The world has been reeling in the wake of the October 7 terrorist massacre that left more than 1,400 people dead in Israel. There has also been tremendous pain and loss of life on the Palestinian side, with nearly 3,000 killed in Gaza. 

Trying to understand the public’s reaction to the terrorist attack has been a challenging process. Hamas’ barbaric and reprehensible attacks included beheadings, kidnapping, rape and indiscriminate slaughter of elderly civilians, women, children and babies. So, most people naturally reacted with shock, outrage and fear.

But some were conspicuously celebratory. Using terms like “decolonization” and sharing images of paragliders on social media, many are not remaining silent in the wake of terrorism; they’re actively endorsing it. On some university campuses, some professors praised Hamas’ “awesome victory” and called it “exhilarating” and “energizing.” Some students shouted, “Glory to the martyrs!”



While this may be an expression of antisemitism, I don’t think that’s the whole story. Psychological science can offer some additional clues. Researchers who study moral psychology offer a theory called dyadic morality. According to this theory, people use mental prototypes. For instance, if I say “dog,” people can easily imagine one with commonly shared features such as four legs, fur and barking. 

A similar psychological process unfolds when thinking about unethical behaviors. For instance, when considering assault with a deadly weapon, people imagine an immoral agent (the attacker) carrying out the action against a moral patient (the attacked). As the authors of one paper put it, “Good or evil-doers typically require a recipient to help (for good) or harm (for evil). Villains require victims to harm, and heroes need those same victims to rescue.” 

Antisocial actions like theft, rape or murder are only considered unethical in a case where an actual victim is harmed by a perpetrator. But if the attacked person is not considered a victim, then there is nothing immoral about the actions.

The ghoulish reactions to the massacre in Israel revealed that many are incapable of applying the victim template to Israelis or the perpetrator template to Palestinians. In their worldview, Israelis are always attackers, and Gazans are always attacked, never the reverse, no matter what actions are involved. Other commentators have made parallel observations and similarly concluded that many seem unable to comprehend that minority groups who have experienced inhumane treatment can also have agency or that majority groups with powerful militaries can also be mistreated. This perversion of moral typecasting is a psychological and ethical failure.

Some argue that people’s reactions to an atrocity should not get more attention than the atrocity itself. Others dismiss these reactions as a minor nuisance that is not worth paying much attention to at all, to which I strongly disagree. If we’re not careful, what begins as secondary reactions to a bloodbath becomes something much more dangerous. 

The tragedy did not end on October 7. It continued when Jewish people in Berlin had their houses marked during Hamas’ call to jihad or when a crowd of Australians chanted, “Gas the Jews.” When we yield to extremist voices glorifying violence where we live, we have lost our own moral compass.

These fanatic views, however sporadic, must be held in check. And we would be wise to pay attention to who defends or justifies such carnage. Listen to the ones who proclaim it’s right for Hamas to decapitate babies because they’re “settlers.” 

People are unmasking themselves now, and we shouldn’t look away.

Saner voices are practically begging Israel to not make the same mistake as Hamas in their military response and not to seek revenge. Even an Israeli survivor of the October 7 attack is calling on her government to make peace and spare Gazans from a worse fate. The sibling of someone killed is similarly saying publicly that his brother’s death should not be used as justification to kill innocent people in Gaza. Muslims are also reckoning with this horror.

This is the moral clarity we need. This shows that people who are victims of terrorism can still empathize with the people who supported the attack and still hold a functioning ethical blueprint.

We must organize our actions around the recognition that every human is capable of perpetrating and suffering. We all can be moral agents and patients.