Washington Watching the anguish in Lebanon following an Israeli airstrike that killed at least 37 children in Qana Sunday put me in mind of Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother who drowned her children several years ago.
The Smith parallel requires a small stretch of free association, so bear with me.
You'll recall that Smith killed her children, then tried to blame a fictional villain. After allowing her car to slip into a lake - with the boys strapped to their car seats inside - Smith claimed the children had been kidnapped. Her infertile imagination provided a racist cliche: a black man did it.
Fast forward a few years and I bumped into a woman who had just visited Smith in prison, where she is serving a life sentence for the double murder. When I asked how Smith was doing, the woman replied: "Like any grieving mother, she's mourning the loss of her children."
Then Rod Serling stepped into the frame and cued the "Twilight Zone" soundtrack. Let's see: You kill your children, and then you get sympathy for your loss?
That dissonant comment has haunted me ever since, and it came to me a few days ago as I watched reports of the Qana airstrike. As the Qana myth unfolds, the children's deaths are blamed on the Middle East's perpetual villain - Israel - while Hezbollah's minions gnash and wail for the cameras. We are expected to join in vilifying Israel while Hezbollah enjoys a bounce in popularity.
Obviously, the anguish of the Lebanese people is heartfelt and no one celebrates the loss of innocent life. Wait, correction. No one except Hezbollah, which pioneered that nihilistic addition to modern warfare, the suicide bomber. The suicide bomber's purpose, of course, is to kill as many civilians as possible. Hezbollah excels at that sort of thing. The "Party of God" is also a proud innovator in the use of human shields, especially women and children.
Indeed, Hezbollah relies on the civilized world's outrage as part of its strategy. By bringing the war to suburbia in violation of the Geneva Conventions and launching rockets from villages such as Qana, Hezbollah virtually ensures that civilians will die.
Pending an investigation, many facts are unknown, including whether the building in which the children died came down as a result of Israeli fire. The Associated Press and others now report that the Israeli strike on Qana came between midnight and 1 a.m., but the building didn't collapse until 7 or 8 a.m., possibly as a result of munitions inside the building.
Whatever the case, Israeli Defense Forces had dropped leaflets into Qana a week beforehand, warning residents to evacuate. Although international humanitarian law forbids the deliberate targeting of civilian areas, exceptions are tolerated under certain circumstances.
As Human Rights Watch explains on its Web site (humanrightswatch.org), a civilian area can be targeted if it "makes an 'effective' contribution to the enemy's military activities and its destruction, capture or neutralization offers a 'definite military advantage' to the attacking side in the circumstances ruling at the time."
The humanitarian guidelines also call for "proportionality" in "dual use" areas and for precautions to protect civilians.
Parsing the language of "dual use" when bombs are killing sleeping children seems absurd when measured against such senseless loss. But it is also necessary if we are to maintain perspective against a cowardly enemy that hides among women and children, then relies on emotion to gain traction on the battlefield of public opinion.
Why some residents of Qana didn't leave given fair warning is a point of speculation, but Hezbollah reportedly has blocked residents from evacuating other areas. Proportionality is a trickier question, but let's be clear on the issue of moral equivalence. There is none. Hezbollah aims to kill civilians; Israel aims not to. But by firing rockets from civilian areas, Hezbollah forces Israel to return fire, thus inciting the condemnation of civilized nations and fueling the reliable outrage of the Arab street.
The fog of war may prevent absolute clarity, but this much seems certain: Those dead women and children are casualties of Hezbollah, not Israel. As in the case of Susan Smith, we mourn the deaths of the children, but have no sympathy for the responsible party.
Only in the Twilight Zone is Hezbollah a victim.