My summer was not spent fighting in the dusty death tunnels of Gaza, nor in the rocket-riddled South, wondering whether each shrill siren might be the last thing I hear. Aside from a few nearly desultory trips down to our building’s bomb-shelter with my pajama-ed kids, I sat, like many, watching the Gazan spectacle unfold on my computer screen. And as is often the case, what we experienced second-hand, had, at times, less to do with what was actually occurring in the very real theaters of war and more to do with the theater which was created out of the conflict. There should be no doubt that the warlords of Hamas are spending their days preparing for the next onslaught. And when it comes, although the main battle will again be waged underground, on the sea and in the air, we will surely once more be facing another weapon of the Hamas arsenal: media exploitation.
Ismael Haniya recently likened Hamas’ success in driving the war’s narrative to the creation of a river from which the global media “quenched their thirst for information”. And while two seasoned reporters (Matti Friedman, formerly of the Associated Press and Richard Miron, formerly of the BBC) have offered varying indictments of those drinking habits, it is imperative to examine something more fundamental about Hamas’ operational successes (regardless of whether or not they were as complete as they claim).
Hamas’ strategy has been based on a simple idea: the projection of suffering. This has been a boon in overcoming the nearly self-evident objection that many reasonable people would ordinarily have to Hamas’ vicious reign of terror both domestically against its Gazan competitors and internationally against Israel and the West. Together with their foreign enablers, Hamas has pedaled photographic evidence of the intense suffering they experience in their fiefdom—all of which they naturally blame on Israel. While they have let a few howlers slip over the years (including the famous daytime candle-lit meeting and shots of well-stocked spanking new supermarkets), they have ensured that the world has been fed a steady photographic diet of their misery. Already over a decade ago, Susan Sontag, in her short but powerful Regarding the Pain of Others outlined the impact, along with the ultimate vapidity, of such representations of suffering.
Even in its technological inception, despite the arduous staging required for most pictures, the photograph was “not supposed to evoke but to show.” That mythology—even in the day of modern digitalized representation—has persisted. The assumption that a photograph—unlike a poem, a painting or a song—shows us what “is” (perhaps due to the realism of its constitutive parts) has endured. And so, photo after photo–despite ample evidence of doctoring, outright fabrications and staging (see Richard Landes, inter alia)—have been proffered as clear evidence of the most heinous of Israeli crimes imaginable. This has been the case even when such photos have nothing to do with Israel, but were mere borrowed images from intra-Arab violence, like Syria’s ongoing civil war.
But, as Sontag demonstrated, this is old hat. She cites such examples of recycling from the Spanish civil war, through Bosnia, through the Second Intifada. Her argument is that such portrayals of pain are nearly neutral—for despite their tormented and tormenting imagery, they add little to our actual understanding of the conflicts they represent. Looking at pain makes us flinch—evokes a visceral reaction: pity, anger, pride. But looking is not the same as thinking. Feeling is not the same as comprehending. For that we need “narratives,” explanations which do not work to “dismiss politics” as do these photographs. The photograph offers no history of a conflict, just the most fleeting of moments within it. A shot of a prize-fighter’s fist hitting the jaw of an opposing boxer tells us nothing of the previous rounds, the other punches thrown and received, let alone of the toil and suffering and pride of those who would dare enter the nearly unimaginable world of fighting as sport. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas insisted, art offers us only images and not concepts. It “neutralizes this real relationship” with the real world—which we best know not through representation, but through exploration, conceptualization; acting with and not merely looking on.
The image of pain (like the actual hard-to-ignore firing of nerves itself) asks us to focus only on the now, to forget the past, to forfeit thought of what will yet be, to abandon consideration of cause and effect, right and wrong. And for a group like Hamas—dedicated to genocide, committed to murder and mayhem—this is wonderful. For they aim to abdicate all responsibility for their own plight, to evade any questioning of priorities which make their own populace captive to their intense hatred of Israel and the West. Their “dead baby strategy” (coined by attorney Alan Dershowitz) relies not only on sacrificial human offerings, but on their display to the world over. And the Hamas-as-victim imagery resonates well with the more general tendency towards the soft racism of low expectations for much of the Arab world held by many well-meaning Westerners. It helps them evade nearly any responsibility for the most horrendous of deeds.
