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'I Have No Pain Left To Feel'
Some brief reflections on suffering, victimhood, and violence.
As some of you know, I started in a new position at The Washington Post as a columnist and member of the Editorial Board (announcement here). Obviously, this is a big shift after being at Brookings for 14 years. My debut column came out last week, titled "In the Israeli-Palestinian debate, you might be wrong. Be humble." It’s possible you might hate it, but I think it’s more likely that you’ll find at least something useful in it. It is, after all, about “intellectual humility.”
I am including a couple paragraphs below, but I do hope you’ll give the whole thing a read. Before that, though, I just wanted to add some context and share with you what’s been on my mind. I know many of you have been struggling with how to make sense of what has happened these past two weeks. It hits personally for anyone who has ties, friends, or family in the region. My mother shared with me a story of a friend who was dehumanizing the other “side,” casting them all as enemies to be destroyed. The friend told her, “I have so much pain, I don’t have any pain left to feel for them.” What can you really say to that?
So much of the discourse from “both sides” involves some version of: “they started it,” “they killed our children,” and “they should be made to suffer just as we did.” In some ways, these are the most natural, human feelings you can imagine. But it is from these natural feelings that evil arises. And so we must steel ourselves against the temptation to view violence as cleansing. It is not. It never is. This isn’t to say pacifism is the answer. It is to say, however, that the use of violence in the name of redressing wrongs has a corrosive effect on the soul and mind.
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I don’t feel entirely comfortable asking Palestinians—particularly those with family who have been killed by Israeli bombs—to adopt “intellectual humility” as their north star. Nor do I expect the loved ones of the Israelis massacred by Hamas to be particularly concerned with “proportionality” and the laws of war.
This isn’t about expecting less of people who have suffered, but it is to recognize that being measured and reasonable in a time of war is actually quite difficult. Religion, I think, is especially important in times like these, tempering as it does otherwise natural human impulses towards vengeance. Religion reminds us that morality is not, and cannot be, situational. To say that “desperate times call for desperate measures” is actually an argument that al-Qaeda took as its lodestar in the 2000s. This distinctly secular rationale, expounded in depth in Abu Bakr Naji’s The Management of Savagery, doesn’t even attempt to be in line with religious tradition. It attempts to supersede religious tradition.
For those of who are living with or under perpetual violence, all times are exceptional and all times are desperate. There is no room for comparative victimhood when your own victimization in the only thing that feels tangible and overwhelming. I have not myself experienced these feelings, at least not in the full sense, but I have tried my best to study and document them, including in other massacres, such as the one that took place in Egypt in 2013. But if they can’t be reasonably expected to practice intellectual humility at a moment like this, the least we can do is attempt to practice it ourselves.
With that, here are a couple excerpts from my column:
The search for truth, even if one finds it, should not involve rigidity. We are all a product of our environments. When it comes to Israel and Palestine in particular, we bring our own preconceptions to any debate — our own selective read of history and our own developed sense of injustice. This is not about a disagreement over facts; it’s about how to interpret them. My hope is that more Americans will understand this, considering how much we disagree with one another over our own founding as a nation.
For their part, pro-Palestinian activists tend to emphasize an original set of injustices that occurred in 1948 when Israel was created — namely, the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and homes — and then the subsequent injustice of a never-ending occupation that began in 1967. Because these are the original sins, everything else can seem like a distraction from the core grievance. Even for Palestinian opponents of Hamas — and there are many — Hamas might be vile, but it is more a symptom of the conflict than a cause.
In a beautiful 2003 valediction for Palestinian American academic Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens reminded readers of his estranged friend’s memorable description of the Palestinians as “victims of the victims,” a phrase as evocative as it is tragic. While performative victimization and trauma-sharing have become faddish in elite American circles, among Palestinians, victimization is very much real and deeply felt.
Talking about atrocities after the fact is a minefield. In a time of war, doing it well requires precisely the kind of presumptive generosity toward the other “side” that war itself militates against. Intellectual humility is difficult, but it should be easier for the powerful, because while they have more to lose, they are less likely to lose it.
Read the whole thing here.