Kibbutz Kissufim, Israel (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Artillery Row

Proving evil

Hyperscepticism about appalling crimes dishonours the dead

I watched the Bearing Witness screening on Thursday, 23 November.

I have been unsure whether to write about it, partly because I was there simply to bear witness and partly because it was not easy to know what to say.

We were a small audience. Some of us introduced ourselves to each other, out of a kind of nervousness I think. We needed the human connection and support before a screening which we knew would contain death, murder and cruelty. I recognised Owen Jones there, but we didn’t speak on the night.

It is after watching his YouTube video description of the screening that I have decided to comment. Not just to dispute his interpretation, but because I was there to bear witness, so that I could speak up for the hurt, the kidnapped and the murdered if their experiences were denied or dishonoured.

I didn’t want to watch this screening. I thought about it very hard, because I don’t like images of violence. I never watch horror films. I used to find dressing a wound on a child’s knee challenging, but I did it when my children were small, over and over, out of love. The commitment to watch 45 minutes of massacre also came, strangely, out of love for humanity.

I wish I could say that the violence made them animals — but it didn’t

I am well-disposed towards young men as I have two teenage sons. One of the strangest effects of Bearing Witness was the juxtaposition of the men’s joy and their violence. If I had seen a strong man throwing timber over his shoulder, rather than a body, I would have admired his strength. If I had watched a man repeatedly thrust a spade into a clod of earth, rather than trying to sever a head from a body, I would have been impressed by his determination. If I had seen these young, beaming and handsome men jubilant after scoring a goal, rather than gunning down civilians, I would have thought they were lovely and shared their enthusiasm.

I wish I could say that the violence made them animals — but it didn’t. This cruelty is uniquely human. No animal praises god every single time for each gratuitous kill. I doubt I will ever be able to hear the word “Allah” again without remembering the graphic butchery and murder.

In horror, we return to our childish ways. I covered my eyes a few times. So did the victims. A man tried to crawl under a car, but too late. People ran and hid, but there were no safe places. One woman, alone in a bare room in a kindergarten, put her head and upper body behind cushions. They will still be able to see you, I mentally called out to her. I think she simply did not want to see them, when the moment came.

A commander told a terrorist operative to bring a body back for them to play with. Let them play, or hang, or crucify; he couldn’t make his mind up. Men in a street, presumably in Gaza, kicked a dead body in the streets. These were men you wouldn’t look twice at, normally. The body was once a man, but now he was a lump of meat, a toy.

Smoking blackened bodies. Faces which did not look like faces anymore. Dead women with deep green bruises on their necks and chests.

We watched the worst things that humans can do.

Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” to describe the means by which systematic evil can be normalised. In the Holocaust, the criminals became so used to abhorrent crimes perpetrated against humans they dehumanised as “vermin” that their consciences remained untroubled. The Hamas terrorists repeatedly called the Israelis dogs as they smiled and slayed, their consciences equally untouched.

The banality of evil also refers to the way that the Holocaust assaulted good thinking — genocide was justified, and people looked away. I watched Bearing Witness and knew I had seen the face of evil. It is strange to me that someone could watch the same film and relativise, deny or diminish the evidence of their own eyes.

We watched the mother return and her body shudder with shock

I sat behind Owen Jones that night. I wondered what he would make of it. I agree with Jones when he says that one of the most distressing parts was when two boys and their father ran for their air raid shelter. It seemed to be early morning, and they were only wearing underpants. The terrorists threw a grenade into the shelter, and the father was killed. We witnessed their anguish, and in this case we also heard it — unlike much of the screening, which was silent as it was from security cameras. The boys wailed. One of them asked why he was still alive. The terrorist took a drink from the fridge. Outside, again in silence, we watched the mother return and her body shudder with shock as security guards held her back.

This footage has been edited, and it is selectively shared with the permission of the bereaved, not just the State of Israel. It has not been verified by independent journalists. As such, Owen Jones doesn’t wholly trust it.

The many stills of dead children — their faces mercifully blurred — could show kids who were killed by someone else. The missing underwear from the naked lower body of a dead, burnt woman is not evidence she was sexually assaulted. Yes, that’s the key thing to focus on, Owen, whether this is actual evidence of rape. Never mind the death and burning.

I said we were watching the worst things that humans can do, but that isn’t true. We weren’t shown everything. Understandably, the most gruesome imagery was not included, perhaps out of deference to the dignity of the dead and the feelings of the bereaved. There are limits to what can be shown, even to a small selected audience. You see only 10 per cent of the footage of the massacre, not all of it. For some of us, that was enough to be convinced that barbaric evil was inflicted on innocents. For others, no amount of evidence seems to be enough to sway their scepticism.

I will finish with the eyewitness account of Sheri Mendes, a volunteer who described seeing women’s bodies in the morgue in Israel, after they had been mutilated, tortured and sexually abused.

“We gave them the honour that they did not get when they were murdered. We knew that we were probably going to be the last people to see these women and it was very important to us to honour them and to love them. And we did.”

This article was edited to correct an error in the date.

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