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How ‘Suicidal’ Empathy Empowers Radicalism and War

No one can ever claim again that the jihadists are merely backward fanatics. They knew what many didn’t.

The most important part of the Wall Street Journal’s exposé on Yahya Sinwar’s text messages, in which he admitted to using Gazans as human shields in the war against Israel, is not the messages themselves. Rather, it is the collapse of the world’s will to act accordingly to what he says. Anyone familiar with this issue wouldn’t have needed to wait for the messages to know Sinwar has a cold disregard for human life or to know that he is not the first Palestinian leader to embrace the bloodshed of their own people as a means to pressure Israel. Nor is it a particularly unique phenomenon for jihadists to see death as “necessary sacrifices.”

And yet, from the day this news hit the pages, social media and political commentary was ablaze with denial. It’s as if the plotter of October 7, whose orders led to the brutal murders and mass rapes of over 1,000 people, including children, was just not enough evidence for some people to acknowledge the evil. Cognitive dissonance may serve as a temporary refuge, but it ultimately collapses when the intersection of reality and consequence meet.

It does no one any good to deny that there are actually people in the world who will strategically force their own women and children into the line of fire so that they can inflict further violence and damage upon their enemies. Hamas fires rockets from hospitals, mosques, schools, and other sites calculated to create carnage when the Israelis return fire. Hamas snipers have killed Palestinian civilians as they fled, to discourage others from attempting to move to safety. The brutality and cynicism of Hamas’s tactics are unmistakable; their use of civilian infrastructure and their investment in extensive tunnel networks are not random acts but deliberate components of their military doctrine. This isn’t mere posturing; it’s a policy that they’ve consistently enacted apart of their lunatic fever dream of “obliterating” Israel.

No one can ever claim again that the jihadists are merely backward fanatics. They knew what many didn’t. Above all, they knew that maximizing the loss of innocent life on their own side would provoke outrage and political conflict in free societies, which place a far greater value on human life. They knew that enough antisemitism and Jew haters existed in the world, awaiting a call to action. They knew not only how to inflict physical damage but also how to manipulate global perceptions and exploit people’s natural empathy. They knew their only means of survival was if Israel were forced into a premature ceasefire that enabled them to live to fight another day. They knew that due to the prevailing perception of Israel, even when Ghazi Hamad of the terror group’s politburo committed their future to repeating the atrocities of October 7 until Israel is destroyed, it would barely ripple the bloody waters of public opinion that Israel navigates. “We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do it twice and three times. The Al-Aqsa Deluge [the name Hamas gave its October 7 onslaught] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.” Hamad further declared, “Will we have to pay a price? Yes, and we are ready to pay it. We are called a nation of martyrs, and we are proud to sacrifice martyrs.” This declaration, much like recent messages from Sinwar, scarcely registered with the so-called humanists.

There are a few reasons for this, not least of all the virulent Jew haters, but I want to touch upon two other enabling factors: suicidal empathy, and the reluctance to confront certain realities surrounding Islam in the 21st century.

Empathy, that foundational virtue, crucial for the coherence of any society, that links us intimately with the pain of others and cultivates a profound sense of our shared humanity is a double-edged sword, particularly susceptible to manipulation by those with nefarious motives. Consider how in intimate relationships, for instance, an abuser may cynically exploit our empathetic impulses to perpetrate grievous harm upon us, those we hold dear, or to gaslight us and to keep their grip of control over us. This is no different to what Hamas has been doing to the world for nine months.

It’s clear that empathizing with the suffering of civilians is necessary and morally right, but the real danger here is suicidal empathy. By denying what is occurring—whether through active support for Hamas, blind hatred for Israel, refusing to call on Hamas to surrender, or through culpable ignorance—we allow such manipulative strategies to succeed, setting a perilous precedent. If Hamas’s methods prove effective, which to date they have, they will only inspire other jihadi groups to adopt similar tactics. This scenario would create a future where human shields and civilian casualties become normalized elements of warfare, extending the threat far beyond Israel and endangering any free society caught in the midst of conflict .At that point, the jihadists wouldn’t need to win a war—perhaps not even fight one. They could attack, use their own civilians as shields, and then wait for the population of the country they just targeted to rally so violently against their own governments that they would force their leaders into submission. This is a day no one should wish to see. If you doubt that this could occur, just ask yourself when any of the Palestine protests in New York, Chicago, Harvard, or Berkeley made public declarations calling for the release of the hostages in Hamas captivity—not the Israeli hostages, but the eight Americans. The answer is never. They are willing to sacrifice their own at the altar of a fantastical morality play.

Pro-Palestinian supporters set up a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York as seen on April 22, 2024

After re-reading “Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam” by Yasmine Mohammed, I had to confront the uncomfortable truth that ideas have consequences. Yet, the direction of these consequences has been entirely reversed. It has become too risky to acknowledge this truth when discussing the state of Islam today. How is it that we find it so easy to discern right from wrong when looking at the Christians of the 14th century, who regularly murdered people for imaginary crimes like blasphemy? We know exactly what our problems are with the Crusaders. How is it that when engaging with a work of fiction like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” we effortlessly recognize the evil of theocracy as we sit before our television screens? Why is it then considered a sign of total bigotry to notice these extremes in many, if not most, Muslim countries today? Is it because those in the West have convinced themselves that issues of religious fanaticism are problems of the past, only worthy of fiction today? Is it therefore easier to play pretend? Or is it because people genuinely support these regimes from the comfort of their homes, having no regard for the millions suffering as a result of these ideologies?

Sam Harris writes: “When emphasizing the political dimensions of the problem, the term Islamism often seems most appropriate. When referring to Islamists who are eager to die as martyrs for their cause, we generally speak of jihadism. Depending on the context, we can also use terms like radical Islam, Islamic extremism, or even Islamofascism.”

Call this belligerent madness whatever you want—what you cannot do is ignore the problem knocking at your door.