military professionalism...No responsible and lawful commander ever intentionally targets civilians. Israel in general is very clear in its targeting decisions and seeks to avoid unnecessary civilian casualties. So long as the attempt is to minimize civilian damage, then even a strike that causes large amounts of damage — but is directed at a target with very large military value — would be lawful.”
...How do we fairly define a doctrine of proportionality in a war between one side that fires rockets from populated areas at civilians for the purpose of terrorizing a population — and the other side that must choose if and when to risk killing innocents being used as human shields by the attackers?
It requires relating the part to the whole, basing a judgment of “excess” on the purpose supposedly being exceeded. The best definition of the adjective and noun proportional that this political lexicographer can find appears in the language of a protocol to the 1949 Geneva conventions defining an indiscriminate attack: “conduct that would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Safire on the Word "Proportionality"
From William Safire's On Language column:-