Skip to content

Having Done Wrong

How can morality enable us to live with "the horror we inspire in ourselves?"

Editors’ Note: This essay was written, edited, and prepared for publication before the October 7th attack on Israel. The decision to proceed with publication of it should not be interpreted as a response, by the author or the editors, to that event.

About twenty years ago, I did some horrible things. I should not have done these things. I have not denied doing them nor did I resume my life as if I had never done them. I have, over the years, struggled with the question of how to acknowledge what I did, how to live in light of what I did. There was a time when I felt that to fully recognize the gravity and meaning of my actions I must hold on to an anguished and alienated state of mind—call it shame, call it guilt, call it remorse, call it whatever. I felt that, if there’s any decency left in me, I should never move on, never be relieved of the shock of recognition that resonated from the thought: “This was me; I did this.” 

To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I ever did move on. And yet I know that I am not as thoroughly estranged from my life as I once was. Today I’m happy. I love what I do—thinking about philosophy with others, reading and writing—and I love the people in my life. Still, I sometimes wonder whether I am really happy. Other times I feel anxious about my happiness, about what it might mean. Have I lost touch with what I did? Do I still know—really know—that I did those things?

It is usually thought that there are procedures for moral repair and reconciliation. The rough idea is that, having done wrong, a person should recognize the wrong as such, regret it, experience guilt, apologize, suffer punishment, change her ways, make amends, and at the end of the process, if all is done well and goes well, she is permitted to move on with her life, relieved of the burden of her wrongdoing. Alternatively, what a person did might be so horrid that she is beyond the pale, unforgivable, and has no available path to atonement. She must then languish in moral exile. These are the two options: either the past is lifted from our shoulders or it consumes us. This dichotomy doesn’t capture my own predicament, and I suspect it fails to do justice to our experience of wrongdoing. 

The Raven Feather

Not every wrong thing we do stays with us, but some of our wrongdoings become essential to the individuals we are. Their burden is not merely the burden of undergoing repentance and repair but the burden of having a history and carrying it with us—a history that may also include having lost people whose absence was once unimaginable to us, having past experiences of relief and horror imprinted on our soul, and having lived in places that, years after we left them, continue to be part our internal landscape. To be relieved of the burden of the history that makes us the persons we are is to lose our sense of the significance of our past and thereby lose our sense of who we are. Our notion of moral repair should not require such self-denial.

Furthermore, as long as we assume that we either leave our wrongdoings behind or languish in despair and remorse, we face two, opposing temptations. One is to deny the severity and depth of our wrongdoing in order to save ourselves from the claws of the past; the other is to wallow in lamentations and renounce the possibilities of the future and our commitment to it. Both are forms of bad faith. We either take ourselves to be completely free of our past, thereby failing to acknowledge the ways we’re defined by it, or we take ourselves to be fully determined by our past, thereby failing to acknowledge the ways we can determine its meaning and significance going forward. 

There must be another possibility. We must envisage a picture of moral repair that vindicates and even requires permanent ambivalence, doubt, internal conflict, and anguish but still offers guidance, truthfulness, and a measure of reconciliation and relief. We cannot be free of our history but we cannot be fully determined by it either. There must be a way of carrying our past wrongdoing without collapsing under it.  

What I Did

In the early 2000s, I was a conscript soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. I spent a considerable amount of time patrolling roads, hills, neighborhoods, and villages; inspecting vehicles; riding armed vehicles and Humvees, often sleeping in them; raiding houses in search of weapons; managing permanent checkpoints and setting up temporary ones; guarding and living in outposts made of assemblages of trailers and concrete blocks; standing in tall guard towers, hours on end, overlooking dirt roads that sprawl over yellowish, green fields; counting the days, weeks, and months to the day which, after three years of service, I’d be a civilian once again. It was a normal military service of an Israeli combat soldier in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

Just under three million Palestinians live in the land west of the Jordan river, the West Bank, an area of Jordan that was conquered by Israel in 1967 but (except for East Jerusalem and the neighboring villages) was never officially annexed to Israel.  Israel’s rule in these territories is commonly known as the Israeli Occupation and the territories themselves are known as the Occupied Palestinian Territories (or, simply and ominously, the Territories). Officially temporary, the Israeli Occupation has been ongoing for over 56 years with no end in sight. 

