Growing up, I remember hearing news of suicide attacks in Israel. It was hard for me to understand how people could be so indoctrinated with hate that they would blow themselves up in order to tear innocents to shreds. The stories were heart-wrenching – commuters on a bus, children on their way to school, whole families at a cafe.
While Jews all over the world mourned, Palestinians celebrated. Yet for most of my American peers, this was just bloodshed in a distant land. This, the world taught them, was just another round in a cycle of violence.
And then, just before my fifteenth birthday, came September 11th. Terrorism hit home in a big way. We mourned together as a nation. We wondered why people would want to destroy us in the name of Islam. Already as a young boy, I sadly had been asking a version of that question for years.
As we buried our dead and tried to take stock of what happened, Palestinians cheered in the streets. This was a major victory in the war against the West – a war most of us did not really understand we were part of.
London and Madrid, too, were traumatized a few short years later when two major attacks brought the war to European soil. Once again, Palestinians rejoiced in Western misery. A poll conducted in 2005 found that 79% of Gaza residents supported Al Qaeda’s bombing of the United States and Europe.
And I thought to myself – at least, amid all this tragedy, there is one saving grace: Finally, the Western world will understand. They will understand that it isn’t just Israel these people want destroyed – it is the West. I hoped we would unite in the sobering realization that this is a threat to all of us.
Most Americans and Europeans now understand that there is a threat called Islamic extremism. We understand that the West and jihadists are on opposite sides of a war over our most fundamental values. Many also understand this threat comes not only from terrorist groups directly, but also from some large portion of the Muslim population who support them – explicitly or tacitly. And yet, when it comes to the most recent fight between Israel and Hamas, a shocking 29% of Americans under 30 hold Israel more responsible for the violence, and 51% think Israel’s actions were unjustified.
How could this be? What happened to our national consensus? These are the same characters in a different play. These are the same people who celebrated our tragedy on 9/11. These are the same people who call for the death of America.
For the apologists who deny Hamas’ similarity to other jihadists, or who point to other, superficial justifications for their struggle, look no further than Hamas’ own charter and its leaders’ own rhetoric and you’ll understand that this is not really about the siege on Gaza. It’s not about the occupation of the West Bank, either, which even most Israelis agree in principle ought to end. And this is not even about Hamas’ rejection of any Zionist presence in Palestine, which itself should help explain the existential underpinnings of this conflict. How could so many Americans not see that this is the front line in a war against the West?
Perhaps part of it is anti-Semitism, though I expect its practitioners will be unmoved by this article. Perhaps part of it is a reflexive loyalty to pure liberalism, whose ideology cannot comprehend any situation where violence is necessary. Of course there are myriad other explanations, but I believe there are two deeper reasons why so many Americans come to condemn Israel: the first political, the second psychological.
Today, we live in a world of political correctness and moral relativism. Perhaps a consequence of the cartoonish simplicity of the “with us or against us” Bush era, many were turned off by our former president’s post-9/11 caricature of good versus evil. These people are not evil, we qualified – we just do not empathize enough with their plight. These people are not really terrorists, they are someone’s freedom fighters – and so we’ll call them the morally neutral, more universally palatable “militants.” In the end, though, language meant to afford us a measure of humility sometimes costs us a measure of clarity, and ultimately influences our beliefs.
And yet if you ask young Americans if evil exists in the world, they will likely say yes. So I wonder, what does that look like? How can we simultaneously believe that terrorism exists yet be so politically correct that we never call anyone a terrorist? To be sure, overuse of words like evil and terrorism are reminiscent of a cowboy adventurism from which many young Americans would like to disengage. Yet right now, there is an organization called Hamas that is committed to the destruction of an entire people, that hates them even more than they love their own children. If evil exists in this world, that is it.
There is another, psychological phenomenon that might explain why so many of my peers condemn Israel despite the usual instinct to condemn those who hate you: automatic response patterns. As humans, we are wired to take mental shortcuts. When we hear that food is “all-natural,” we assume it is healthy. When we learn that someone is a doctor, we assume s/he is a trustworthy person. When we hear that someone’s bombs killed civilians, we blame whomever dropped the bombs. These shortcuts work most of the time, and enable us to go through life normally: We shouldn’t have to talk to a doctor’s neighbors before accepting his or her care. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether a food’s packaging is misleading. And when the media shows us graphic images of maimed women and children, we shouldn’t have to rationalize why people would kill civilians, and whose fault it really is.
But sometimes, these triggers lead us astray. Sometimes the party that indirectly causes civilian deaths is actually more culpable than the party that directly causes them. It is our responsibility to look for hints that might undermine our shortcuts: If we could imagine a situation where Hamas, not Israel, was responsible for the casualties in Gaza, what would that look like? What if Hamas rockets were raining down on your cities, launched from heavily populated areas? What if the command centers and weapons caches of people committed to your destruction were located in schools, homes, hospitals, and mosques? What if drawing retaliatory fire toward residential areas, that tragically kills civilians, was actually part of Hamas’ strategy? Would that be enough to turn off autopilot?
Our pre-programmed reaction to the death of civilians, combined with our desire to believe that all people are good, is a potent force. It is so strong that it overshadows our knowledge that many of those same civilians would cheer our own deaths. In a world where we believe everyone values life as much as we do, we may be tempted to condemn the side whose weapons took more innocent lives. But the world is not that simple, and it will never be as easy to understand an unrealized existential threat as it is to understand the horrific imagery and lopsided casualty charts that preventing it sometimes creates. It is our duty to tell the difference.