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Against numbness: How to keep compassion in a time of war and disconnection

Against numbness: How to keep compassion in a time of war and disconnection
People protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza at a demonstration in Johannesburg on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

‘Curiously, the chiming of the hour seemed to have put new heart into him. He was a lonely ghost uttering a truth nobody would ever hear. But so long as he uttered it, in some obscure way the continuity was not broken. It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage.’ — Winston Smith/George Orwell, ‘1984’.

As a child growing up in the 1970s and 1980s I always imagined that during World War 2, the whole world had literally been at war. 

I imagined that ordinary life must have ground to a halt over those six bloody years in which more than 50 million people were killed. Reading about the times, it’s obvious that while life continued, it was not normal life. The war, and the fear that accompanied it, was always at the forefront of people’s minds.

compassion war gaza

People protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza at a demonstration in Johannesburg on October 28th.
(Photo: Mark Heywood)

We live once again in a time of worldwide wars between states and against peoples. But since the 20th century, something fundamental has shifted in the human psyche, or rather some humans’ psyches. 

This time, many of those who do not find themselves in a direct arena of war, behave as if they have been innoculated against empathy, assisted to be desensitised, to lose empathy and even concern with the lives that are being lost.

What has helped us to this state?

It’s not easy to attribute it to any one thing, it’s an evolutionary process humans have been subject to by their masters and the machines they own; a drip, drip, drip that has changed the way we feel and act. It manifests itself as an othering of the poor, the atomisation of society into have-lots and have-nots, the fake deaths and wars we can watch or participate in on video games, an infodemic of misinformation and the tribalisation of compassion.

Israel-Palestine War: Latest news updates and in-depth analysis

We are being habituated to horror, acclimatised to the abnormal; encouraged to compartmentalise the contiguous, flip the channel, not ask deeper questions of ourselves. I feel as if we are now in George Orwell’s 1984, a society of perpetual wars between Oceania and those on the periphery. 

Never do the two worlds meet. It’s as if we occupy different planets. 

The genocide will be televised

I felt this acutely last Saturday night during the final of the Rugby World Cup. While tens of thousands gathered in a rugby stadium in France, and tens of millions watched and celebrated across the world, a genocide was being perpetrated in plain view. Flip the channel and you can watch the bombs over Gaza.

“Would you like some genocide with your rugby, sir?”

This is history: the first genocide we can watch live on TV. In this way we are all participants, which makes all of us complicit.

compassion war gaza

People protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza at a demonstration in Johannesburg on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

As I listened to the roar of the crowd in the Stade de France I thought of the roar of bombs raining down on Gaza. 

As I felt the joy of the game, I couldn’t obliterate the despair and fear that engulfed millions. 

Were any of the two million people who live in Gaza watching the rugby World Cup on Saturday night? I wondered. 

I doubt it.

Not least because around that time, the Israeli government cut access to the internet, electricity having already gone days before.

Many of you will think I’m a spoiler raising this issue. Sorry, but it has to be done because war and rugby, or war and sport, are both at the very core of our humanity, ways of connection to each other. We thought we had outlawed one, or at least regulated it. We were wrong.

The emotions that caused millions of Springbok fans to jump out of our seats, shout, scream, go quiet in suspense, fear defeat, are the same emotions that in one way or another should be being triggered by what is happening in Gaza. They flow from the same neurological circuits in our brains.

But one set of emotions is on fire. The other is dead. 

Why are we so passive and accepting?

compassion war gaza

People protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza at a demonstration in Johannesburg on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Thankfully, an unprecedented number of people are standing up and protesting. They come from different races, faiths, classes. They take a stand in groups and as individuals. They are expressing their humanity. 

But many many more people are not.

Nearly 4,000 children have been killed so far, and many more to come. There aren’t words to express it. Pedicide? Infanticide? Genocide? Whatever it is, it’s a whole lot of horror.

Israel-Gaza war: Years of waiting, a miracle of four babies, one deadly strike | Middle East Eye

But it’s not just the children who deserve our pity. Adults are equally innocent. Young people in love. Dead. People with dreams, ambitions, desires. Dead. People who wanted to live. Dead.

