THE BLOG
08/01/2014 01:11 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

Pornography of Pain: Why the Heartbreaking Images Out of Gaza Are Hurting the Palestinians

When I see the images coming out of Gaza, I also want Israel to stop its war against Hamas.

I'm not naïve or mindlessly following a trend. I know what it is to cower in a stairwell with trembling neighbors, anxiously waiting for the boom of Hamas rockets to punctuate the bellowing sirens. I've seen Hamas launch lethal salvos at our dense cities from Gaza's schools and homes. I've seen them use Palestinian children as human Kevlar, trusting our pilots to spare them -- and the arsenal meant to kill our children that their bodies protect. I know that, instead of building a state, Hamas have diverted billions in aid, oceans of concrete, and a universe of ingenuity to the singular task of burrowing tunnels of death into our villages.

I also know that, if Israel stops its assault on those tunnels and rockets now, Hamas will revisit hell and its endless funerals upon us in a year or two, that more innocent people on both sides will die. It will rearm and weave itself deeper into Gaza's residential areas. I get it.

And yet, when I see on CNN the flashing human toll of this necessary operation in Gaza -- the lifeless children brandished aloft, the women wailing in agony, the gore -- I understand why the world wants us to stop. In that moment, facts don't matter to me. Politics, security, and right versus wrong evaporate. I can't remain focused on the broader picture even though it affects my own children: I just want the physical pain that I am subjected to by these heartbreaking images to cease.

The sight of people in anguish is no trivial thing; it has powerful physiological effects on those of us not coarsened by hatred; it hurts us and makes us identify with those that we see suffering. No decent person can or should be insensitive to scenes of children in war. The image of a suffering child breaks past our critical thinking and grabs our hearts, as if our own child were in peril. The torment of watching that child suffer, like that of watching a mother in the grips of loss, erases everything else in our minds; and it ought to. Compassion is what makes us human. When we see people in distress, we physically feel some of their pain. We want to save those victims -- even if the cost of saving them is that more people might die.

So I understand why viewers, exposed to unbearable images from Gaza, resent Israel, however cautious Israel is trying to be in defending itself.

What I do not understand is why, when it comes to this conflict, the media chooses to systematically inflict grief upon us, to toy with these most powerful instincts, instead of properly informing us. Segment after segment, we are subjected to excruciating scenes of mangled bodies, destroyed homes, grieving elders, wailing women and tiny corpses - but little else. It is perhaps less risky to fill three minutes with gruesome post-mortems than to film Hamas fighters in their tracks, but it is not reporting. Preying on human emotions as a proxy for journalism, even where sprinkled with facts, may be good for ratings - like fear and sex -- but it has turned too much of the coverage out of Gaza into little more than snuff with a halo.

What do we learn, in the full sense of the term, from a typical report from Gaza? Rather than receiving the background and analysis with which to form a sound opinion, we are instead made to commune with the dying, to taste slices of agony, from a war far away, over and over. Rather than understanding the stakes, we feel due pity for select Palestinians -- though never the fighters -- and by projection, for all of them. These "reports" leave us uninformed but indignant; ignorant but injured.

This macabre sensationalism also distorts our perception. When one is relentlessly subjected to heartbreaking scenes of the same suffering, the crucial moral context of that suffering - the relative responsibility of the parties, their motivations, the potential solutions - recedes into irrelevance. Endlessly shocked with grisly footage of Gaza's dead and dying, beset with eulogizing anecdotes and rubble-strewn interviews of the bereaved, we become powerless to do anything more than to grieve and demand an end to the fighting. Not a solution and not an end to the problem; and end to the pain. Exceedingly rare is the report that offers an alternative means of dealing with the immediate threat of militarized, urban-based terrorism.

Had the media during WW2 daily-subjected American families to the painful sights and sounds of ordinary Germans grieving their civilian casualties, support for that brutal but absolutely necessary war might have collapsed - with dire consequences for the globe.

Perhaps the press' duty is indeed to bring death to our living rooms multiple times a day lest we become immune to the savagery of armed conflict. But if the media's role is to wound as much as to educate us, then we need to ask why some victims merit so much more affection than others. Why did the western press embed itself with troops rather than their victims when it was American soldiers doing the killing in Iraq? Why so few heartbreaking testimonies out of Libya? Why doesn't the media make the pain of Yemenite victims of US drones into ours as well? And what about those dying next door to Israel, right now? It may be customary to hold Israelis to an impossible ethical standard while holding Arabs to none, but why is Gaza's suffering more important than that of Christians expelled, raped and murdered in Mosul at this very moment? 1000 have died in three weeks of urban fighting in Gaza and the world pauses and mourns. Meanwhile, over 2000 have been killed in Syria and yet they remain anonymous. Why are only Palestinian losses systematically made taxing to the whole planet?

When victims of atrocities all over the world are systematically ignored by the media while incomparably fewer Palestinian casualties of war are painfully lionized, the Palestinians inevitably come to be perceived as unique victims. This effect is compounded by Palestinian propaganda's thorough exploitation of potent emotional triggers ("ethnic cleansing", "occupation," "apartheid," "genocide," etc.). Yasser Arafat, who understood the power of televised victimhood, once cynically asked: "The Palestinian child holding a stone, facing a tank, is that not the greatest message to the world, when that hero becomes a 'martyr'?" (i.e., when that child is killed and his death is reported).

Historian Shlomo Ben Ami, the dovish Israeli minister whose offers of Palestinian statehood were twice rejected by Arafat, poignantly summarized the effect of media pity on Palestinian politics: "The international pampering of the national Palestinian movement," he wrote, "was at vital crossroads of the conflict an obstacle to a settlement. For it was frequently interpreted by the Palestinian leadership as an implicit encouragement to ... find instead satisfaction in Israel's decline into the position of a state put in the dock of the tribunal of international opinion."

The people of Gaza undoubtedly deserve compassion. But the three wars waged by Hamas on Israeli civilians since Israel vacated that land should compel western journalists to ask themselves if their exploitation of emotion may ultimately represent the biggest impediment to necessary change. For Palestinian fortunes in Gaza to improve, the Palestinians must have leaders who serve their people and not the genocidal ideals of Hamas' charter. That will require that Hamas be disarmed -- but Hamas has vowed to kill anyone, including President Obama, who tries to disarm it. If the press has a better alternative to freeing Gaza from Hamas, they should advocate it. To only broadcast the pain of this war will do nothing to prevent the next.