Shattering, or, How People Like Me or You are Capable of Extreme Brutality

This news is not breaking. I do not break news. If anything, I feel sometimes -like these times- that the news will break me. This news is shattering. Or at least it should be. It should be shattering for all of us living in or closely following the events in Israel-Palestine. Because it is shattering to recall something that has always been true, but has been highlighted over the past few weeks: that people fundamentally similar to all of us are capable of extreme brutality and violence. That we all are capable of extreme brutality and violence. That ‘nonviolence’ is not genetic, and while that it may be culturally influenced, I have yet to encounter a broad culture in which nonviolence has truly taken root. (One need only type the words “Sri Lanka” into google to be reminded that there is nothing oxymoronic in the phrase “violent Buddhist mobs”). Certainly not in Israeli culture and certainly not in Palestinian culture. Over the last few weeks, according to reports (none of which are finally confirmed), at least two Palestinians kidnapped and murdered three Israeli children and six Israelis were involved in the kidnapping, torture and murder of a Palestinian child.

The reactions have been eerily similar on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli divide.

Keeping in mind, now as always, that: (1) the political and military power-differential is so vast, which is a large part of why my critiques are mostly leveled toward the powerful side, my side, the Israeli side.

But not forgetting, now as always that: (2) there is a high degree of moral similarity between the two sides when it comes to admiration of violence, justification of killing, indifference to suffering on the other side, self-righteousness and so forth.

Keeping those points in mind, I’ve noticed that reactions have seemed to follow a few patterns:

Disbelief: Some Palestinians did not believe that the kidnapping ever took place. The Israelis who were convinced that the Palestinian boy was murdered by his own family or as part of Palestinian “internal clashes.” My People wouldn’t do that, and if they did:

Rationalization & Justification: The Israeli kids were settlers, who make the lives of the Palestinians miserable. The Palestinian kid was killed by Israelis seeking revenge for the aforementioned murder. Which leads to the “political” I-told-you-soing which, at its worst, comes off as:

Macabre Glee: Some Israelis and anti-Palestinian activists used the kidnapping of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach as “proof” that Palestinian society is violent and bloodthirsty (among them members of the government and military, connecting back to note (1) above). Some Palestinians and anti-Israel activists who used the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir as evidence of Israeli inhumanity.

All of this is not intended to draw a falsely symmetrical picture between Palestinian society and Israeli society -there is no symmetry here in terms of power and thus also in terms of responsibility- but it is intended to recall that there is a profound human symmetry in terms of capacity for evil and in terms of incapacity to come to terms with evil emanating from oneself or one’s own community.

There have also been many exceptions to these patterns (Amjad Iraqi’s excellent piece in +972, Our Problem with Selective Sympathy for Young Victims, is the first that comes to mind, and then Yishai Fraenkel’s condemnation upon hearing reports of the kidnapping and murder of Abu Khdeir). I am not distancing myself from any of the aforementioned patterns: at weak points over the past weeks, I have felt myself swaying dangerously at the mouths of these chasms, and others. So maybe I am writing this to catch myself, and to iterate that the truest reaction to these murders, for me, is to recall how similar I am -and we all are- to the murderers and the murdered, to allow for a bit of ourselves to be shattered, and then, when rebuilding, to rebuild in a direction that will create a world that is a bit less vicious and selves that are a bit less cruel.