Palestinians celebrate their return after the attack on Israel on October 7. (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: The Bright Line Between Good and Evil

It is crucial to understand what our enemies actually believe.

The latest episode Honestly features something a little different. It’s a replay of an episode of my friend Sam Harris’s podcast, Making Sense. I wanted to put this episode down the Honestly feed—despite the amount of Israel-related content we have already published—because of the moral confusion plaguing this moment. It’s everywhere: from college campuses to Congress. 

Sam, better than almost anyone I know, is able to speak to that confusion, with facts, nuance, and clarity. Read an edited excerpt below, or click to listen to the episode in full. Sam’s words are illuminating and well worth your time. —BW 

In the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack, it’s important to keep in view the bright line that exists between good and a very specific form of evil. It is the evil of bad ideas—ideas so bad that they can make even ordinary human beings impossible to live with. 

There’s a piece of audio from October 7 that many people have commented on. It’s a recording of a cell phone call that a member of Hamas made to his family, while he was in the process of massacring innocent men, women, and children. The man is ecstatic, telling his father and mother, and I think brother, that he has just killed ten Jews with his own hands. He had just murdered a husband and wife and was now calling his family from the dead woman’s phone.

Here’s a partial transcript of what he said:

“Hi, Dad—open my ‎WhatsApp now, and you’ll see all those killed. Look how many I killed with my own hands! Your son killed Jews!”

And his dad says, “May God protect you.”

“Dad, I’m talking to you from a Jewish woman’s phone. I killed her, and I killed her husband. I killed ten with my own hands! Dad, ten with my own hands! Dad, open WhatsApp and see how many I killed, Dad. Open the phone, Dad. I’m calling you on WhatsApp. Open the phone, go. Dad, I killed ten. Ten with my own hands. Their blood is on their hands. [I believe that is a reference to the Quran.] Put Mom on.”

And the father says, “Oh, my son. God bless you!”

“I swear, ten with my own hands. Mother, I killed ten with my own hands!”

And his father says, “May God bring you home safely.”

“Dad, go back to WhatsApp now. Dad, I want to do a live broadcast.”

And the mother now says, “I wish I was with you.”

“Mom, your son is a hero!”

And then, apparently talking to his comrades, he yells, “Kill, kill, kill, kill them.”

And then his brother gets on the line, asking where he is. And he tells his brother the name of the town, and then he says “I killed ten! Ten with my own hands! I’m talking to you from a Jew’s phone!”

And the brother says, “You killed ten?”

“Yes, I killed ten. I swear!”

Then he says, “I am the first to enter on the protection and help of Allah! [Surely that’s another scriptural reference.] Hold your head up, father. Hold your head up! See on WhatsApp those that I killed. Open my WhatsApp.”

And his brother says, “Come back. Come back.”

And he says, “What do you mean, come back? There’s no going back. It is either death or victory! My mother gave birth to me for the religion. What’s with you? How would I return? Open WhatsApp. See the dead. Open it.”

And the mother sounds like she is trying to figure out how to open WhatsApp. . . 

“Open WhatsApp on your phone and see the dead, how I killed them with my own hands.”

And she says, “Well, promise to come back.”

I don’t speak any Arabic, and it seems to me that not every word in the audio that’s being circulated was translated, but I think we get the gist. When I spoke to Graeme Wood about this, he said that to him, the mother and father sounded more shocked and worried than anything else, which would be understandable. But I would submit to you that this piece of audio is more than just the worst WhatsApp commercial ever conceived. It is a window onto a culture. As I told Graeme, this is not the type of call that would have been placed from Vietnam, by an American who just participated in the My Lai massacre. Nor is it the parental reaction one would expect from an American family, had their beloved son just called them from a killing field. I mean, as terrible as Vietnam was, can you imagine a call back to Nebraska, “Mom, I killed ten with my own hands! I killed a woman and her husband, and I’m calling from the dead woman’s phone. Mom, your son is a hero!” Do you see what a total aberration that would have been, even in extremis? 

This call wasn’t a total aberration. This wasn’t Ted Bundy calling his mom. This was an ordinary member of Hamas, a group that might still win an election today, especially in the West Bank, calling an ordinary Palestinian family, and the mere existence of that call, to say nothing of its contents, reveals something about the wider culture among the Palestinians.

