The Moral Injuries of Witnessing Genocide

Photograph Source: Wafa (Q2915969) – CC BY-SA 3.0

The primary victims of Israel’s assault on Gaza are the Palestinians trapped there. Over 20,000 people, half of them children, have been killed so far; another 53,000 have been wounded. But even wider damage is being done, damage that extends far beyond Gaza. Around the world, people forced to witness this slow-motion genocide—while feeling unable to stop it—are being subjected to moral injuries that will reverberate for generations.

Psychologists originally used the term “moral injury” to refer to the psychic trauma experienced by soldiers unable to reconcile their deeply held moral values with the immoral acts—abusing, maiming, and killing other humans—they committed or abetted as soldiers. This trauma is thought to underlie the high rates of depression and suicide observed among combat veterans.

Moral injury later came be to seen as a possible result of witnessing atrocities committed by others, and feeling betrayed by authorities once thought trustworthy and legitimate. It is also now understood that moral injury is not limited to soldiers. Journalists and nurses, for instance, can experience moral injury when, in the face of human suffering, they are unable to do what they know is right. Similar circumstances, psychologists have come to realize, can cause moral injury to anyone.

Research also suggests that moral injury depends on the degree to which people blame themselves for failing to act in accord with their values. Injury is likely to be most severe when self-blame is strong and self-forgiveness elusive. The consequences, in addition to depression, can include shame, anxiety, withdrawal from relationships, emotional numbing, and paralysis. No wonder, then, that moral injury has been described as a crushing of the human soul.

To see images of faces contorted in agony, images of limbs protruding from beneath rubble, images of dead children in the arms of grieving parents—to see these images coming out of Gaza daily is to witness an ongoing atrocity. It is impossible for anyone not blinded by racism, tribalism, nationalism, or a lust for vengeance to observe this use of indiscriminate violence to destroy or displace people as anything but morally reprehensible.

The phrase “never again,” coined in the wake of World War II and revelation of the horrors committed by the Nazis, expresses a deep moral commitment to our fellow human beings. It is this commitment that is now being betrayed. To see what is being done to the people of Gaza is to witness the kind of genocidal action we have said must never be allowed to happen again. To witness this and be unable to stop it, to feel that we are not doing enough to stop it, or to feel complicit because our tax dollars fund it, is to incur moral injury.

Moral injury can engender a belief that the world is an inhumane place, that evil prevails no matter what we do. When this belief becomes pervasive, the damage caused by moral injury rises to the level of culture. When the psychological effects of moral injury—shame, depression, withdrawal, emotional numbing, paralysis—are widespread, our collective capacity to oppose injustice and state violence is diminished. We risk becoming a populace disinclined by feelings of unworthiness and powerlessness to engage in the organized action needed to stop what we know is wrong.

Paralysis and inaction do not of course characterize the whole world’s response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. There has been a surge of protest marches, public statements opposing violence, and expressions of support for Palestinian rights. The paramount goal of this activism is to end the violence as soon as possible. But activism is also necessary to keep moral injuries from becoming disabling.

Activism can in fact do exactly what the most effective individual therapy for moral injury seeks to do: reduce self-blame, affirm the belief that people are capable of doing good, and connect sufferers to other people working to make the world a better place. That’s why activism, in a time of collective moral injury, a time when the tendency to despair can be overwhelming, is all the more important.

One thing we often learn from collective action is that the blame for injustices lies not in flaws of character but in the political and economic arrangements that undermine democracy, pit groups against each other, and put authority in the hands of seekers after wealth and power. We have inherited these arrangements from the past and cannot fairly blame ourselves for creating them. We can, however, take responsibility for trying to change them. For many people, this is a healing recognition.

Involvement in activism to oppose state violence and genocide also teaches that, despite the cruelties we see perpetrated in the world, people can overcome racism, nationalism, tribalism, and crass self-interest—and do what’s right. Or try to. And that is really the point: not that every pursuit of peace and justice succeeds, but that the pursuit goes on, that it goes on because people care about the well-being of others, and that this capacity to care is an enduring part of who and what we are as social beings.

The moral injuries sustained by individuals and communities forced to witness genocide are real. If not treated, these injuries can paralyze us as political actors and make us less able to oppose not only state violence and genocide but all forms of injustice. As some might see it, this is the situation we are in today: a world too apathetic, distracted, and indifferent to fulfill the promise of never again, to anyone.

To be morally injured is to lose faith in humanity. This is part of the damage caused by witnessing genocide. The best healing response is to join with others to try to stop it. Succeed or fail, we must do this to keep faith in ourselves and in the possibility of making the world a better place. If we can heal the moral injuries inflicted by the world we’ve inherited, we might someday create a different world, one in which our best values are not sacrificed to uphold inequalities in wealth and power but are nurtured in the interests of peace and justice.

Michael Schwalbe is professor emeritus of sociology at North Carolina State University. He can be reached at