We Can All See the Horrors of War Now

A man carrying the body of a child, draped in a white sheet that is bloodstained, walking through the street. His eyes look numb.
A man carries the body of a Palestinian killed during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City, Gaza. Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

The claim is indelible—once you hear it, it is impossible to forget: When Hamas destroyed the kibbutz of Kfar Aza on Sunday, they left behind 40 beheaded babies. Forty beheaded babies. Can you imagine such a thing? The problem is that no one is quite sure if it is true. It’s not exactly that it’s been debunked, more that it remains … unsubstantiated.

And yet, the claim has taken on a life of its own in the past 48 hours, spurring its own news cycle in the already crowded environment the past week of violence has prompted. Never mind that Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, the sources for these claims, are notoriously unreliable, and have intentionally misdirected or otherwise lied (the IDF media team has declined to confirm the fact, claiming that providing “proof” would be disrespectful to the deceased). But the question that I have is: Why this claim? The answer, I think, should teach us something about what we are all facing.

Here is the thing: There is ample evidence of Hamas’ atrocities circulating online. On X (Twitter), TikTok, Reddit, and more, users are posting and reposting horrific images of executions perpetrated by Hamas on defenseless bystanders. And, as Israel answers this attack with one of its own, videos and photos of inexplicable terror have been streaming out of Gaza, showing lifeless bodies being recovered from beneath the rubble of buildings taken down in Israeli air strikes and naval warships. At least one video shows a row of infants, gray and bloody, placed on a gurney as Palestinians weep behind them.

There can be no accounting for the trauma of the survivors witnessing the death all around them. And we are in an unprecedented situation in which the rest of us will bear witness to much of this violence as well. Schools are reaching out to parents to warn them about what their children might see online. The New York Times is already valiantly trying to sort through what is a real video and what is a video game, what is a video from 2023 and what is a video from 2015, what is a faked statement from the White House and what is merely an instance of the president falling prey to what all of us might—how easy it is to absorb a horrific detail and believe it to be true.

Because yes, last night, President Joe Biden repeated the claim about beheaded babies before the White House walked it back, noting that the Israeli Defense Forces had not been able to verify the claim. The Intercept published a comprehensive report about that claim in particular, and why this war is going to be so full of misinformation. The reporting centered largely on the way that this war will intersect with all the things that are going wrong with our social networks these days, which are numerous.

But I think that this problem touches something much older—the need to dehumanize our enemies.

Hamas’ barbarism doesn’t need to be exaggerated, as evidenced by the countless videos showing them gunning down unarmed and retreating people. But this specific claim created such an understandable repulsion toward the alleged crime against humanity. As some have feared, it succeeded in further dehumanizing Palestinians as a whole, as the 25-mile-long strip that they’ve been crammed into by Israel underwent an unprecedented military siege that claimed the lives of children, and babies. Hospitals in Gaza are overwhelmed, with one aid group reporting that 100 percent of the trauma patients they treated were children. The belief that Hamas and Palestinians in general were capable of such an atrocity seems to have helped people to accept that the scores of Palestinian babies dying in Gaza was an acceptable price tag for Hamas’ atrocities.

As the body count continues to rise in Israel and in Gaza, the narrative of the beheaded babies encapsulates the power of stories to shape perceptions, illustrating the peril of jumping to conclusions in a conflict steeped in deep-seated emotions. It highlights the importance of critical thinking and the responsibility of the media and the public in disseminating accurate information. And it reveals the urgent need for empathy and a commitment to peace in a protracted conflict marked by a steady stream of dehumanization of the other side.

I’m beginning to understand why so many have described this Hamas offensive as Israel’s 9/11. I remember feeling a state of shock and grief, the horrific body count increasing steadily in the news while I still didn’t know whether my father, who worked in lower Manhattan, was alive or dead. I also remember experiencing the grief of others pointed irrationally toward me and my community of Muslims in northern New Jersey.

In the aftermath, President George Bush promised to exact heavy punishment on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, and declared a war on terror, promising to end the threat of terrorism to America once and for all. The following month, the United States deployed troops to the Middle East. The trauma the country had collectively experienced cleared the way for us to support choices and offenses that I suspect we would have never otherwise endured. And what was it for? Twenty years later, the United States withdrew from the region, leaving behind an empowered Taliban and half a million civilians dead, according to moderate estimates. Though we’ve now come to accept that American “enhanced interrogation techniques” and conduct abroad—particularly in Abu Ghraib—were reprehensible, at the time, many were eager to defend it using language that dehumanized Arabs and Muslims. I personally felt it here as harassment and suspicion of Muslims, Arabs, and Sikhs became so normalized it permeated every corner of our lived experience as Americans.

Today, it seems like we have learned nothing. The claim of beheaded babies, if true, would indeed be a horrifyingly inhuman atrocity, and we will need to reckon with how it was possible and ensure it will never be possible ever again. However, in the meantime, this horrifying idea is now helping to justify collective punishment on one of the most vulnerable civilian populations there is. Dehumanizing language is coming from the very top of Israeli leadership, referring to Gazans as “human animals,” “monsters,” and “inhuman.” It’s worth noting that Israelis have been doing this for years, not just since Saturday—it’s just that the language is more accepted in the aftermath of the possible infant beheadings.

But these are not animals, monsters, or inhuman people. Video after video emerging from the Gaza Strip demonstrate as much. They show a mother screaming out of shock and anguish after being told her entire family had been killed. An old man returning to the rubble that was his home and crying as he thanks God for what he has left. Dozens of men digging through debris with their bare hands to recover the dead. A father embracing and whispering into the ear of his lifeless infant one last time. Exhausted paramedics taking turns screaming in agony after they’ve failed to resuscitate a fellow emergency responder. A Palestinian man smiling as he tickles a giggling baby that survived a bombing. These are not “beasts,” but people. And their lives aren’t any cheaper than the lives of the Israelis also grieving their losses.

In this new age of instant information, we see much more of the horrors of war. This visibility means that we feel them in sharper ways, too. Which is why it’s imperative we resist the temptation to let the emotions that come from this overexposure guide our judgment. Particularly in the face of unimaginable terror, it’s clear that dehumanizing language is often a precursor for a never-ending cycle of violence. A Pew poll found that American support for the war in Iraq plummeted soon after the invasion, and by 2019, 62–64 percent of Americans said the war just wasn’t worth it. Still, the United States cannot reverse its wholesale destruction of swaths of the Middle East. And war crimes against civilians are never an acceptable response, even to war crimes against civilians.

Danger lies in allowing dehumanization to justify further violence and suffering. In the face of such complex conflicts, and particularly when we are awash in so much horrible violence, it is vital that we remember the cost of the dehumanization of “the other.”