Truth is often said to be the first casualty of war, and this maxim has certainly been confirmed once again by the war in Lebanon. Almost from the first minute, egregiously distorted accounts of the Israeli military operation were flooding the air and the public prints. We were told that Israel was "carpet bombing" southern Lebanon, "slaughtering" or "exterminating" its civilian population, and engaged in a systematic policy of "genocide" against the Palestinians. In line with such characterizations, the number of civilian casualties in southern Lebanon was put at 10,000 when in truth it barely reached 1,000; and we were also told that 600,000 people had been rendered homeless when the entire population of the area in question was only 500,000.

But truth has not been the only nonmilitary casualty of the war in Lebanon. An even more serious blow has been struck against the general power of moral judgment and moral discrimination. To be sure, the debasement of our moral vocabulary and therefore of our ability to make sound moral judgments has been proceeding for a long time now, especially in the discussion of political issues. When, about 20 years ago, conditions in Harlem began to be compared with Auschwitz, or when it was said a little later that life in South Vietnam under Thieu was just as bad as life in North Vietnam under the Communists, we were on the slippery slope to a condition in which various kinds and degrees of evil become impossible to distinguish.

In much of what has been said and written about Lebanon since the Israelis went in last June, we see evidence of how far this deterioration of moral judgment has gone. The frequent comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany are the most salient example. Another case is the assignment to Israel of responsibility for the civilian casualties which have resulted from the war when by the standards both of international law and of simple common sense it should have been obvious that the PLO and not Israel was to blame. By planting its troops and its weapons in and around schools, hospitals, and apartment houses, the PLO deliberately sought to maximize civilian casualties. For its leaders correctly foresaw that in the perverse moral climate which the PLO itself and similar groups had helped to create, the Israelis would be held responsible, no matter how hard they tried to minimize civilian casualties, and even if they did so at the cost of increasing their own.

After southern Lebanon came the siege of Beirut. Once more Israel was condemned in spite of the restraint it showed, while the PLO, holding an entire city hostage, and again making certain that there would be as many civilian casualties as possible, nevertheless escaped moral onus. Yasser Arafat, whose followers had murdered Israeli babies at Maalot, and the leader directly responsible for the deaths of the Lebanese babies behind whom he hid his forces in Beirut, was photographed everywhere kissing Palestinian babies who had escaped. Arafat, whose people had been murdering Christians throughout Lebanon, was received by the pope, while the chorus denouncing Israel became ever more strident and cacophonous.

Last week, relatives of some of those murdered Christians went into two camps in Beirut and, along with other Christian militiamen, did unto several hundred Palestinian women and children what had been done by the PLO unto their women and children in Damur in 1976 in retaliation for a still earlier assault by Christians against Moslems. In a morally sane climate, responsibility would have been assigned to the thugs who initiated this particular cycle of murderous horrors and their opposite numbers who responded in barbarous kind. The rest would have been parceled out among the still unidentified assassins of Bashir Gemayel who triggered the entire episode; the PLO leadership which conspired (again!) to hide guerrillas and arms in camps housing civilians after it had agreed to leave Beirut; and the Israelis who allowed the Christians into those camps when they had reason to expect that a massacre would ensue and who then failed to act quickly enough to stop it.

I put Israel last on the list because Israeli complicity in this atrocity surely cannot be ranked with that of the Christian militias and the PLO. Yet there has scarcely been a word from anyone anywhere suggesting any such moral gradings and distinctions. On the contrary, almost nothing has been said about the PLO and very little about the Christians. But the chorus denouncing Israel has become louder and lustier than ever, no doubt inspired to full-throated heights by the secret recognition that here at last the Israelis could be condemned for something they had actually done, or at least failed to do.

No doubt too those who had borne false moral witness against the Israelis in previous weeks were also heartened by the chance to claim vindication just at the moment when the political case they had simultaneously been making against the war was looking shabbier and weaker than ever. The critics had declared that the Israeli action was hurting the people of Lebanon. Yet the people of Lebanon were overjoyed at being liberated from PLO domination and tyranny. The critics had declared that Israel was damaging the interests of the United States in the Middle East and creating opportunities for Soviet gains. Yet never had American influence been so great in the Arab world or Soviet influence so weak. The massacre in Beirut did nothing to change those realities. Nor did it do anything to salvage the discredited political arguments of the critics of Israel. Which did not, of course, prevent the critics from claiming that the massacre had finally proved them right.

Not long ago, I charged in an article in Commentary entitled "J'Accuse" that a good deal of anti-Semitism, embodied in the application of a double standard to the behavior of Jews, had surfaced in the attacks on Israel's conduct in Lebanon. The same double standard is at work in this latest episode as well. It is one thing to demand that Ariel Sharon, as minister of defense, should be held to account for his negligence. I join in that demand, and I also believe that an Israeli commission of inquiry would serve the best interests both of truth and of justice. But something more was implicit in the fact that, when Christians murdered Moslems for having murdered Christians, the world immediately began denouncing the Jews who were, at the very worst, indirectly involved. Here again the old double standard made another ugly appearance. And with this new failure to distinguish among relative weights of responsibility, our public discourse has taken another great slide down the slippery slope to moral idiocy.