The Palestinian residents of the West Bank are not Israeli citizens. Though most of the West Bank Palestinians are formally represented by the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PA lacks the resources and standing of an independent state and is dependent on Israel in almost every way. The PA depends on Israel for money transfers, has no standing military, and in many cases acts as a contractor of Israel in the Territories. The PA’s authority, inasmuch as it has authority, extends only over areas with large concentrations of Palestinians, not over the whole of the West Bank. By contrast, Israeli forces move freely everywhere in the Territories and have the final word regarding Palestinians’ movement in and between villages and cities. Israel also controls much of the funding of the PA, as well as the water and electricity supplies in the Territories. Thus, West Bank Palestinians are effectively, if not officially, under Israel’s complete control. The Israeli military, together with the Israeli Secret Service and other governmental agencies, oversees compliance with Israeli rule. Israel does not purport to serve or protect the interests and needs of Palestinians. Moreover, Israel has been expropriating Palestinian land. Israeli citizens who have settled the West Bank, with the encouragement of Israeli governments, often invade and take control of Palestinian property. They do so against Israeli law, but their actions are tolerated and enabled by Israeli institutions. 

Palestinian compliance is achieved through sheer intimidation. Palestinians are made never to feel safe, and fear is created by the unpredictability of danger. Houses are randomly raided in the middle of the night for no apparent reason; checkpoints that separate villages and cities shut down for hours and are usually congested; a convoluted system of permits makes it very difficult for Palestinians to travel. Imprisonment is another major instrument of Israel’s rule. There are currently 4,700 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons; of them 835 are so-called “administrative detainees,” who are held indefinitely without trial. One hundred and fifty are children. 

The violence of Israeli settlers also contributes to this regime of fear. They routinely attack their Palestinian neighbors—poison their wells, burn their orchards, attack their livestock, and assault them physically with clubs and stones, as well as M16s. Soldiers normally do not defend Palestinians from the settlers; they offer the settlers protection. Sometimes the boundary between soldiers and armed settlers is blurred beyond recognition. 

Soldiers may use force against Palestinians without any substantive justification and are very rarely held accountable. When I was a soldier, we punished anyone who seemed rebellious to us, and we used our force and weapons whenever we felt threatened, disrespected, or challenged. The thought that any civilian might pose a threat to us blurred the distinction between civilians and combatants to the point of obliterating it. To “punish” an individual or group of people, we most commonly kept them waiting in the sun, or in the cold night, often blindfolded and handcuffed, for as long as we saw fit. Other times we gave them tasks, like singing or dancing, or taking off the wheels of their cars and putting them back on again. We confiscated their cars, or IDs, or slapped them around. We pointed loaded guns at them. Humiliated them. Occasionally, Palestinians were murdered by soldiers

I witnessed such events, sometimes taking part in them myself, other times allowing them to happen. It might seem difficult to comprehend, but such occurrences made sense to us. The Territories seemed like an utterly foreign reality, and yet one to which we were all bound to succumb. Without the minimal degree of trust that makes civil life possible, violence seemed like the only way to keep order. The Occupied Territories are a rule of terror and impoverishment that, until this day, effectively sustains the status quo by infusing daily life with brutality. We had power, in a sense, but we were also helpless and terrified. The fear we spread stared back at us through the eyes of our victims. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was our job: to create fear and be afraid.

Fear is meant to keep Palestinians from resisting Israel’s rule and, more importantly, from working together to achieve their shared goals as a community—primarily, the goal of self-rule and independence. Fear, in other words, is meant to block Palestinian freedom, a freedom viewed by Israel as a risk it cannot afford. The possibility of Palestinian violence has eclipsed all other considerations, to the effect of denying all Palestinians the opportunity to live a decent life. 

