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Matt Gurney: This time, Twitter was real life
Some few of us have watched a livestreamed pogrom. But most have maybe glanced at a headline or two. We live in different information universes. That can't work.
By: Matt Gurney
As I write this, Israel seems close to clearing out its invaded southern areas. In the coming hours, we will be presented with more scenes of horror and atrocity as new killing sites are found. Israel's counterattack into Gaza will almost certainly be massive, far beyond any of the campaigns we've seen in recent years, and we'll see all the awful carnage that causes from close up, too. Hamas has already said they will respond to these retaliatory actions by killing their hostages one by one and sharing the video and audio of the killings for the world to see. I believe that they will indeed do exactly that. You should all prepare yourselves for that.
For me, though, as we wait for the future to arrive, I’ve been thinking about the books on my shelf and what they tell us about the past. Books about the Holocaust and Sept. 11, and how the world grappled with truly evil regimes in eras past. There are lessons there, in simple black and white. What I saw on my phone wasn’t that. It was visceral, and awful, but in its own way, usefully clarifying.
But how many people saw what I did?
A big problem is that while this has all kinds of echoes of 9/11, there's also a major difference. Sept. 11 was a mostly shared experience. Outside of the immediate attack sites, hundreds of millions of North Americans and many more around the world huddled around TVs and watched the feeds provided by a surprisingly few cameras. No matter how you felt about 9/11, with the exception of the poor, tormented conspiracy nutters, we all knew what it was because we watched it happen in real time.
That is not what just happened.
On Friday, I'd gone to bed probably later than I should have, and read for a while. When it was time to clock out for the night, I made the terrible and foreseeable mistake of checking Twitter "one last time" and caught the first alerts about a major missile barrage. I know enough about these things to have immediately grasped that this was unusual, and stuck around to see what was happening. Turning to a small collection of Twitter accounts that I've relied on for military and defence updates during the Ukraine war, and via recommendations for reliable sources of information from friends and colleagues I have in Israel, I basically watched, via my phone, the attacks unfold. I've been watching closely ever since.
During that time, and I'm limiting my summary here to reasonably verified videos, I've seen an Israeli family forced to watch the apparent execution of one of their children/siblings; a man having his head either smashed in or chopped off with what looked like a garden tool of some kind (the video was a bit grainy); I've seen what looks like some kind of shelter that was breached, with all the occupants inside gunned down. A terrorist steps inside into ankle-deep blood and corpses and puts a few rifle rounds into bodies that are still moving.
I've seen a shocked looking woman being dragged out of a vehicle, her pants soaked with blood flowing from between her legs, and I know what that is. (See first photo, above.) I've also seen a video that I'm not sure, but that I think, happened to catch a glimpse of a rape in progress. I didn't have the stomach to go back and watch that one again, though, so I can't be totally sure. Whatever it was, the woman was terrified and the men around her were delighted. They enjoyed her fear and torment.
How many others have seen these things? I would bet a bunch, but not a majority, or even close to a majority. Most news savvy people are probably aware that there is a conflict, and may even know the outlines of it, but if they aren't well-plugged into the online ecosystem for news and don't know where to look and have hepful media contacts in the region to help filter out the garbage sources, what they've seen of it is sanitized and curated by well-meaning news editors whose default assumption is that graphic detail is to be avoided lest the reader or viewer be traumatized and send in a complaint.
I glanced throughout the weekend and again this morning at the major Canadian news websites, and the photos are mostly what you'd expect. Evocative, but not graphic. The most graphic ones shown aren't a fraction of what's available. The presentation of this story looks familiar because of all the other times we've seen some version of it: rockets flying up atop their exhaust trails, tanks manoeuvring over desert sand, troops looking grim as they put on their equipment, clouds of smoke and dust over Gaza. This is all bulked out by the odd tasteful photo of a grieving family member, from either side. Or perhaps even both sides, for balance.
This situation completely inverts the truism that many of us overly online people have had to cling to in recent years: this time, Twitter is real life. It's the rest of the presentation of reality that is distorting your understanding of what's happening. Twitter is a tire fire these days, full of bots and deliberate disinformation accounts, but for those with local sources and who’ve taken the time to curate their trusted sources — and again, Ukraine has been what forced me to do that — it can still be an invaluable tool.
