Horror and the process of compassion
I just watched a horrifying video of eyewitnesses to a massacre. Please keep reading my friends. Please keep reading before you know which “side” committed the massacre. Please keep reading even if the event feeds a narrative that is inconvenient to your opinions. Please keep reading even if you want to shut such horrors out of your awareness. I promise I will take this to a place where something on the other side of horror is visible.
I first read about the massacre here. Israeli forces had surrounded a residential building with tanks and bulldozers. IDF soldiers stormed the building. Residents pleaded with them that they were civilians. The soldiers took out all the men. They tortured them in front of their families. Then they forced them to bend over and executed them, executed husbands in front of their wives and fathers in front of their children. Then they began shelling the building. The women and children fled. A 3-year-old bled to death in her sister’s arms.
You might be expecting my report of this event to be the entree to a “case” – a case that Israel is committing war crimes, for instance, that it is ethnically cleansing Gaza, and so on; in short, that right is on one side and wrong is on the other.
Such a case would be easy to make, but that is not what I am here to do. That doesn’t mean that such distinctions are invalid, nor that the two sides are equivalent. However, the reflex of distinguishing right from wrong and victim from perpetrator, valid and useful though it may be, can short-circuit a process of compassion that leads to another level of understanding and new possibilities for peace.
Reading of the massacre, I noticed a basic psychic similarity with the Oct. 7 attacks (those that targeted civilians, that is). Underneath all the justifications and rationales and explanations, we have pain turning into hate, then violence, then more pain. The Hamas attackers murdering innocent young people at a festival as they beg for their lives. The IDF soldiers torturing then executing fathers and brothers in front of their families. Both sets of perpetrators were filled with a self-righteous purpose. This is the basic pattern we must change, if there is ever to be peace.
I read the comments on the Al Jazeera Twitter post. Those who are firmly on the Israeli “side” were unmoved. “Lies.” said one commenter. “They [those killed] were definitely Hamas,” said another. “They are using their wives and children as human shields.” The story of us and them, justified and unjustified, good guys and bad guys annihilates compassion at its source. Compassion — “What is it like to be you?” — perishes at the knife edge of the good-evil distinction in all its forms. Compassion does not extend to those we cast out of the realm of the fully human; it does not extend to those we deny as our spiritual equals in the eyes of God. It is plain to see that there will never be peace from the mindset these comments exemplify.
Many of the comments on the other “side” exhibited exactly the same mindset, except it is the IDF and Zionist in general who are the monsters, not Hamas.
In the face of monstrous acts, we must ask, “What conditions have turned these people into monsters?” What does it take for a chubby little baby to turn into someone who would torture and kill a father in front of his daughter? What does it take for an adorable little sweetums to grow into someone who kills an innocent young dancer as she begs for her life?
The accidental facts of that individual’s personal biography rarely provide a complete answer to that question. We must look to history, politics, economics — the entire context of that person’s life. Then it becomes apparent that killing him, imprisoning him, dominating and controlling him, or his people, will not change the circumstances that made him a monster.
Sometimes force is necessary to protect the innocent. But if the cause of the harm to innocents is more than the random evil of bad people, then force will never end the harm.
Facing the totality of a complex situation, we will see no simple solution. However, having dropped the blinder of the false explanation of “They’re just evil,” powerful solutions do come into view. They won’t provide the satisfaction of vengeance or the punishment of those who have caused harm. They won’t provide the psychic relief that comes from watching he who has hurt you suffer in turn. What they will do, though, is change the circumstances that generate continued cycles of violence.
In this spirit, here is an extremely naive practical solution. If “naive” and “practical” seem contradictory, so be it. Perhaps at least something of the spirit of this suggestion will seep into the realm of politics. I am not oblivious to the reasons that will appear in the comments why “This will never work because…” or “This is impossible because…” Yet maybe something of its animating spirit will ring true and, if even to a small degree, the tone of that ring will reach the ears of those who make our policies.
The suggestion applies compassion to both sides. On the Zionist side, we ask about the conditions that turned that cute little sweetie-pie into a torturer and murderer, and, pulling one thread of many, we see historical conditions of persecution and genocide and expulsion that leave Jews feeling unwelcome and unsafe. In response to those conditions, let Islamic countries and imams and ayatollahs and clerics declare hospitality zones for Jews in their countries. Let them rebuild the synagogues of Baghdad and Damascus. Let them declare visa-free travel for the citizens of Israel and personally guarantee their safety. Let them rescind the fatwahs and condemnations.
On the Palestinian side, we ask about the conditions that turned that angelic little toddler into a terrorist celebrating his cruel murders. We see decades of humiliation of his people, their expulsion from their ancestral homes, the continued theft of their land, their crushing economic deprivation, and the extinction of hope that it will ever change. In response to these conditions, let Israel halt and reverse its settlements in the West Bank. Let it stop bombing Gaza and end the blockade. Let it release the political prisoners it holds without trial or charge. Let it restore hope by committing to an independent and sovereign Palestinian homeland, and take the first significant and irreversible steps in that direction.
In this context, regional powers can pledge to stop arming and funding Hamas. Its most extreme elements can go into exile. Peacekeepers from Islamic countries can occupy Gaza and ensure free elections for a new government unifying it with East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The world’s great powers can join in incentivizing and enforcing conditions for peace. The physical reconstruction of Gaza can begin, drawing the world together to make it a beautiful city of peace. And the moral reconstruction of Israel and Palestine can begin too, for example through truth & reconciliation committees so that those who have hated each other can see their mutual humanity, and abide no longer in the delusion that one is made of better stuff than the other. Through a long process of grief, Israel and Palestine will be no longer a furnace of hate that threatens to burn down the world, but rather the headwaters of a new current of peace that will water every land. Then, finally, the Holy Land will have redeemed its name.
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