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How Many Innocent People Must Die Before Revenge Is Served?

Hamas committed unspeakable violence against Israeli civilians. Israel has responded with mass atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza—with no end in sight.

A Palestinian man carries the body of a child killed in Israeli shelling
A Palestinian man carries the body of a child killed in Israeli shelling, during a funeral in the southern Gaza Strip on October 10.

“The children are always ours, every single one of them, all over the globe; and I am beginning to suspect that whoever is incapable of recognizing this may be incapable of morality.”

James Baldwin

On October 13, one week after Hamas’s unthinkable terrorist attack on the people of Israel, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin marched along the tarmac at Israel’s Nevatim Air Base, just 40 miles east of Gaza. He was there to witness the second payload of munitions from the United States to Israel, ostensibly to be used in defense of the border. A lone CNN reporter quick-stepped alongside Austin and his entourage, asking what assurances Austin had from Israel that the weapons would not be used against civilians. 

Austin stopped, turned on the reporter, and answered with silence. He didn’t have a prepared response. Eventually he muttered a nonanswer, passing the buck to the Israeli military, calling it a “professional force” that would “do the right thing.”

Perspective is the first casualty of war. We tell ourselves what we need to tell ourselves to commit the horrors that we are horrified our enemy committed first. How quickly we shed our illusion of decency, so shocked by the moment that we accept that destroying an enemy hiding behind civilians necessitates killing the civilians. We respond to atrocities by committing more atrocities, and then act surprised when the pendulum swings back in our direction. 

Every law of war, every superhero ethos, every shred of common sense and basic decency tells us that the good guys are the ones who don’t kill children. The Israeli children butchered on October 6 were no one’s enemy; nor the more than 700 Gazan children killed in the first week of the war by the Israeli response; nor the 16 Israeli children taken hostage by Hamas to use as human shields; nor the 551 Palestinian children that Israeli forces killed to eliminate 600 terrorists in 2014; nor the 25 settler children who died from terror attacks over the past 15 years; nor the unknown number of children currently lying under the rubble of the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza City. 

Beyond these unconscionable deaths—which we commit fully conscious—is the terror they spread, ensuring the pendulum never loses momentum. Across the globe, synagogues and temples are hunkering down, Jews and Muslims alike fearing retribution for the crimes of nations, knowing that even thousands of miles from the battlefield, civilians have the most to fear. ​​(On Saturday, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American in Illinois, Wadea Al Fayoume, was stabbed to death by his family’s landlord for being Muslim, police say.) 

There is no reasonable doubt that Israel has the right to defend its people, particularly against such an existential threat as Hamas, whose unspeakable acts have cost them all shreds of legitimacy, both in the eyes of the world and the Palestinian people they hide behind. Israel has every right to pursue its legitimate enemies with a scorched-earth vengeance. 

There is also no reasonable doubt that Palestinian civilians are not among these legitimate enemies. The vast majority were as horrified by Hamas’s actions as the rest of the world, even though Israel has spent the past 15 years playing warden to a de facto prison—locking two million people into a space half the size of New York City; limiting their right to travel; severely curtailing the basic necessities of food, water, and power; and dropping the occasional explosive, killing more than 6,000 innocent Palestinians in an ongoing (and escalating) campaign of terror and humiliation. 

It is a sad statistical fact that the children traumatized by the events of today are the extremists of tomorrow. Whether their family and friends meet their end from a Hamas bullet, an Israeli rocket, or an American bomb (we are the world’s largest arms dealer, accounting for 40 percent of international arms sales), these children will bear a generational trauma that demands a commitment to retribution. Only their nationality will determine whether they rise through the ranks of a DIY terrorist organization or an organized military machine. It won’t matter if they are targeting civilians or going through civilians to reach their target, they will plough through innocents to get to the guilty. They will repay in multiples with the blood of other civilians for the blood of theirs. 

Terrorism is a generational and self-sustaining beast, fed by the doctrine of managing crises instead of solving them, letting seething resentments fester with no eye toward protecting the generation to come. It is an uncomfortable fact that the U.S. helped create Al Qaeda to counter the Soviets, and Israel encouraged Hamas as a backstop against the Palestine Liberation Organization, both countries making the world a more dangerous place for their own people. 

So let’s call it what it is in the most practical terms—not a war between Israelis and Palestinians, or Muslims and Jews, but between an extremist authoritarian government with potentially genocidal intentions and a violent terrorist group with clear genocidal intentions. Caught between them are the innocents, the very people we fight wars to protect.   

Humanity does not lurch from war to war. We lurch from humanitarian crisis to humanitarian crisis, which last longer and are far more costly than the wars that keep them rolling one upon the next. We are already appalled at the human toll on both sides of the border, barely two weeks into the conflict. But the sheer number of innocent deaths to come will absolutely dwarf the number already lost. Geographically, it will only be the beginning. The fight threatens to spill into places like Jordan, Lebanon, Iran—pick a compass point—where more than 100 million civilians are watching the war in fear, wondering if they will be next.

The attack on Israel has already been subtitled “Israel’s 9/11” for the sheer scale of its horror and the intelligence failures that allowed it. The U.S. responded to 9/11 with $6.4 trillion wasted on two ground invasions-cum-occupations, a pro-torture foreign policy, and millions of people killed or displaced by a misguided “war on terror” that made Americans their own worst enemies. 

We have given ourselves a pass on the more than 300,000 Iraqi and 400,000 Afghan civilians who died in the name of the 2,977 Americans killed on 9/11. We used the killing of our civilians to justify the killing of their civilians in far greater numbers, (or in the case of Iraq, which wasn’t involved in 9/11, the nearest civilians available). We allowed horrific slaughter that caught us by surprise to justify systematic slaughter that we carefully planned on a much larger scale. And we got away with it.

So here we are again, angry and broken, helping an ally unleash hell on the world’s largest refugee camp, counting “our” innocents separately from “their” innocents, as if they weren’t the same thing. We must answer terrorist attacks, of course, but in a way where retribution does not cascade into endless generations of slaughter. How we choose to navigate our pain and anger today casts the die for the world that inherits our choices. If we want to stop terrorism, we need to stop creating terrorists.