It’s important to point out that not only members of Hamas but ordinary Gazans appear to have taken part in the torture and murder of innocent Israelis and the taking of hostages. How many did this? And how many ordinary Gazans were dancing in the streets and spitting on the captured women and girls who were paraded before them after having been raped and tortured? What percentage of Palestinians in Gaza, or the West Bank, many of whom are said to hate Hamas for their corruption and incompetence and brutality, nevertheless support what they did on October 7 with a clear conscience, based on what they believe about Jews and the ethics of jihad? I don’t know, but I’m sure that the answers to these questions would be quite alarming. We’re talking about a culture that teaches Jew hatred and the love of martyrdom in its elementary schools, many of which are funded by the UN. 

Of course, all of this horror is compounded by the irony that the Jews who were killed on October 7 were, for the most part, committed liberals and peace activists. Hamas killed the sorts of people who volunteer to drive sick Palestinians into Israel for medical treatments. They murdered the most idealistic people in Israel. They raped, tortured, and killed young people at a trance dance music festival devoted to peace, half of whom were probably on MDMA feeling nothing but love for all humanity when the jihadists arrived. In terms of a cultural and moral distance, it’s like the fucking Vikings showed up at Burning Man and butchered everyone in sight. 

Just think about what happened at the Supernova music festival: at least 260 people were murdered in the most sadistically gruesome ways possible. Decapitated, burned alive, blown up with grenades. . . and from the jihadist side, this wasn’t an error. It’s not that if they could have known what was in the hearts of those beautiful young people, they would have thought, “Oh my God, we’re killing the wrong people. These people aren’t our enemies. These people are filled with love and compassion and want nothing more than to live in peace with us.” No, the true horror is that, given what jihadists believe, those were precisely the sorts of people any good Muslim should kill and send to hell where they can be tortured in fire for eternity. From the jihadist point of view, there is no mistake here. And there is no basis for remorse. Please absorb this fact: for the jihadist, all of this sadism—the torture and murder of helpless, terrified people—is an act of worship. This is the sacrament. This isn’t some nauseating departure from the path to God. This isn’t stalled spiritual progress, much less sin. This is what you do for the glory of God. This is what Muhammed himself did. 

There is no substitute for understanding what our enemies actually want and believe. I’m pretty sure that many of you reading this aren’t even comfortable with my use of the term enemy, because you don’t want to believe that you have any. I understand that. But you have to understand that the people who butchered over 1,400 innocent men, women, and children in Israel on October 7 were practicing their religion, sincerely. They were being every bit as spiritual, from their point of view, as the trance dancers at the Supernova festival were being from theirs. They were equally devoted to their highest values. Equally uplifted. Ecstatic. Amazed at their good fortune. They wouldn’t want to trade places with anyone. Let this image land in your brain: they were shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) all day long, as they murdered women and children. And these people are now being celebrated the world over by those who understand exactly what they did. Yes, many of those college kids at Harvard and Stanford and Cornell are just idiots who have a lot to learn about the world. But in the Muslim community, and that includes the crowds in London and Sydney and Brooklyn, Hamas is being celebrated by people who understand exactly what motivates them. 

Again, watch Hotel Mumbai or read a book about the Islamic State so that you can see jihadism in another context—where literally not one of the variables that people imagine to be important here is present. There are no settlers or blockades or daily humiliations at checkpoints or differing interpretations of history—and yet we have same grotesque distortion of the spiritual impulse, the same otherworldliness framed by murder, the same absolute evil that doesn’t require the presence of evil people, just confused ones—just true believers. 

Of course, we can do our best to turn the temperature down now. And we can trust that the news cycle will get captured by another story. We can direct our attention again to Russia, or China, or climate change, or AI alignment, and I will do that on this podcast, but the problem of jihadism and the much wider problem of sympathy for it isn’t going away. And civilized people—non-Muslim and Muslim alike—have to deal with it. As I said in a previous podcast on this topic: we all live in Israel now. It’s just that most of us haven’t realized it yet.

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