Whole generations of whole families. Dead.

People in a cage, sitting ducks, unable to avoid the bullets or the bombs. Dying.

There are 230 hostages in Gaza’s tunnels and 6,600 hostages in Israeli jails. They all live with the same fear, every breathing minute.

On the West Bank settlers are being given carte blanche to act out hate, to launch brute attacks on people and villages. The police can shoot with impunity; 150 at least dead. Just for being Arab. “A new Nakba”, the original inhabitants of the land call it.

compassion war gaza

People protest against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza at a demonstration in Johannesburg on 28 October 2023. (Photo: Mark Heywood)

Understandably, nobody is counting the cost of non-human life. This might seem a mundane suggestion, but can you imagine the trauma of people’s pets? Cats and dogs ripped from their child-friends. 

And what about the sheer fear millions of people are living with? The trauma of a witness? The loss without emotional space to grieve? Dead people can’t speak for themselves, but diaries of the living, like this one carried in The Guardian in the UK, can transport us into the psychic line of fire, if not the temporal.

Consider the words of Ziad, a 35-year-old Palestinian living in Gaza as he tries to express his emotions in the 13th part of his diary:

“I am writing, but everything I write is a drop in the ocean. Like Manara, I feel only a part of me is expressing the pain I am going through, yet there are many left voiceless. I wish I could let out every emotion and experience and thought I have. I wish the walls could talk to share the fear we’re living in between them all night.

I wish the sky could talk to share everything it witnesses: people roaming the streets not knowing where to go or whether they will have food for the next day – or whether they will be alive.

I wish the mirrors could talk to share the tragedy on our faces that is adding so many years to our actual age. I wish someone could hug me and tell me it is over.”

Are you moved?

Culpable genocide

We can’t be unmoved by crimes against humanity. Or can we?
We can’t be bystanders to a genocide. But maybe we are?
We can’t be neutral. Neither can we get away with, “yes, buts… ”
We can’t take positions by omission.
We can’t ignore the suffering because it’s not our tribe.
We can’t abandon compassion and connection.
We can’t stay silent. DM

This article reflects the author’s own views and was written in his personal capacity.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Duncan Arthur says:

    I don’t have a dog in this fight. Didn’t Hamas start it? Please don’t go back decades, centuries, millennia. And I am not excusing Israel

    • Michael Britton says:

      First of all, Duncan, not all Palestinians are Hamas, just as Israelis are not all Zionists. (Nor are all Capetonians DA supporters, or Stormers supporters.) Sharpen your focus, please.
      While you do not have to go back decades, it does provide the all-important aspect of context. And closing your eyes to the cause and effect, the politics and suppression that gave rise to Hamas, is shortsighted and blinkered. I don’t condone Hamas; they’re not innocent and there is no excuse for their atrocities, even if their actions arise out of desperation.
      However, you miss the main point. Nothing can justify or excuse the excessive wanton killing of thousands of civilians in revenge; it does not excuse the destruction of homes, schools, and places of worship. And it certainly does not excuse the inhuman reaction and responses of the Israeli defense force (check the links in Heywood’s article), or the cutting of electricity and the blockade of supplies, effectively starving to death the people of Gaza who are not killed by indiscriminate bombing. The Israeli government are right-wing extremists who react to protest and resistance in the same way as the Apartheid government did (1976 killing of children in Soweto – remember that?) Except the Israelis do it more brutally with weapons supplied by the USA, and with USA government support.
      The closing lines of Dylan’s Masters of War are apt for the war mongers of the world: I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead.

      • T'Plana Hath says:

        I see your Bob Dylan and raise you Billy Joel:
        “Cold War kids were hard to kill
        Under their desks in an air raid drill
        Haven’t they heard we won the war
        What do they keep on fighting for?

        And in that bright October sun
        We knew our childhood days were done
        And I watched my friends go off to war
        What do they keep on fighting for?”

      • robby 77 says:

        If you think Hamas did this out of desperation, you truly don’t understand Hamas. Read their founding charter.

