The Language of the Unheard: Personal Reflections on the Genocide in Gaza

Image by Hasan Almasi.

In 1992, I spent several days in a jail in the city of Tiberias, in Israel. I was one of about 80 activists from various places on the globe who had been arrested when our “Walk for a Peaceful Future in the Middle East”, intended to go from Haifa to Jerusalem, was interrupted when we crossed the “green line” into the occupied West Bank.

Taken to various jails around Israel, I ended up in Tiberias with some 30 others from our group. Those of us from the peace walk, we discovered, were the only adults in that jail. The other prisoners were all children, boys that appeared to be as young as 12 years old.

I don’t know how many Palestinians were held in administrative detention in 1992, or how many of these were children, then. It is reported that just before Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, the number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons without charges, without trials, was more than 1,300, the highest number in three decades and the number has since increased dramatically to more than 7,000.

Children in Israeli jails are often denied parental visits and there are reports of widespread abuse.

These past months I have been thinking about those kids often, about their parents, wondering what they are doing now. Are some still in jail? Are some of them dead? For those alive and at large, how has that trauma they suffered three decades ago and the traumas suffered since altered the course of their lives? Have some taken up arms?

When in 1967, speaking of the riots in American cities that summer in his “The Other America” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard,” he was not justifying violence. He was explaining its inevitability. “And so,” he said, “in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

As long as Israel postpones justice, it stands in the position of having these occurrences like October 7 over and over again.

In 1967, Dr. King, like the prophet Hosea warned Israel centuries before, was telling America that if we sow wind, we will reap the whirlwind.

I hope that the children I shared a jail with for a few days in 1992 have found peaceful and constructive means to express their outrage, but I cannot blame them if they have not.

The call to free the hostages that Hamas took on October 7 should be taken seriously. The trauma that they are suffering and the fear experienced cannot be minimized or dismissed. Nor can the suffering of thousands of Palestinian detainees, hostages themselves along with their families, be so dismissed.

In the logic of the cycle of violence that Gandhi defined, if Hama’s violence on October 7 justifies the horrific razing of Gaza, the deaths of thousands, the starvation of a whole population by the Israeli military, then it follows that Israel’s generations of violence should justify the violence perpetrated by Hamas.

Who is worse? It would seem, by raw mathematics, that Israel is the primary aggressor, but human suffering can never be so quantified.

In his 1960 sci-fi novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr. speaks of a future time, much like ours, when multiple conflicts threaten to escalate into a nuclear conflagration that will leave the world devoid of life. He considers the question:

“What’s to be believed? Or does it matter at all? When mass murder’s been answered with mass murder, rape with rape, hate with hate, there’s no longer much meaning in asking whose ax is bloodier. Evil, on evil, piled on evil.”

In his 1962 essay “Christian Action in World Crisis”, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton warned of the cold war between the United States and Russia: “We oversimplify. We seek the cause of evil and find it here or there in a particular nation, class, race, ideology, system. And we discharge upon this scapegoat all the virulent force of our hatred, compounded with fear and anguish, striving to rid ourselves of our fear by destroying the object we have arbitrarily singled out as the embodiment of all evil. Far from curing us this is only another paroxysm which aggravates our sickness.”

Brian Terrell is an Iowa based peace activist. He can be reached at: