I am a historian (like Khalidi), interested in the origins of ideas and arguments. It turns out that Khalidi’s premier talking point has a very specific genesis.
It figured in the case for the defense in the Einsatzgruppen Trial, conducted by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal from late 1947 to the spring of 1948. The Einsatzgruppen were the paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany, which carried out mass murder by shooting in Nazi-occupied Europe. They destroyed well over a million Jews, and two million people all told. After the war, their surviving senior commanders were put on trial at Nuremberg, charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The chief defendant, SS-Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf, had been commander of Einsatzgruppe D, which carried out mass murders in Moldova, southern Ukraine, and the Caucasus. An economist and father of five, he had supervised the killing of 90,000 Jews. Ohlendorf imagined that he had a moral conscience. The killers under his command, he told a U.S. Army prosecutor, were prohibited from using infants for target practice, or smashing their heads against trees.
During trial testimony, the prosecutor pressed Ohlendorf: “You were going out to shoot down defenseless people. Now, didn’t the question of the morality of that enter your mind?” Ohlendorf referred to the Allied bombings of Germany as a context:
I am not in a position to isolate this occurrence from the occurrences of 1943, 1944, and 1945 where with my own hands I took children and women out of the burning asphalt myself, and with my own hands I took big blocks of stone from the stomachs of pregnant women; and with my own eyes I saw 60,000 people die within 24 hours.
A judge immediately pointed out that his own killing spree preceded those bombings. But this would become known as the “Dresden defense,” to which Ohlendorf resorted still another time, in this exchange:
Ohlendorf: I have seen very many children killed in this war through air attacks, for the security of other nations, and orders were carried out to bomb, no matter whether many children were killed or not.
Q: Now, I think we are getting somewhere, Mr. Ohlendorf. You saw German children killed by Allied bombers and that is what you are referring to?
Ohlendorf: Yes, I have seen it.
Q: Do you attempt to draw a moral comparison between the bomber who drops bombs hoping that it will not kill children and yourself who shot children deliberately? Is that a fair moral comparison ?
Ohlendorf: I cannot imagine that those planes which systematically covered a city that was a fortified city, square meter for square meter, with incendiaries and explosive bombs and again with phosphorus bombs, and this done from block to block, and then as I have seen it in Dresden likewise the squares where the civilian population had fled to—that these men could possibly hope not to kill any civilian population, and no children.
Ohlendorf thought this defense so powerful that he invoked it yet another time:
The fact that individual men killed civilians face to face is looked upon as terrible and is pictured as specially gruesome because the order was clearly given to kill these people; but I cannot morally evaluate a deed any better, a deed which makes it possible, by pushing a button, to kill a much larger number of civilians, men, women, and children.
(The chief prosecutor, an American, called this particular iteration “exactly what a fanatical pseudo-intellectual SS-man might well believe.”)
At Nuremberg, this sort of tu quoque defense (“I shouldn’t be punished because they did it too”) wasn’t admissible. Still, in the verdict of the Einsatzgruppen Trial, the judges chose to refute it. “It was submitted,” the judges wrote, “that the defendants must be exonerated from the charge of killing civilian populations since every Allied nation brought about the death of noncombatants through the instrumentality of bombing.” The judges would have none of it:
A city is bombed for tactical purposes… it inevitably happens that nonmilitary persons are killed. This is an incident, a grave incident to be sure, but an unavoidable corollary of battle action. The civilians are not individualized. The bomb falls, it is aimed at the railroad yards, houses along the tracks are hit and many of their occupants killed. But that is entirely different, both in fact and in law, from an armed force marching up to these same railroad tracks, entering those houses abutting thereon, dragging out the men, women and children and shooting them.
The tribunal sentenced Ohlendorf to death. He was hanged in June 1951.