    • Yahya Atiya says:

      1) Israel created Hamas, just as the US created Saddam and ISIS, then lost control of them
      2) Israel has been going about its business since 1958, thirty years before Hamas was born.
      3) There is no Hamas in the West Bank. What’s Israel and its supporters excuse for their belligerence there?
      4) Hamas is called a terrorist group. By whom? The same people who supported the Nats and called the ANC terrorist, and kept Mandela on a terror watch list until well into the 21st century – US, Israel and the rest of Europe.

      Before you go believing the tropes and CNN\BBC narratives about “evil” Hamas, consider all of this.

  • Denise Smit says:

    Mr Heywood , we dare you go to Israel and journal their side of this story and write an article about it, but you can not and will not do it because of your own fixed ideas. Not a word about the 240 hostages in your article. They mean nothing to you. Denise Smit

    • John P says:

      Denise you should read the whole article before you comment, quote from above
      “There are 230 hostages in Gaza’s tunnels and 6,600 hostages in Israeli jails. They all live with the same fear, every breathing minute.”
      Additionally perhaps before you suggest that the author goes to Israel you should offer to go to Gaza and provide commentary from both sides of the war.

      I do not condone what Hamas have done nor what what Israel has done over the years. I wish only that mankind will learn one day to treat others with the same respect and compassion that we all think that we are entitled to ourselves.

  • Farid Esack says:

    This is a curious one. Why is there a specific DM disclaimer at the end that the article is NOT endorsed by the DM? In a newspaper, a) one would assume that the paper’s position is stated in the editorial b) that the paper is accountable for news reports.

    I have checked other opinion pieces by Haywood and have not seen, this disclaimer at all.

    Is this the DM signaling that it distances itself from Haywood/his article? Why would you need to do this if your readers’ assumption should be that this is a ‘critical’ publication presenting different perspectives, regardless of whether its contents are agreeable to its owners or not?

    Ps. Am I the only one who notices that, with the rare exceptions, all the folks who comment on DM articles are White? Just asking for a friend whose question is entirely his and which I distance myself from.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    “A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest
    models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done.
    If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you
    feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been
    made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no
    virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and
    uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
    Tim O’Brien, ‘How to tell a true war story’ from “The Things They Carried”, (1990).

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    I have commented on Mark Heywood’s daily articles / posts. His perspective is intentionally disingenuous. He uses pictures of Jewish (?) pro-Palestine protestors as if to justify his viewpoint, as well as now a genteel lady with her dog. We know that these marches really celebrate Jewish death, call for an extermination of Israel in general and Jews in particular and for a judenfrei Palestine (“from the river to the sea”). He also uses the word “genocide” liberally and without definition or context (which is an offence to people who have experienced the largest real genocide the world has ever seen, by a long way, within living memory). Now he goes much further and equates the Israeli hostages with prisoners held in Israeli prisons.

    Indeed Mark Heywood, in your very own words “This is history: the first genocide we can watch live on TV. In this way we are all participants, which makes all of us complicit.” Do you even realise what you just wrote there?

  • Lil Mars says:

    I don’t see anything in this piece about Hamas putting the thousands of Palestinians in mortal danger. Only the Isrealis are to blame for the loss of lives apparently. Yes, I agree the killing must stop and I am sickened by the acts of violence from both sides. I expected better from Mr Heywood.

    • Yahya Atiya says:

      Israel is certainly to blame for fomenting the environment that gave birth to groups like Hamas. Tell me, how does Hamas threaten the people in the West Bank? There’s no Hamas there. What’s Israel’s excuse for wanton detention, check points, Frank apartheid, continuing settler violence etc etc there?

  • M A says:

    Obadiah 1:20-21:
    The exiles of Israel will return to their land and occupy the Phoenician coast as far north as Zarephath. The captives from Jerusalem exiled in the north will return home and resettle the towns of the Negev.
    Those who have been rescued will go up to Mount Zion in Jerusalem to rule over the mountains of Edom.
    And the Lord himself will be king!

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