We ate breakfast to the news that an airliner had crashed in Ukraine. We had lunch to the news that Israel had invaded Gaza. An airliner crashing is perhaps more impactful than an invasion. We have all wondered, when we hear of a crash, or even in quiet moments on board an aircraft ourselves, what living our final moments in a plane plunging to earth, knowing that we will die, would be like. An invasion is harder for some of us to empathize with. Most of us have never invaded a country nor been in a country while it was invaded. But it shares this much with a plane crash: Your life is in danger, and your fate is out of your hands.
We don’t even know for certain what happened to the plane or how far the invasion will go. But no reasonable person looking at today could argue that we are the masters of our fates. At one point in the afternoon, it was announced that the White House had been placed on lockdown, which meant that a significant security threat had been found. It turned out someone’s lost backpack caused the whole episode.
Our job is to find order in the apparent disorder, even if meaning is fleeting. There are two things we can point to. First — tragedy aside for the moment — the plane crash had to do with the struggle for Ukraine, between the right of Russia to be secure from the West, the right of the Ukrainians to determine their own fate, either as one country or two, and the right of Western powers to involve themselves in these affairs. Gaza is about the right of Israel to have a nation, the right of the Palestinians to have a nation and the right of Western countries to involve themselves in the matter.
Both issues are matters of competing national rights, not dissimilar from one and other. The Russians have historically experienced multiple invasions from the west, all of them devastating, some of them through Ukraine. Ukraine means “nation on the edge,” or what we could call a borderland. Usually under Russian domination, it is now independent. But for Russia, it is the buffer between the kind of armies that invaded Russia in 1941 when the Nazis came. The names of many of the cities that are spoken of now are the names of the cities in which the Soviet army fought. For the Russians, this is the borderland that can’t be given up. Yes, no one is planning to invade Russia now. But the Russians know how fast intentions and capabilities change, and they wonder why the Americans and others are so concerned with having a pro-Western government in Kiev.
For the Ukrainians, who have rarely experienced sovereignty, this is their opportunity to chart their own course. For them, the Russians’ need for a buffer is another way of saying Russian oppression of Ukraine. Of course, not all living in Ukraine see this as oppressive. They see the Ukrainian government as oppressing them, by tearing them away from their Russian roots. For western Ukrainians, these Russophiles are thugs trying to destroy the country. For the Russophiles, it is hypocrisy that Ukraine demands that its right to self-determination be honored, but it has no honor for the right to self-determination of the Russophiles.
It is a question of national self-determination, which is one of the foundations of modern Euro-American civilization and always becomes complex when competing nations all claim that right. Does Russia have the right to assure that it will never again have to live through an invasion? Does it have the right to do that at the expense of Ukrainian self-determination? To the extent that the West has involved itself, can it be said that Ukraine is truly free to determine its future?
And so an airliner was shot down and some 300 people died. It is hard to draw the connection between the abstract discussion of national rights and the debris and lives strewn around, but there is a connection. The plane would not have crashed if the question of national interest and national self-determination was not so important to so many people.
The same issue caused four children to be killed on a Gaza beach and a man to be blown apart by a mortar round in Israel. The Israeli Jews claimed a homeland in today’s Israel. They were occupiers, but there is not a single country in the world that wasn’t, in some way, founded by occupiers. Almost everywhere, there was someone there who was displaced or absorbed to make way for the current occupants. Every nation that exists was born out of some injustice. Consider the United States and Native Americans and slavery. Both were fundamental to America’s birth, but the right of the United States to remain intact is not questioned. Look at Europe and the way it was reshaped by armies. Perhaps that happened centuries ago, but is there an expiration date on injustice?
At the same time, there was someone there before Israel. They were not annihilated as in the case of some nations that disappeared with the arrival of newcomers. They are still there, in Israel, in the West Bank and certainly in Gaza. This is the borderland between Israel and the Arab world, and it is filled, particularly in Gaza, by people who are claiming their right to a state. Some who want the creation of that state to include the annihilation, expulsion or absorption of Israel.
There are others who want a two-state solution. They are not really as thoughtful and reasonable as they would like to believe. A state divided in half by Israel would be peculiar to say the least. Could Gaza, a small place packed with people, and a distant West Bank ever become economically viable? And could the Israelis ever trust the Palestinians not to open fire on Tel Aviv from the few miles that would separate it from a Palestinian state? The Arab state would be an economic impossibility. The Israeli state would be at risk. Westerners are filled with excellent advice as to what the Palestinians should do and what the Israelis should do. But as with Ukraine, the Westerners are playing with peripheral issues, things that don’t affect them personally and existentially. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is attempting to do good. But if he fails, his children won’t live with the consequences.
And therefore, an endless and pointless debate rages as to who is right and who started the war in an infinite regression that goes back to times before any living Jew or Palestinian. This is the same as in Ukraine. Ukraine’s history had been shaped by its relation to Russia. A debate can be held as to whether this was just. It really doesn’t matter. Russia is there and needs things, Ukraine is there and needs different things, and the West is there providing advice, which if it fails won’t directly affect it.
What ties Ukraine, Russia, Israel and Gaza together is that they are all fighting for their lives, or interests that are so fundamentally important to them that they cannot live without them. They are fighting for their nation and for that nation’s safety in a world where unspeakable things happen and where the only ones who will defend you are your family, friends and countrymen, and where all the well-wishers and advice-givers will quietly take their leave if dangers arise. There is nothing easier and cheaper than advising others to get along. These conflicts are rooted in fear, and fear is always a legitimate emotion.
Others would have approached today by saying that the Russians are evil or the Ukrainians really the oppressors, the Israelis killers or the Gazans monsters. We are sure we will hear from many condemning our moral equivalency, by which they will claim that the only truly moral position is theirs. But this is not a moral equivalency that argues that Ukrainians and Russians, Israelis and Palestinians should therefore sit down and recognize that they really haven’t got anything to fight over. This is a moral equivalency that says these people have a great deal to fight over, but that it is their fight, and that — as when the Romans began wiping out Europe’s Celts — it will be settled by steel and not by kindly advice or understanding. The problem between these people is not that they don’t understand each other. The problem is that they do.
And therefore an airliner crashed and reportedly some Americans, my countrymen, may have died. And yes, we would grieve for our countrymen before others, much as Russians, Ukrainians, Israelis and Palestinians grieve for their own. We are no better. But we live in a stronger and safer country for which we are grateful. It allows us to give advice and means we don’t have to experience our misjudgments, even on a long sad day.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this analysis stated that 23 Americans had reportedly died in the plane crash, but conflicting information has since emerged.
“Reflections on an Unforgiving Day is republished with permission of Stratfor.”