Shock, horror, disgust, anger, grief, sadness, and bewilderment. The events of the past week in Israel and Gaza, broadcast via traditional and social media in all their repulsive detail, provoke our strongest emotions. In those dark moments, we are paralyzed by our feelings.
We also know that we cannot fully succumb to the tyranny of emotion. To be human is to make sense of our world, even when it has seemingly lost its senses.
Reason is our very human mechanism to carry on when carrying on seems impossible. Reasoning reassures us that life is not merely a series of accidents. Armed with its powers, we grasp back our individual and collective futures.
Reasoning when others grieve can seem callous. And grief is a paramount human emotion. The searing pain of grief burns into our conscious and subconscious the memories of those lost, the value of their lives. It forges an enduring bond with them, us, and the past.
We can’t pretend to know how those who have suffered unspeakable personal loss will find their way from pain and suffering to reasoning. Each will take their own path, some longer and more arduous, but all steep, treacherous, and exceedingly painful.
In what follows we offer an approach to help us move beyond emotions, to place into perspective what we have witnessed. It is a process that begins with difficult questions.
How could this happen? What do these heinous acts say about the worlds of politics, peoples, and nations in the 21st century? How can we act to prevent such atrocities in the future?
These are questions without easy answers. Perhaps there are no answers. But we must engage them, exercising our greatest human coping mechanism, the desire to seek understanding even when it eludes us.
How could this happen?
On October 7, evil occurred. The massacres of innocent men, women, and children, of the infirm and the aged, were pure acts of monstrous evil.
But evil is only a description of unspeakable actions, not of motivations. The ruthless attacks were planned, horribly well. They were not mere manifestations of madness or hatred. They had an aim.
That is the nature of terrorism. We cannot confuse the means, however inhumane, with the ends—the aims the terrorists intended to achieve.
So, what did Hamas want to achieve?
A primary aim was to destabilize Israel’s improving relations with various Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and more recently Saudi Arabia. By attacking Israel in horrific ways, Hamas wanted to provoke what is now underway, namely a massive military response in Gaza that itself will kill many innocent Palestinians (notably, women and children). In this fashion, Hamas believes it can unleash opposition in the Arab world to closer relations with Israel.
Insofar as Hamas has also received considerable financial and military support from Iran, it is also likely that it acted with Iran’s knowledge and perhaps tacit approval. Iran also fears closer relations between its three arch enemies: Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. And Iran has made it known that it will respond in some form if Israel proceeds with its intended ground invasion of Gaza.
Lastly, Hamas aimed to win converts among disaffected Palestinians living in the West Bank, Lebanon, and possibly even Jordan. In recent years, frustrations have been rising among younger Palestinians because of scant economic opportunities, Israel’s shift away from a ‘two-state solution’ to the Palestinian question, and increased settlement in the occupied territories coupled with Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, actions suggesting that Israel is ultimately intent on full annexation of the occupied territories. Younger Palestinians have also been dismayed by corruption and ineffectual political leadership from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. By attacking Israel, Hamas aimed to win over Palestinian converts outside of its powerbase in Gaza.
What does unspeakable violence say about the human condition in the 21st century?
In the West, the appeal of the Enlightenment is that humans can improve the human condition. Freedom, education, and science are not just means to prosperity, but also the tools we use to become more virtuous. Remarkably, faith in Enlightenment thinking has endured centuries of the most appalling wars, genocides, atrocities, enslavements, and other barbarous acts.
Yet, the barbarity of the past week serves to remind us that peace is more than the avoidance of war. Our ability to live alongside one another peaceably requires us to be more than just good individuals. Peace does not emerge from self-interest. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is a brilliant metaphor to explain how self-interest serves the public interest, but it applies only to the narrow dimension of economics (even more narrowly to markets characterized by rather implausible assumptions). The invisible hand is neither metaphor nor guide for how to address ethnic, religious, territorial, or national differences, nor can it guide how we must act when legitimate grievances remain unaddressed.
Violence, even collective suicidal actions (as Hamas unleashed last week), cannot be understood via social science conventions of rational behavior. Those of us who live comfortably on the outside, supported in the pursuit of our self-interest by the institutions of democracy, property rights, education, sound legal systems, and other social constructs, are incapable of truly understanding the plight of those who enjoy few or none of those things.
If the human condition appears distressingly prone to war, violence, and atrocity in the 21st century, it is in no small part due to the failures of those of us fortunate to have benefitted from modernity to address its deficiencies elsewhere. Turning our backs on the miseries of others is all too easy but doing so ultimately exacts a heavy price on all.
The return of history
Thirty-four years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, a neo-liberal consensus welcomed the end of history. The great ideological battles of the 20th century had been fought, with capitalism and democracy crowned champions.
Yet history—the history of human conflict—did not end in 1989 as Francis Fukuyama famously declared. It merely took other forms, some familiar, others new. The ideological battles of the Cold War were replaced by ethnic and religious strife in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Nationalism returned, promoting war and re-conquest in the former Soviet Union, most recently via Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Populism and nativism arose to assault the fabric of democracy in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, and India, among others.
Similar manifestations are visible in the shocking events of the past week. Israel, too, has lurched toward right-wing populism, replete with challenges to law and democracy. Disputes about international law and UN resolutions have also unsettled many Palestinians, including those committed to peaceful paths to statehood.
The return of history has also accompanied the relative decline of the United States this century in military, economic, reputational, and ‘soft power’ terms. History has returned with a vengeance in the form of great power politics, characterized by rising powers (China and India) and shifting alliances.
Those forces may also have contributed to last week’s atrocities. We don’t know what exact role Iran may have had with respect to the Hamas attacks, but we do know it has historically supported Hamas. And then there is the budding military alliance between Iran and Russia (with Iran furnishing Russia with weapons, including thousands of military drones, for its campaigns in Ukraine). Whether Russia was somehow linked to Hamas’ treachery is unknown, but Putin surely welcomes a ‘second front’ for the West, which is already fatiguing in its resolve to support Ukraine. That, too, is the stuff of geopolitics and the return of history.
What comes next? We don’t know. Israel may begin a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza. That could draw other powers, such as Iran (via its proxies), into the conflict. Other forms of escalation cannot be ruled out. Via its growing military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and its less visible diplomatic channels, the US is attempting to contain any escalation of the conflict.
Most of us are not soldiers, diplomats, nor politicians. Our levers are not weapons, power, or negotiation, but rather reasoning. At times when the temptation to resign and submit to fate is strongest, when emotions are raw and burials just underway, reasoning seems elusive, even premature. Yet each of us has power in our beings, in our capacity to think and to speak out.
At times like these, it is extraordinarily difficult to try to make sense of the seemingly senseless. But if we are to avoid even more futile acts of reprisal and counter-reprisal, which only build enmity upon enmity, we must engage in reasoned discourse about what lurks behind evil. We cannot confront nor overcome evil if we do not understand its roots and its motivations.
Reasoning is our only hope for understanding, reconciliation, and enduring human progress.