Hamas, though, relies on their own understanding of the Western world as a moral operator. Like any good Mafioso, they depend on the disproportional protections they receive when facing off against state actors, who are bound by the rule of law and protection of rights—even of enemies—and who essentially differentiate between combatants and non-combatants as best they can. (Hamas does all it can to hit civilians, while Israel does all it can to miss them. Neither side is successful, though, all the time.) Beyond that, though, their success is abated by the actual exercise of morality. Despite protestations to the contrary by the deontologists among us, it appears that in actual practice morality works more along the lines laid out by the Scottish believers in “virtue.” Adam Smith (following David Hume) stressed the notion of moral sentiment. That is, morality stems not from the realm of reason, but from that of emotion and appetite. Just as hunger is stimulated by the sight of food, so too is the moral sentiment of compassion stimulated by the sight of another’s suffering. We are moved to compassion by the sight of suffering. And the greater identification between the observer and the sufferer, the greater the moral/compassionate response. Recall Barak Obama’s reflection on how Travon Martin looked just like the son he might have had.
So, through the use of the imagery of suffering, Hamas is well able to appeal to the real moral sense held (thankfully) by the West. The dead children, the bombed-out buildings, the bloody wounded being dragged or carried about—all these trigger a very real sentimental (in the Smith-ian sense) response: compassion. No matter how many examples of falsification and staging can be documented, no matter how many times spokesmen explain that the real culprit is Hamas itself—it is quite difficult to overcome the nearly innate compassionate response. Hamas knows this and exploits it quite well.
However, Smith himself made an important point about just such identification-driven compassion. As observers we can never really feel what the observed is feeling, so we infer something about his pain or sadness or happiness by reflecting upon how we would feel in his place. The problem with this, though, is that whatever the observer actually does feel may be different than what we—as a different person—would feel. Smith offers the example of a mother’s agony upon seeing and hearing her baby’s cries. For the mother to make such God-awful noises, she would have to be in the utmost agony—crying from fear of certain impending death. However, the baby may just be a bit uncomfortable, unable to really move beyond his momentary, but slight pain. Actually, his situation is easily relieved. Essentially, the mother’s agony is worse than that of the actual infant. So too, argued Smith, we look upon the dead and feel terrible—while they themselves feel not a thing.
Hamas, has time and again told us how they actually feel about death and destruction. Muhammad Deif has proclaimed how he and his soldiers “love death for Allah.” And in the midst of this summer’s war a Hamas television host reminded his viewers, in a particularly Smith-ian turn, how their “martyred” feel no pain and know only bliss. Now, the liberal West has taken great strides in admitting that individual or cultural preferences in a wide variety of spheres are legitimate expressions of understanding and agency deserving of respect. From sexual preference to “cultural defense” as a mitigating factor in criminal responsibility, the liberal West seems to often think that which is abhorrent to me may be fine for thee.
So, here, where we are fighting to ensure that the one, small—yet still not defenseless—Jewish state can survive in the sea of Muslim hatred in which Israel has found itself for nearly a hundred years, why do so many insist upon denying Hamas and their ilk their own sense of agency? Why not accept that they indeed wish death not only upon us, but upon their own people? Why not acknowledge that time and again, Muslims when given the opportunity, vote in Islamists bent on spreading fanaticism, death and destruction?
Now, in the post-summer stillness of children-back-in-school, as our days grow shorter and August’s lightest pre-dawn kisses of dew condense themselves into thicker wisps of early Autumn fog; now, while the roiling wrath of ISIS has just barely begun to lap at our shores and we still have time to scan the nearby horizons in anticipation of the growing swells, before they break on our soft sands with crushing fury; now, while the renewed efforts of Hamas to tunnel through that same yielding earth have not yet born the bloody fruits of their toil and we can still rest our ears from full attention for the next siren’s wail—now is the time to ponder these questions. Now, before our understanding of morality again abets those whose mission is our very destruction.