Mexico as Gaza

There’s always something tricky about analogies. They are supposed to get you closer to the truth of something. But they do it through a falsehood that, even when we are conscious of its workings, has the power to blur the … Read More

By / February 25, 2009

There’s always something tricky about analogies. They are supposed to get you closer to the truth of something. But they do it through a falsehood that, even when we are conscious of its workings, has the power to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy. A temper tantrum is not a raging sea. The setting sun is not an overripe tomato. The tire tracks on this loamy path are not the scar on my body I trace with my fingertips. But once a statements like these are made, it is hard to get them out of one’s head.

The problem is more pronounced when the terms of the analogy are more closely linked. That’s why I was so disturbed when, during the height of the IDF’s recent incursion into Gaza, a casual acquaintance defended it by asking me to make a hypothetical comparison.

“You progressives can talk all you want about how the Israeli action is disproportionate, given the disparity in casualties. But I bet you’d feel different if you woke up every day with the fear of being blown up. Imagine if they were firing missiles at Tucson from just across the border in Nogales. Trust me: you’d change your tune.”

The unease inspired by this provocation was amplified by other discussions I’d been having about the conflict. Predictably, most people at the Jewish Community Center expressed support for the rationale behind the operation, if not the operation itself. Still, dissent could be discerned beneath the surface. Elsewhere, I was repeatedly struck by the degree to which coverage of the situation in Gaza had bypassed the usual ideological stamping process. Despite the tight restrictions Israel had imposed on the foreign press, the ugly details of a war in which innocent civilians were the primary victims had managed to seep into mainstream consciousness. Individuals I’d never imagined to have much interest in international politics were eager to share their opinions of the operation. Many, even those I would normally classify as Republicans, were highly critical of it.

Clearly, for all of their concern with managing the flow of information, the Israelis were losing the publicity war. What they needed was a way to make Americans and Europeans understand their motivation for being so ruthless. They had to make them identify with their position. That’s why the analogy between Gaza and the border towns of Mexico struck me as both brilliant and insidious.

Regardless of their political orientation, residents of southern Arizona are acutely aware of the risks and rewards that derive from traffic between the United States and Tucson. Until the current economic crisis took hold, discussions of what to do about the border, and the problem of illegal immigration were invariably the hottest topic in the state. Even now, with the state of Arizona making unprecedented cutbacks and unemployment rising steeply, complaints about “illegals” still resound on talk radio and in the grumblings of working-class men and women who blame their difficulty finding or keeping a job on Mexicans.

At the same time, many of the stores in Tucson are depending on legal border-crossing to stay afloat in these tough times. Because consumer goods are cheaper and more plentiful in the States, middle-class Mexican citizens regularly drive several hours to shop here. Just as the city would suffer irreparable damage if the well-off “snowbirds”, most of them retirees, who winter here no longer came, it would be grievously injured if more stringent border controls or customs regulations discouraged consumers from south of the border.

There is also the black market to consider. For better or worse, a shockingly high percentage of the illegal drugs that enter the United States pass through the Tucson area on their way north. The crime rate associated with this traffic is rising steadily. The effects of the Narco Wars in Mexico, which have thrown its border states into chaos, are manifesting themselves in places like San Diego, Tucson, Phoenix and El Paso to an unprecedented degree.

The kidnappings for ransom and execution-style killings that used to circulate primarily as rumor through the kinship networks of those with family across the border are becoming a mainstay of fear-mongering local newscasts and the investigative journalism of the region’s daily newspapers and free weeklies. Because fear sells, though, whether in the media or in the distribution of government resources, the increased risks brought by this drug traffic are actually serving as a perverse boon to the legal economy, even as that traffic also floods the marketplace with money from the black market.

When my acquaintance asked me to imagine what it would feel like if Tucson were attacked by missiles launched from just south of the border, then, he wasn’t simply making a geographic analogy based on physical proximity alone. After all, he didn’t conjure the specter of missiles launched in Hamilton, Ontario raining down on Buffalo, New York. Because the border produces so much anxiety and agitation in Tucson, to portray its neighbor Nogales, only an hour away, as the source of a hypothetical threat is to tap into a reservoir of strong feelings likely to overwhelm any desire for sober-minded analysis.