The Raven Feather

In order to properly assess my reactions to having served in the Occupation, it might seem necessary to distinguish this convoluted system of oppression, injustice, and wrongdoing from my specific actions. But this thought is misguided. It is essential to the nature of my wrongdoing that its boundaries were murky. I cannot point to specific actions and separate them from my daily complicity in the Occupation. Of course, some incidents were more extreme and more disturbing than others, but focusing on them would be to misconstrue the Occupation as a regime that leads to wrongdoing rather than a regime that wrongs those who live under it at every moment of its existence. The terror and volatility by which order is maintained pervade every moment of daily life.

There are incidents and moments that I carry with me and that, although seemingly innocuous, convey the nature and depth of my wrongdoings. I remember clearly a father who approached me at the checkpoint, his two young sons and his wife standing a few meters behind him. The father was ten or fifteen years my elder. He and his family wanted to pass through to visit relatives in another part of the West Bank. There was some celebration, a birthday, I think. He was clearly afraid. I could see his upper lip trembling. His fear put me at ease. I spoke kindly, respectfully. A naïve onlooker would have thought this is a perfectly decent encounter, all smiles and niceties. But had I felt vulnerable for even one instant, this pleasant façade would crumble. My gun was loaded, there were other soldiers around me, we had the power to do almost anything we wanted if we deemed this man a threat to us. Violence was underneath the surface. The man and his family knew this, so the pretense was upheld. The children looked at me from a distance, their mother’s hands on their shoulders. Their gaze is what I remember best. They saw their father’s fear of me. The younger child seemed to look at me with admiration, the older child with hate. This encounter was nothing special to me, and it was certainly not an unusual experience for this family. In fact, this was the best encounter possible between occupiers and those they occupy. It included no outward eruption of violence, no explicit threats, nothing but cordial language, yet it was an attack on this family, on its structure and foundation, on the children’s childhood, on the dignity of their parents. 

The same thing was repeated in endless variations numerous times each day. Some wished to pass through my checkpoint to go to another village or to a city further away; some were on their way to work, to school, or to the university; some asked to be let through to see a doctor; sometimes a group of people were on their way to a funeral or a wedding. Once, I remember, there was a couple, a day after their wedding, on their way to their honeymoon. I was stationed as a guard at the Civil Administration office, a military body tasked with managing civilian life in the Occupied Territories. The couple came to pick up a special permit that had been approved for them and that would allow them to exit the region and go on vacation. They were almost turned away because a soldier misplaced the document. Just as they were about to leave, heartbroken, another soldier noticed the permit on the floor, underneath the desk. They were let through just as casually as they had been turned away a moment earlier. They were entirely at our mercy; I remember being struck by our indifference to their fate. Throughout all these encounters, I was somehow both tense and completely numb, nervous and exhausted, longing for sleep.

My complicity in the Occupation goes beyond my daily actions. My identification with the institutions of the Occupation, and with the society in the name of which it is carried out, make it impossible to disentangle my guilt from its social and political context. I was part of this rule of terror and I should not have been. I participated in a fundamentally corrupt regime, a regime that cannot be justified as a form of self-defense and which in any case undermines the moral and physical existence of my fellow citizens, my society, and my country. 

But I was not merely a part of this regime in the sense that every Israeli citizen and, to some degree, every American taxpayer, is part of this regime. For the many individual Palestinians who passed through my checkpoints, for the families whose homes I raided and whose cars I inspected, for the children who saw me patrolling their streets on their way to school, I was a face of the regime. To those waiting for hours in line, under the scorching sun, only to stand before me and await my verdict, which they would have had no power to dispute, I was the Israeli Occupation. 

Having Done It

More than anything, I wanted to run away. I would listen to Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely” and fantasize about dropping my gun to the ground and running from the checkpoint, through the fields, beyond the hills, toward the sea. Every few weeks I’d get a weekend leave and spend it wandering around Tel Aviv, in bars and cafes, pretending to be someone else. I was a 20-year-old soldier but introduced myself as a 25-year-old university student majoring in philosophy and literature, the subjects I was hoping to study. I used a fake Tel Aviv address instead of my parents’ suburban one. The fantasy of a different life sustained me throughout the weekend until the dawn of a new week came by and I had to put on my uniform. I’d get on the bus, my gun in my lap, and slip back into the tiredness and apathy that characterized my military existence. 

