Some leftists are framing Hamas’s killing of 1,400 Israelis and abduction of 222 more as “decolonization,” believing they’re championing the cause of oppressed Palestinians. In reality, these leftists are condescending to them.
Mass murder, these leftists suggest, is the understandable consequence of Jewish “colonization.” Such a perspective is deeply insulting to Palestinian humanity. It implies that Palestinians are so controlled by circumstance that they lack agency. It implies that Palestinians cannot be expected to behave according to the same ethical standards of those who refrain from mass murder.
The argument that terrorism is an understandable or justifiable reaction to an insidious root cause is nothing new. Just days after 9/11, Susan Sontag infamously criticized public figures and TV commentators for feeding the American people “self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions” about the terrorist attacks. Far from a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty,” she argued that the attack that killed nearly 3,000 civilians was in fact a strike against “the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”
The implication, not unique to Sontag but prevalent among some on the left, is that the act of killing thousands of civilians en masse and unawares is “understandable” if the perpetrators are Arab. There is a kind of patronizing racism in the idea that slaughtering innocent people equates to noble freedom fighting, as if this were the only way to respond to oppression.
Although obviously on a vastly different magnitude of wrongdoing, we see something similar when progressives excuse criminal behavior perpetrated by black Americans. Amid the riots that broke out after George Floyd’s murder, some argued sincerely that the looting and vandalism—generally in neighborhoods in which people of color reside and own the businesses—was a constructive statement of protest. I even think of black California representative Maxine Waters doing the electric slide with Crips and Bloods gang members in 1992 in Los Angeles, in the wake of the riots, assaults, and destruction that followed the exoneration of the officers who attacked Rodney King. That these gang members had murdered people on the street was less important to her than the fact that the black streets had risen up against a white oppressor.
The “root cause” reasoning we learn in sociology class has, or should have, limits. Barbarism is not progress.
Few of those who celebrate savagery in theory would do so when faced with its reality. How many of the people cheering on Hamas as noble freedom fighters could seriously imagine pumping their fists while watching the men on their way to murder Jewish teenagers at a music festival? The abstract, scholarly, Latinate air of the word decolonization is a kind of fig leaf, functioning to—in the parlance of the hard left—distract from actions that are inexcusable in any sane person’s mind.
There is laziness, too, in framing barbarism as progress. Political rebellion can often be driven by the warm comforts of group membership and the self-affirming pride in feeling enlightened, rather than by any feasible political goals or plans. As the American philosopher Eric Hoffer taught us in his 1951 classic The True Believer, “the burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others” contributes to self-esteem. In a mass movement, selflessness demands that the faithful believer elevate the abstract collective goal above individual human beings. Consider that Susan Sontag’s position on 9/11 was informed by her having also called white civilization the “cancer of human history.” Advocating for “social justice” or combating “whiteness” is a more palatable abstraction than advocating for a jihadist caliphate.
It’s one thing to acknowledge that those who are oppressed occasionally transgress societal boundaries. In the 1987 film Born in East L.A, there’s a scene, at a loaded moment in the plot that encourages applause, where a crowd of Mexicans cross the U.S. border illegally. A Mexican American friend once told me that this elicited rapturous cheers from a predominantly Mexican audience in his local theater. But here, the law was being broken not with the intent to harm but to seek a better life. Life has gray zones, and human beings are complex.
But I’m not sure that those who cheer for Hamas are living in gray zones or see Palestinians as complex human beings. The Hamas cheerleaders are effectively saying: Men butchered legions of people in your name. Hooray for them and hooray for you! Classifying Palestinians as “brown” people, purportedly enlightened souls applaud this savagery from their representatives—but from a position of unintended, but ugly, condescension.
John McWhorter is a columnist for The New York Times, an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, and the author of Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @JohnHMcWhorter.
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