In 1968, Walter Cronkite did the unthinkable. After visiting Vietnam to assess the state of the war in light of the Tet Offensive, he produced documentary coverage of the situation. And then, to the shock of many, he concluded with his opinion. In an era in which reporters never stated their own assessment, this act stunned the nation. And if lore has any basis in truth, his statement altered the course of history. Although the accuracy is debated, President Johnson is reported as having said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson did not seek re-election that year.
I wake up each day to depressing news of what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. I read about America’s obsession with this war while ignoring what’s happening in Syria, while ignoring its own power games. I read through the histories of Middle Eastern politics, painfully aware of how the Palestinian people are perceived by other Arab nations and disgusted by the way in which each side is a pawn in others’ geopolitical games. I read the personal accounts of fear, anger, horror. And I listen to friends, family, and acquaintances spout racist narratives about the “other” side that make my blood boil. Painfully aware of just how divided the conversation has become, my data scientist partner Gilad Lotan obsessively scrapes social media conversations in an effort to understand how the news media from a country that he considers home could become so biased. I simply try to hold all of the conflicting perspectives in my head to better understand how we’ve gotten here. And the exercise makes me want to crawl into a hole and whimper.
I know that this war will continue. Maybe we’ll see a ceasefire this week, but that will not put the end to this war even if we label it differently in the next round. I know that there will be more innocent bloodshed. And the only outcome of this conflict will be increased intolerance. No good will come from this. Violence will not stop violence. Violence will not end poverty. Violence will not end social divisions. Violence will only increase hatred.
We can debate the particulars until we go blue. We can talk about particular decisions and pass judgment. But we’ll never get to a “right” answer. As Jon Stewart kindly illustrates, we can’t even have a civil conversation about Israel/Gaza without it devolving into a screaming match. We are, after all, trying to reduce a 3D puzzle into a 2D frame. Nowhere is this more clear then when you stand in the middle of the Old City in Jerusalem. Generation after generation of war has buried cities and built new ones on top of old ones. Which layer is legitimate? The first? The last? The most populous? The most harmed? The most powerful? Time creates the third dimension, creates the elevation. No good comes from declaring one layer legitimate.
Like Gilad, I’m watching social media — the tool I’ve spent the last 10 years studying — being used to fuel these fires. Far from engendering enlightenment or enabling civil conversation, I’m watching personalization allow people to revel in their intolerant ghettos, oblivious to how one-sided their perspective has become. I’m watching televised and written media consumed in a segregated fashion. And I’m watching people actively avoid perspectives that make them uncomfortable or otherwise make an effort to truly grok a different world view. Media may be framed as a tool to create an informed citizenry, but people’s biased engagement with it can be used to create ugly silos justified in their own hatred.
And so I go back and re-watch Cronkite’s conclusion, hoping that somehow, somewhere we’ll see an intervention as powerful as this one while also fully aware that the war continued on for seven more years after he asked the American people to reflect. We no longer live in a world where one man can get up on television and humbly profess his opinion such that the world takes stock. The question is: how can we collectively reach an unsatisfactory conclusion and come out as honorable people?
To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
(This post was originally published on August 4, 2014 in The Message on Medium.)