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COMMENTARY:Bearing witness to barbarism

I have seen the dead of Oct. 7. And now I must speak for them.

It wasn’t my idea. The Israeli Consulate in Boston contacted me about a screening of “highly sensitive footage from the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.” No recording devices would be allowed; no phones in the room. It would be what’s called a “pad and pen briefing” in the news business.

And I was told, “The footage is extremely graphic, difficult to watch and potentially triggering. It includes raw video filmed by Hamas terrorists of murder and other violent and distressing images.”

Did I want to participate? Absolutely not. But I couldn’t say no, either. And so I went.

In the interest of full disclosure, the video was compiled and edited by the Israel Defense Forces. It used images found on the body cameras of the attackers and from Israeli first responders. There was video from smartphones and social media accounts of victims, too.

The goal of the video screening was obvious. The IDF wants to bolster support for its military operation in Gaza, not engage in “on the one hand, on the other” journalism.

But when “the other hand” is holding a gardening tool and using it to hack the head off a dead Israeli, what else is there to report?

Some Americans argue that because Israel’s invasion of Gaza has resulted in civilian deaths, it is no different from Hamas. But that’s a hard argument for me to accept after watching bodycam footage of gunmen going into a kindergarten with the specific goal of killing or kidnapping children.

Unlike the schools in Gaza, there was no military installation hidden under the Israeli classroom floor. And if there had been, the killers wouldn’t have known. They weren’t hunting for a Mossad hideaway. They were hunting children. That was the point.

One other observation from the video. The terrorists shouted, “Allahu Akbar.” A lot.

Watching the video, I was reminded that there is a religious aspect to Hamas’ hatred of Israel rarely discussed in the Western media. It is impossible to cover this story accurately without talking about Islamist extremism and how it has again motivated people to choose violence as an expression of their faith.

Now, add the fact that the victims are overwhelmingly Jews. How can anyone see a small, dark room packed with Israelis, some beaten and bloody, being terrorized by gunmen, and not think about the Holocaust? Or listen to a phone call the IDF included (and which has been widely distributed on the internet) of a young man bragging to his father that he has killed 10 Jews? “Their blood is on my hands,” he cries in delight.

Some scenes of horror were universal.

A smeared trail of blood on a tile floor. The camera follows it and eventually comes to a child’s shoe. The trail continues, but no child is seen.

At the site of the outdoor music festival, a responder arrives with a body camera. He — the voice sounds like a “he,” though we never see him — walks under a tent where a stage and bar are set up. The stage is covered in bodies. The floor of the bar is, too. He calls out, “Hello! Give us a sign of life. Is there a sign of life?” He waits, and he calls again, his voice more desperate. And again. “Anyone? Please.”

Please. Just one spared life amid the inhuman carnage. There are none.

I agreed to attend this screening because I felt it was my duty, as a journalist and a human being, to bear witness. To be the person who, when some idiot protester begins spewing the lie that the reports of torture weren’t real, or at least not as bad as the “Jewish-controlled media” claimed, I can say, “You’re wrong. I’ve seen it.”

That was my job. That was why I went. But when they got to the videos of the burned bodies, I could not bear to be the witness. I just looked down at my notepad and felt ashamed.

And spoiled. I felt like such a spoiled American, turning away from a horror that the victims could not escape. For me, living thousands of miles away in the suburbs of America, what happened on Oct. 7 is merely a cause. Something to discuss and debate. When I get bothered or bored, I can change the channel. But for the people of Israel, there is no other channel. It’s not a news story. It’s their lives.

I don’t know what Israel should do next. Quite frankly, after what happened to its people, I’m stunned by its self-control. What I do know is that Americans would never accept the idea that an attack like this could happen twice. As we did after 9/11, we would do whatever it took to seek out and destroy the people responsible and scare the expletive out of anyone thinking of trying it again.

So how can Westerners ask Israel not to do the same? A cease-fire, or a negotiated settlement, means leaving Hamas in place to do what everyone knows they will do. The affluent Americans who sleep safely in our beds each night are demanding Israeli mothers and fathers give up hope of doing the same.

When they demand Israel stop its invasion and leave Hamas alive and unbroken, they are arguing that the Jews of Israel should accept acts of horror like this as the price of their existence. Who would accept those terms? Who would live like this?

After the video ended, there was a discussion about whether the images should be released to the general public. Yes, there would be sick people who would revel in the desecration of the victims, who would make T-shirts out of the images of the burned bodies. But if it reminded Israel’s weak allies what is at stake, wouldn’t it be worth it?

No, one woman in the room said. “The people who understand what happened don’t need to see it, and the people who refuse to admit what happened will never change their minds.”

She was right. I saw it. I understand it. And I still can’t believe it.

Michael Graham is the managing editor at InsideSources.com.

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