How to Sitcom a War Crime

Gaza is not a culture war, but it's easier to treat it like one

Who can say how many students will have been been brutalized, arrested, suspended, and evicted by the time you read this post, but that number will not be enough for the people who want these protests not just silenced but obliterated. The message is clear: protest the war in Gaza and we will snuff out your future. You will not get your degree, you will cease to be a professor, you will find a new career.

All these years of knock-down drag-out handwringing thinkpieces over speaking events getting cancelled at universities. All those arguments about whether free speech means the right to a microphone, about discourse and dialogue and debate and the other words that only ever stand in for “arguments I agree with.” I have written a few times about the potluck theory of discourse — people are allowed to put food you don’t like on the table, but they are not allowed to put human feces there. For some people, this went too far in the direction of censorship. Now, many of those same people are howling for the arrest the people they see as excrement-bearers, which I have never advocated and have always opposed. See also: the rare short piece of fiction I wrote about what ought to happen to Actual Goddamn Nazis in America.

I have made my position on the Gaza war extremely clear from the beginning and that position has not changed. The October 7th attacks were an act of terrorism and a war crime; I condemn Hamas. The political context for this attack is the ongoing theft of land from Palestinian families, the ongoing brutalization of the Palestinian people, and an apartheid regime. Based on Israeli bomb targets and refusal to allow aid into the country, I believe Israel is actively working to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip and that my country’s decision to send money and weapons to that murderous regime makes us complicit in these crimes. I try not to think about these things too much because I feel like I am on the verge of going full end-of-life Nietzsche if I do.

Obviously I think I’m right, but let’s pretend for a second that I am wrong. Let’s pretend that the position outlined above is pro-Hamas, that Hamas are the Nazis come again, that my objection to Israel’s actions in Gaza are profoundly antisemitic. Jailing someone for expressing that opinion peacefully, in a public place, is an obscenity. Jailing students for expressing that opinion on their college campus goes so far beyond the most censorious actions taken by administrations against supporters of literal white nationalists that even attempting to compare them feels perverse.

But supporters of Israel aren’t just shutting down debate on college campuses, they are using college campuses as a weapon to shut down debate. They have transmogrified this issue of foreign policy into a culture war issue, where everyone knows their lines and no one has to actually talk about what Israel is doing. Media outlets are working overtime to make anti-Israel sentiment synonymous with BLM, DEI, CRT, and all the other culture-war bugbears. I haven’t seen someone directly tie the Trans Agenda to Hamas yet but I assure you, it’s coming. It’s probably already happened.

The war itself has become second-page news. People are not discussing the actual issue that thousands of students across the country have risked so much to send. We are debating how many Columbia college students support Hamas. We are talking about whether students feel safe on campus. Yesterday, Andy Ngo propagated an IG Live video of a 20-year-old Columbia student organizer cheerfully discussing the virtue of killing Zionists, complete with oh-kurrrr trills and a lipgloss break. They are Black and queer and use he/she/they pronouns — perfect culture war villain — and her video is stupid and awful and some oversimplified bloodthirsty shit not entirely dissimilar to things I spewed about the War on Terror at that age. What in the hell does Khymani James have to do with Israel, or Palestine. Why is Andy Ngo even part of this conversation. These are very important issues for the students and for the colleges but they are not important issues for the war. Discussion of the war in Gaza now involves discussion of whether Jewish students feel safe at Columbia, and to be clear, I want Jewish students to feel safe at Columbia, but do you see how these are two different conversations? How they do not belong anywhere near each other?

It is very useful to conflate the travails of college students with the bombings and the famine and the recently-discovered mass graves at Palestinian hospitals, because it is very difficult for any human being to think about those things too long. Every second we spend yelling about woke college kids, either for them or against them, is a second we don’t have to spend thinking about child amputees and disfigured orphans. It is difficult to learn that there Israel provided no evidence that UNRWA was in league with Hamas after so many countries cut off aid because Israel swore that evidence existed. It is difficult to learn that Israel appears to be targeting journalists and their families, or that, just three weeks ago, they deliberately targeted a clearly-marked aid convoy that coordinated their movements with the IDF. How the fuck do you defend deliberately targeting three well-marked trucks spaced widely on a road with three individual laser-guided smart bombs? Simple answer: you don’t. You change the subject instead.

Even if you genuinely think everything Israel has done is fine, or excusable, or entirely Hamas’ fault, the human cost should be difficult to think about: the massive death, the horrible destruction, the children who have died or seen their parents die. I hope it’s difficult, anyway. Even if you think it all has to happen, even if you support it, at least have the decency to acknowledge how horrible it is that so many people are dying. You do think of them as people, right? The Palestinians? Not “human animals,” or “subhuman,” but people like you and me, with thoughts and feelings? It’s…sad that they’re dying, right?

Don’t answer that. Please don’t answer that.

It’s OK. We’ve found a way around having that conversation, which is scary and awful and a new kind of hell in a decade that has so far been nothing but new hells. We can sitcom this whole thing instead. We can do another Culture War episode where everyone knows their lines and everyone says the same thing they always have. How shocking could things really be, if it all sounds so familiar?

Except…does this feel familiar? The arrests? The brutality? The people on social media who appear to be actively hoping for another Kent State massacre? The NYPD, who loves cracking protester skulls like most of us love ice cream, stating that the protesters were peaceful and objecting to the arrests?

The brutality spills over. We brought the war home in record time, this time.

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