But you’ve got to work at that. How many do? There is a very good chance that many of the people forming and expressing opinions about this right now are doing so with only a pretty basic understanding of what's actually happened. The coverage they're seeing of it looks familiar, so they'll assume it's basically the same as ever, if maybe slightly worse. They won't bother assessing it or wondering if they should tweak their usual prior default response to The Latest Middle East Violent Flare Up. They see a headline on the CBC and Reuters and simply man their usual culture war battlestation. It’s a reflex by now.
That's a mistake this time. This is one is different. Not exactly unprecedented; Lord knows Israel has suffered defeats and intelligence failures before. But none like this in 50 years, and never in an age when the simple act of seizing a victim's phone allowed the raping and butchering to be uploaded onto the Facebook pages of the victims for their families and friends to watch. It's our first-ever live-streamed pogrom, and I can't be the only one who spent part of the long weekend warily glancing at some of the history books on my shelf, remembering scenes described therein that many of us have now seen happen live from our homes.
That matters. This is a game-changer. The Hamas attack was, in the bluntest terms, extremely effective terrorism — no Israeli has been spared. Those relative few of us abroad who've dared peek at some of what's out there can understand, maybe a little bit, how they're feeling. Their sense of security has been shattered, and their actions in the coming days will be in the service of reestablishing it as much it is aimed at rescuing any hostages.
You know those videos I mentioned seeing above? There was one I hadn't mentioned. It's a short clip. I'm not sure if it was a pickup truck or a jeep or maybe even just some kind of cargo trailer, but whatever it was, it was being stuffed full of terrified Israelis. All women. They're packed tight in the vehicle that will be taking them away, in all likelihood, to their deaths.
It was nothing I'd ever seen before, but it was also instantly familiar. You do not need to know that much history to understand that that video, of Jews being carted off like cattle to the slaughter, is going to hit a nerve in a country that exists largely to ensure that the Holocaust is never repeated.
Some people out there who have a decent (or better) sense of what happened last weekend will simply think the Jews had it coming, because that’s just how they see the world, and always will. Others may squirm a bit about what a massacre actually looks like on a livestream, but will remain sufficiently opposed to Israel and its policies to temper their criticisms of Hamas. I don't spend any time or energy thinking about these people. I accept the sincerity of their beliefs and won't waste a moment trying to fix them.
But there are others, though, who don't have strong views, and would be horrified to know what has happened. Who'd put what's about to happen in the proper context if they did. And that's only going to be possible if they see the blood and hear the screams. They won't get that on the evening newscast or in the Globe.
And that's a problem. On 9/11, we all saw it, then we could draw our own conclusions about it. Today, we're operating in distinct information universes — a small portion of us know what happened, but most of us probably don't.
Assuming they heard about it over the nice long weekend at all. As I sat down for dinners with family and friends, over and over, I discovered that many hadn’t.
And this brings us back to some of those books on my shelf.
As the allied armies occupied the blasted remains of Germany, they began to discover the concentration camps. In some places, allied commanders forced the Germans to view the camps, even to bury the stacks of the dead. Where there were no camps, films were shown to the Germans. They were forced to look upon what had been done in their name.
The major news organizations, in Canada and around the world, should look to that example from history and do the hard job that is now necessary. They should show far more of the horrors than they have. On TV, online, and in print. This shouldn't be sensationalist and it should all be contextualized, but it should not be sanitized or avoided. People should know what's happened. Exactly what’s happened.
Everyone will have the right to make up their own minds, as ever. And we’ll still be able to demand Israel conduct its offensive in line with the rules of war and always with the goal of minimal civilian death while pursuing their valid military objectives. We won’t be required to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians, past, present or future.
All that will happen if our major news orgs do their job — a job that we at The Line are simply too small to do ourselves — is that we’ll have the right context for understanding what’s about to unfold. Because the truth of what happened can't be something that has to be deliberately sought out by a few tech savvy people blessed with sources in the region while the rest of us, even those openly and honestly trying to learn more, get the family friendly version.
What I'm asking would be traumatizing. It would change people.
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