And that’s what makes his analogy, however innocently invoked, into such a complicated ideological tangle. The people of Southern Arizona may fear an “invasion” from Mexico. But the situation south of the border bears only a superficial resemblance to the reality of life in Gaza. Sure, it’s possible to follow through on the metaphor, imagining the people of places like Nogales, Sonora as cut off from the resources they need by the actions of the American government. Such comparisons might even lead to fruitful meditation on the way in which the United States has been managing its border troubles.

The trouble with thought experiments of this nature is not that they are dangerous per se, but that they have a way of solidifying into reflexes resistant to reflection. As skeptical as I was of his argument, I found myself temporarily swayed by the logic of his analogy. “Sure, I thought, if missiles were dropping on Tucson, my pacifist tendencies would be held in check.” Other people I’ve spoken with have expressed similar sentiments.

The Gaza analogy has the potential to pull off an pernicious bait and switch, taking advantage of our guilt at living so close to a border maintained by military and economic force. Instead of acknowledging our complicity in a system that keeps people on the other side of the border artificially poor in order to maintain our own privilege – a description that applies as readily to the relations between the United States and Mexico as it does between Israel and Gaza – we can instead indulge a fantasy in which that system is imagined as a justifiable response, rather than the result of a preemptive action.

It was revealing that my acquaintance, after invoking the analogy, proceeded to hesitate in describing the nature of the incursion into Gaza. “Unless you’ve lived under that kind of threat, you shouldn’t judge the Israelis. They simply had to launch an offensive, I mean, defensive strike. If we knew that they were going to keep launching missiles at us from Nogales, you’d be just as eager to take out their positions as I would.”

My acquaintance elided a crucial distinction here. Hamas actually had attacked Israel repeatedly before the IDF entered Gaza. No matter how ineffectual in the grand scheme of things, the rocket fire inspired real terror. Much like the V1 “buzz bombs” Hitler’s Germany unleashed on Great Britain in the later stages of World War II, the unpredictability and infrequency of the Hamas approach actually made it more disturbing, in some ways, than a more regular and deadly onslaught might have been. It is much easier to steel oneself against what is expected than what is random.

The fantasy of Tucson suffering a missile attack from Nogales, on the other hand, proleptically transforms offense into defense. Imagining how one would respond to an attack that has yet to happen is a complex exercise, since the measures taken to prevent the yet-to-come can inspire attacks that might otherwise be forestalled. “Be careful or you’ll get what you wish for,” is the perfect idiom for this strange reversal of causation.

Of course, critics of the Israeli government’s actions toward Gaza have charged that the rocket attacks from Gaza were the logical outcome of the same process. They argue that from the soft economic barriers of the “peaceful” late 1990s, through the withdrawal undertaken under Ariel Sharon’s leadership, to the hard military blockades imposed when Hamas wrested control away from Fatah, Israel has repeatedly taken steps designed to give it the right of response its leaders desire.

I’m not one of those self-righteous progressives willing to explain away acts of violence undertaken by or, more commonly, on behalf of the oppressed as a rational and justifiable reaction to the “offensive defense” of a superior power. Targeting non-combatants is wrong, no matter what the circumstances. At the same time, though, it takes an awful lot of rhetorical wriggling to make it seem as though Israel has only acted in self-defense, unless one’s conception of “defense” has become, as my acquaintance’s “offensive, I mean, defensive” formulation suggests, indistinguishable from its opposite and therefore functionally meaningless.

Even now, after pondering the Nogales-Gaza analogy at great length, I’m unsure what to make of it. On the one hand, by mobilizing the fear that people in southern Arizona have of being “invaded” from the south, it threatens to collapse the psychological distance between this portion of the United States and Israel. On the other hand, the comparison provides the tools for fleshing out the plight of Gaza’s inhabitants with details derived from concrete experience of the border with Mexico. My instincts tell me that most people would have the same initial response to the analogy that I did, perceiving it as eminently reasonable, without later being able to achieve critical purchase on it.

While it is true that someone might be able to use the example of Israel’s actions towards Gaza as a spur to interrogating the United States’ actions towards Mexico, I think it far more likely that the force of the analogy would head in the opposite direction, serving as a justification for what has transpired in Gaza rather than the means of reconsidering the justification for what has transpired on our own southern border. Either way, though, the comparison has the potential to generate as much confusion as clarity, particularly if it settles into the domain of common sense. Analogies have the power to enlighten, but only if we remember that the equations they propose are not literally true. Otherwise, we risk being blinded to the differences they bridge by the light of superficial understanding.


Charlie Bertsch is Zeek’s Music Editor

Tagged with: