Death's cheerleaders

November 2023
Ben Shragge

On Oct. 7, Hamas brutally and indiscriminately murdered over 1,200 men, women, and children in southern Israel. The attacks have been called “Israel’s 9/11” for the horror and shock they provoked. But while the 2001 attacks were mediated by TV and radio news, most of us learned of the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust on our phones.

Technology has progressed over the last twenty-plus years, but we should not confuse technical advancement with the moral improvement of the species. Instantaneously, news about the ongoing atrocities was available at our fingertips. But so, too, were horrific images and videos uploaded by the terrorists themselves to social media. Some of them even used their victims’ phones to livestream crying children, call and taunt relatives, and share photos of the dead. Whether it’s planes for al-Qaeda or smartphones for Hamas, our advanced technology becomes a blunt instrument of death in the hands of terrorists.

And beyond even its use by the terrorists themselves, a bloodthirsty mob went on social media to justify and celebrate the attacks in real time. Some justifications were cloaked in academic buzzwords, like McMaster University professor Ameil Joseph’s tweet, “Postcolonial and decolonial are not just words you heard in your EDI workshop.” Other professors were clearer in their approval of mass murder, like Yale University’s Zareena Grewal: “Settlers are not civilians. This isn’t hard.” But it took Mia Khalifa, an adult film star with over 5.7 million followers, to express the mob’s bloodlust most directly, tweeting, “Can someone please tell the freedom fighters in Palestine to flip their phones and film horizontal.”

I was attending class at Westdale Secondary School on 9/11. My memories of that day are of listening to the news on the radio in a darkened classroom, and of an almost universally shared solemnity and respect for the dead. I say “almost” because there were a few students who celebrated the attacks, motivated by hatred of the United States over perceived injustices done to their home countries. Part of my political awakening was realizing that not only does evil exist in this world, but that there are people around me cheering it on. They may use academic language to make their views sound respectable, but their true expression is the laughter I saw on 9/11.

Fortunately, there were no smartphones back in 2001. Television networks withheld footage of people jumping to their deaths from the collapsing buildings. A New York Times article from 2004 notes that, “Almost instinctually on Sept. 11, people recognized that they had an unfortunate view into an intensely private matter, an unseemly intrusion not just into someone's death, but into the moment of their dying.” Al-Qaeda cheerleaders–and I saw with my own eyes that they existed–lacked a platform to spread hateful messages or gruesome images and videos on 9/11. We were able to process the attacks, horrific as they were, without social media compounding the horror.

Fast forward to 2023. A Politico article published just days after the Hamas attacks notes that a review of X (formerly Twitter) “discovered scores of videos that allegedly showed militants murdering civilians and Israeli soldiers; viral hashtags associated with the ongoing violence that praised Hamas' activities; and social media posts that included graphic pictures of those killed and antisemitic hate speech.” On October 7, the few students I saw laughing on 9/11 seem to have multiplied and been given megaphones. The decision, let alone the ability, to withhold graphic footage now seems archaic. What happened to 2001’s “almost instinctual” respect for the dead? Did human nature change in the intervening decades? Have we simply gotten worse as a species?

Social media undoubtedly plays a role. Research has shown that out-group animosity (e.g., negative messages directed toward political opponents) is the strongest predictor of shares and retweets. Hatred of a perceived enemy, and celebration of that perceived enemy’s defeat, is nothing new. Hatred of Jews, in particular, has a long and horrid history. But now social media incentivizes us to fan the flames of hatred by liking, sharing, and engaging with content that appeals to our worst instincts. Of course, social media alone can’t make us hateful in the first place. On October 7, we saw the worst of humanity not just in the Hamas terrorists, but in the vicious reactions close to home.