Have We Learned Nothing?

There’s a pervasive censoriousness right now—conservatives denouncing liberals, liberals denouncing leftists, leftists denouncing other leftists—that’s immediately familiar from the days and weeks after 9/11.

The comparison is apt

Photo of explosion in Gaza
Gaza, October 9, 2023. Photograph by Trong Khiem Nguyen

“Liberal masochism is of no use to us at a time like this, and Muslim self-pity even less so. Self-preservation and self-respect make it necessary to recognize and name a lethal enemy when one sees one.”
—Christopher Hitchens, September 19, 2001

I could start with the immediate victims of the incursion—the hundreds of Israeli civilians murdered by Hamas, the most Jews killed in a day since the Holocaust; revelers butchered at a music festival, whole families snuffed out in an instant; the young and the elderly alike violated, mutilated, kidnapped, and held hostage for a ransom that may never be paid. I could, and now I have, but why did I feel compelled to start there? Maybe because I’m a Jew, an American, a Westerner living under the protection of laws and a vast military apparatus that undergirds those laws, and it’s only natural for me to identify first with people like me when violence is inflicted on them. Maybe it’s a gesture of support for my Jewish relatives and friends who feel personally traumatized, and who insist on a brief window in which to grieve without having to consider any wider political context. Or maybe I want to acknowledge that based only on the confirmed facts, what took place on Saturday was gruesome on a level that dwarfs anything we’ve seen inflicted on Israeli civilians. In the current discursive climate, it seems mandatory to dwell on these horrors before I say anything else, to establish that I’m a decent human being who neither endorses nor averts my eyes from Hamas’s depravities. I hope I’ve sufficiently established this, and at the same time I know I haven’t, that acknowledgment isn’t the solidarity many are demanding right now. Real solidarity would mean skipping over the next part.

Regardless, now I could pivot to talking about how two million Palestinian civilians are trapped in Gaza; how most of them have spent their entire lives in the tiny fenced-off enclave with no means of escape, with access to food, fuel, and electricity wholly dependent on Israel’s good graces; how the reason they live in what amounts to an overcrowded refugee camp is because Israel ethnically cleansed countless Palestinian villages during its 1948 war of independence; how the Palestinians of Gaza have known nothing but poverty and dispossession and periodic bombing campaigns in flagrant violation of the Geneva conventions, the worst of which is now only just beginning, as Israel pummels civilian neighborhoods without warning and calls up reserves for a potential ground invasion that will inflict unimaginable suffering; how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet includes multiple outspoken genocidaires whose explicit aim is the further ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and how none of this has stopped the US government from spending billions of dollars a year subsidizing Israel’s criminal colonization of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. I could, and now I have, but I’ve done so cognizant that at least some of the people reading this already know all that and can’t be bothered to care at the moment.

“This is not an issue with two sides,” Bari Weiss intoned on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Tuesday, where she was given more than five uninterrupted minutes to reduce the entire century-old conflict to Hamas rapists and murderers vs. innocent Israelis, and to smear pro-Palestinian demonstrators around the world as antisemites. “Reject, with great force and wrath, the death cult that has gripped so much of American political, public, and intellectual life and that sees virtue in propping up benighted regimes in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” wrote Liel Leibovitz at Tablet. “We don’t need an integrated Middle East, because we don’t wish to integrate with the murderous mullahs and their packs of wild animals.” For those aligned with Weiss’s and Leibovitz’s uncompromising right-wing Zionism, the stakes are unambiguous and the way forward is clear: Israel is licensed to wage genocidal war against Gaza, to treat the Palestinians living there, in the words of Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as “human animals.” For those Israeli ministers already committed to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the horror of the incursion brings with it catharsis and clarity: now is the time to execute on their vision, backed morally and financially by all the great powers of the West, and unencumbered by those who would normally hold them to account.

The latter are largely muffled right now. “Level the place” is the line Republicans like Lindsey Graham are taking with Gaza, to zero pushback from cable anchors. The vast majority of Democrats, including the Biden Administration, likewise offer lockstep support for Israel, and the left flank of the party deviates only by degrees when it calls for “restraint” and at least nods at the suffering of Palestinians. I expect New York’s persistently underwhelming Democratic governor Kathy Hochul to preemptively condemn a nonviolent rally in Times Square in support of Palestinian liberation as “abhorrent and morally repugnant,” but for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to echo her by calling out “bigotry and callousness” at the same rally is disappointing. AOC was likely referring to the swastika image one young unidentified demonstrator presented on their phone in front of a camera, not to the premise of ending the occupation, which she is on record supporting (she identified herself with “the thousands of New Yorkers who are capable of rejecting both Hamas’ horrifying attacks against innocent civilians as well as the grave injustices and violence Palestinians face under occupation”), but she’s savvy enough to understand the utility of distancing herself from the cause amid the current political climate in New York. She is far from alone in this; Bernie Sanders and almost every member of the left-leaning “Squad” in Congress have been walking on eggshells since the incursion, aware that even the most tepid pro-Palestinian gesture can backfire politically under these circumstances. Rep. Shri Thanedar, the Michigan Democrat elected to the House last year, announced today he was renouncing his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America over the rally. What progress had been made in recent years pushing liberal Zionists leftward turns out to have been very fragile; one I’m close to read Nathan Thrall’s new book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama, a week ago and found its account of the everyday indignities of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank eye-opening, but this week it’s the furthest thing from his mind.

The events of the past weekend have been called Israel’s 9/11. The comparison is apt. At the most basic level, the scale of Israeli casualties, which are still being tallied, greatly exceeds the casualty count of 9/11 as a percentage of the society in question. The scale of the intelligence failure is likewise comparable; all sides are united in wondering how Israel’s lavishly funded, reputedly sophisticated security state managed to miss a border incursion of this magnitude. 9/11 was America’s greatest humiliation since Pearl Harbor, and Hamas’s incursion is Israel’s greatest humiliation since the Yom Kippur War, a full fifty years ago. (In at least one respect, the analogy fails: it took mainstream US media years to begin to acknowledge that George W. Bush had failed to protect American lives, while Netanyahu’s failure is already a topic of fierce public debate in Israel, where Haaretz and some members of the military elite are calling for the prime minister’s resignation.)

But I also can’t remember a time since 9/11 when emotion and bloodlust overwhelmed reason as thoroughly as they do now, including among liberal elites in media and politics. The lasting impact of the 9/11 attacks was a kind of collective psychosis that overcame most Americans, and perhaps especially those in the DC–NYC corridor charged with crafting and enforcing conventional wisdom, who had witnessed the attacks up close. After 9/11, Christian zealots who longed for a crusade against the Muslim world and secular intellectuals who longed to overthrow Arab dictatorships and remake them in America’s image were free to say so in public without apology, and to see their ideas put into bloody practice. More sober voices, meanwhile, struggled with how to calibrate their words. It wasn’t that American elites were unaware that the United States had committed injustices around the world, or that 9/11 could plausibly be construed as blowback; it was that 9/11 had given them permission not to care. US support for Israeli apartheid, Saudi theocracy, and Pakistani covert operations across the Khyber Pass might all have been hard to defend, but it was distasteful to bring any of that up while Lower Manhattan smoldered and the faces of the missing were posted on every corner. No one could rationally assert the premise of American innocence, but rationality was beside the point. These were the conditions in which it was possible to sell the public, including leading liberal outlets, on a destructive imperial adventure in Iraq that virtually everyone now acknowledges was premised on false intelligence and wildly hubristic ambitions.

As Spencer Ackerman recalls in Reign of Terror, his grim accounting of the disastrous twenty years that followed 9/11, Susan Sontag was the rare public intellectual who tried to express a degree of nuance and historical context in the days following the attacks; for this, she was accused of “moral obtuseness” by the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and “self-flagellation” by the New Republic’s Lawrence F. Kaplan. Andrew Sullivan named a snarky “award” for moral equivalence after Sontag and continued handing it out long after her death in 2004. It took years for Sontag’s posthumous reputation to fully recover and for her warnings to seem like retroactive common sense—years during which America launched two catastrophic full-scale invasions, established ongoing secret wars spanning a dozen countries, set up a transnational network of torture camps and a prison in Cuba that exists outside the reach of the Constitution, built a dystopian digital panopticon to spy on literally everyone, and killed orders of magnitude more civilians than died on 9/11 itself.

That America overreacted to 9/11 and compounded the scale of the tragedy is now a standard position among progressives, and even some conservatives; these days it takes little courage to denounce “the forever wars” and to condemn the shortsightedness of liberal intellectuals who aligned themselves with George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers to champion the invasion of Iraq. But at the time, it was far more common for conscientious progressives to equivocate and prevaricate. To foreground the suffering of the Americans in the Twin Towers was obligatory; to acknowledge the past, present, or future victims of American violence abroad was at best awkward; to imply these things might be related was something almost no one wanted to hear when it might have made any difference.

Had Twitter existed on 9/11, I have no doubt that there would have been voices on the left taking advantage of the platform to broadcast support for Al-Qaeda’s political agenda and justifications of the tactics employed in service of that agenda. Twitter, or whatever we’re supposed to call it, does exist now. Unverified reports of particular atrocities now circulate uncorrected and unquestioned thanks to Elon Musk’s steady degradation of the platform he acquired a year ago; if in the early 2000s, policymakers relied on a handful of TV networks and the New York Times to disseminate disinformation, today anyone can do so at will. I do know a few people posting defenses of Hamas. I can’t and won’t defend that organization’s methods or its underlying ideology, and I also wish more people on all sides were aware of Netanyahu’s longstanding, documented tacit support for Hamas as a means of dividing Palestinians and entrenching the occupation. Nonetheless, I’m unclear what purpose condemnation serves; when nonviolent resistance to the occupation is all but criminalized (thirty-four US states have passed laws against the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement), it feels almost absurd to object to violent resistance in principle.

There’s a pervasive censoriousness right now—conservatives denouncing liberals, liberals denouncing leftists, leftists denouncing other leftists—that’s immediately familiar from the days and weeks after 9/11. Somehow, the upshot of all the denunciations and condemnations is the right’s unchallenged hold over the discourse, and, more importantly, the ultimate facts on the ground.

“They’re already dead,” I recall a campus antiwar activist saying to me on the night Bush announced that the US had begun bombing Iraq. He was right; hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were about to die in Bush’s folly, their fates already decided. At the time I understood and somewhat appreciated what the activist was saying, but I also was parochial enough to wonder whether he even cared about the Americans at Ground Zero who were literally already dead (never mind that Iraq had nothing to do with what happened to them). Today, though, his words echo in my head as I think about the Palestinians in Gaza, and the agony of knowing that they’re already dead no matter what any of us feel or think or say.

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