I felt like I was holding my breath as I listened to the profanity-laced diatribe. Then the message ended and another angry message started- the same person, angry over a perceived slight. When that message ended, I took a deep breath. I could ignore it and move on with my day, but it bothered me. I decided to call back, not knowing if another angry tirade awaited me. Instead, the voice on the other end of the line was calm, apologetic. She even wished me a good day at the end of the call.
It was such a startling contrast and I found myself thinking about it the rest of the day. Why the change? Was it because she was actually speaking to me instead of a machine? Is it a similar phenomenon to the one where people leave nasty comments online saying things they would never say to other people in person? When we are removed from other people whether by physical or emotional distance, we can feel like we are shouting into the void. And the void doesn't have emotions, doesn't feel pain. And this creates an edge to our words.
On October 7th, during a major Jewish holiday, Hamas militants launched a terror attack on Israeli civilians- one of the most heinous and condemnable attacks in recent history. And as the world reeled from the shock of the horrific violence perpetrated on civilians, many immediately began to post their thoughts online. Some comments were reactions of pain, others were cheerful comments applauding the murder and rape of civilians in Israel, some called for the destruction of the Gaza Strip, some called for peace, some were comments offering their own solution to the perpetual Middle Eastern conflict. In the end, no matter what was thought or said, the matter was out of our control.
Because the violence is happening thousands of miles away from most of us and because many people don't know anyone in that area or anyone who has been affected by the violence, it is easy to make comments or grand proclamations of what should be done or who deserves what. It's easy to shout slogans or repeat talking points. The people who actually being affected are images on social media, or images on television, and it makes it easy to forget that these are real people, with real lives, caught in an awful struggle.
I visited Israel once, ten years ago, and traveled around the country with a group of young adults. During our trip, we met several IDF soldiers and were able to get to know them. Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about them and soldiers like them- when I visited Israel, the IDF soldiers accompanying us were younger than me, in their late teens/early 20's. When people celebrate the deaths of soldiers, they aren't thinking of young people at the start of their lives, they are thinking of some multi-headed monster. Likewise, when people cheer for the destruction of the people in Gaza, they are cheering on the death of some faceless enemy, not mothers or children. There are commenters online decrying the murder and brutalization of women and children only to cheer on the murder of women and children on the "other side." It reminds me of the weeks after September 11th, when some of my classmates (angry over the death of American civilians) said they wished Afghanistan would be bombed to nothingness, forgetting that there are unarmed civilians there as well. Feeling removed from others makes it easier to say these sorts of things.
There is no easy answer to the conflict in the Middle East, despite what internet commentators and talking heads would have us believe. And this situation is out of our control. As we hold our breath and wait to see what will unfold, however, what we do have control over is our acknowledgment of others' humanity and to remember that, as we feel pain and anguish, so do they. And because we are acknowledging others' humanity, we cannot celebrate the death or degradation of human beings, no matter the past, no matter the belief, no matter the allegiance. And if that's the only light we can bring to a dark situation, at least it's something.