Wednesday, 11 October 2023 19:58

Israel, Gaza, and what it means to broaden our moral circle in a time of horror

A reflection of the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, Florida, on October 10, 2023.

In 2021 — the most recent year for which we have the full data available — 5 million children died before their fifth birthday. Preventable stillbirths in labor are very common. If a child makes it out of the first 28 days of life, their biggest killers will be malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia.

For the most part, in rich countries, we don’t have to think about this unless we choose to — and it’s often a lot easier to look away. I have an automatic monthly donation scheduled to an effective anti-malaria charity, but I don’t spend much time contemplating dead children; it’s too difficult.

I have many friends and professional contacts in Israel, and for the last week, my social media has been full of heartbreaking images of dead and missing children as they reel from the brutal attack carried out by Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by many nations. Usually on Facebook, I see pictures of my friends’ children playing at the park or reading a book. Right now it’s full of pleas for their safe return or prayers in their memory. I’m devastated for them.

I’m also devastated for the many further children who have died or will die in the war that has now begun, as the brunt of the violence turns to Gaza. And I’m devastated by the blow to the project of caring about everybody, because a lot of the responses to this tragedy seem to assume that when we’re angry or afraid enough, we no longer need to bother.

The moral circle

A cornerstone of the work that we do here at Future Perfect is that the people far away from us matter as much as the people near us, that the people who die routinely of mundane diseases represent as acute and as painful a loss as the people who die in flagrant, shocking acts of terrorism, that the media tends to be drawn toward certain kinds of horror and away from other kinds. That makes it harder for the world to pull together, keep its eyes on the prize, and end all the senseless deaths of children.

I really believe in that, even when the horrors of terrorism or war hit closer than usual to home. But it does seem worth acknowledging that when people close to you have been murdered or kidnapped, stepping back and taking the broad humanistic perspective and calling for us to remember the importance of every human life, whatever side they’re on, is really, really difficult.

That’s what made an interview I read recently, with the father of an Israeli woman abducted by Hamas in Saturday’s attacks, so striking. “Let’s make peace with our neighbors in any way possible. I want my daughter back. Enough with these wars. The other side also has captives, the other side also has mothers that are weeping. We are two people with one father. Because of these things, let’s make real peace,” he said.

It takes extraordinary strength and courage to keep the humanity of your enemies in mind when your daughter has been kidnapped. It takes less extraordinary strength from the rest of us, but the last few days have still featured a lot of glaring failures to live up to it.

One of the secondary tragedies of a terrorist attack is how quickly the desire for safety, assurance, and revenge beats back the fragile progress we’ve made toward a world where we care about everyone, regardless of their national origin or the decisions made by their government.

There have been baffling and horrifying rallies in New York and elsewhere in support of Hamas’s attack, by people under the impression that murdering innocent people in their homes is all right if their government is doing evil (and it should be said very clearly that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s government absolutely is). And in response, there have been baffling and horrifying calls for indiscriminate bombing in Gaza by people under the impression that murdering innocent people in their homes is all right if their government is doing evil (and it should be said very clearly that Hamas is doing extraordinary evil).

The worse things get, the more tempting it gets to turn off some of your empathy and declare that someone, surely, deserved it.

But no one deserved it.

It’s critical not to relate to the world’s great horrors in a fashion that’s entirely reactive and driven by media consumption. The pattern of a modern tragedy runs like this: learning about more and more awful things to be horrified and saddened by, becoming angrier and angrier, finding the worst people on the whole internet and being radicalized by their own casual dismissals of the lives of their enemies, starting to think of them as less than human themselves, and letting your sense of our shared humanity and our shared desire for something better be one of the casualties of an act of terrorism.

Sometimes the best way to live in a world where children die pointlessly is not to doom scroll, but to grieve and donate — to do whatever’s in your power to change things. And only then, to look away.

A version of this newsletter originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!