I completed my military service, moved to Jerusalem, started taking philosophy courses in the university, wrote stories and columns for the newspaper, waited tables, and got drunk with friends. I wanted to move on, as they say, to turn my back on my military years. I soon realized that I couldn’t. Things were no longer as they used to be. It was as if the world from which I came and to which I was trying to return was contaminated, tarnished, and any appearance of human decency was a mere pretense, a lie. I was no longer a soldier but I was still the person who did those things. I lent my face to the Occupation and now I didn’t recognize it anymore. 

The Raven Feather

I hung my hopes on the passage of time, thinking that the insistent presence of what I did would gradually wear off. But why should it matter if I did it today, yesterday, last month, two years ago, or two decades ago? It is true that past events grow distant due to the constant accumulation of newer ones, due to all the things, good and bad, that have happened since. And yet the checkpoint, my checkpoint, can sometimes appear in front of me as real as it ever was; indeed, as more real than anything else, as the only truth I know. In those moments, nothing that has happened since changes its reality. Of course, the checkpoints are still there, all around the West Bank, serving the same role, terrorizing a population into submission. The Occupation continues relentlessly, and its very existence implicates me, no matter where I am in the world or what I do. We can sometimes run away and find relief, if only temporary, in distant places, but this is not always possible. There is a kind of remorse that spreads to every corner of one’s life, across time and space. 

In those first years after my service, I used to wonder what genuine recognition of my actions requires. To tolerate the Occupation, to tolerate my role in it, is to affirm it; I must not tolerate it, I must resist it, I thought. What counts as resistance in the face of a massive system of oppression is a fraught question. I joined Breaking the Silence, a then newly-formed group of veterans that collects testimonials of soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories in order to educate the public about the essential brutality of military occupation. I wasn’t naïve; I knew that the Occupation wasn’t going to end any time soon and that I must somehow live my life in light of this fact. But accommodation to the reality of occupation struck me as failure, as a form of moral numbness, a willful lie. I’m not supposed to go on living my life while this is happening, I thought; I’m not supposed to go on as if what I did at the checkpoints made sense. Resistance isn’t just political action, it is a state of consciousness, a refusal to be appeased, a refusal to tolerate the Occupation emotionally and cognitively. Resistance requires retaining a sense of horror. It requires remaining profoundly alienated from “normal life,” remaining alienated from Israeli public discourse, remaining alienated from the naturalness with which people around me ignore the existence of the Occupation, the ease with which they ignore the existence of the Palestinian people and the rashness with which they ignore the existence of Palestinian individuals. Such total resistance results in a state of deep internal discord, a state of brokenness, which, having done what I did and having been part of a society like mine, is the state one should be in. 

In such a state, one experiences one’s life as wholly unbearable. One’s continued existence seems as wrong and insufferable as the very actions that render it so. The present is hostage to the past: forgetting is impossible and wrong, as is hoping for something different, and both can only deepen one’s betrayal of morality, or of oneself, whichever comes first. I felt that to truly know and understand the significance of what I did, and continues to be done in my name, is to be unwilling to live with myself. To exist in this way is to experience one’s life as a life that has not yet ended but can no longer be lost: a life without significance that will perish in moral silence. 

To be sure, only occasionally did I feel the full weight of this state of brokenness, and rarely did I fully believe in the obligation to sustain it. Nevertheless, I thought then and think still that familiarity with this state, and with the sense of duty that binds one to it, is necessary for any proper appreciation of certain kinds of wrongdoing. It is the truth, though not the whole truth, that the weight of such wrongdoing is comparable to the weight of one’s whole life. This is the fact that finds recognition in brokenness, the living refusal to accept life as it actually is. 

Something similar occurs in grief. An appreciation of the loss of someone we love requires familiarity with the thought that life cannot go on without this person and that the person’s passing is unbearable in the specific sense that it should not be borne. Even if proper grief doesn’t require languishing in this state of total resistance, no grief is proper if it is ignorant of this state of mind. “Dolphins,” Joan Didion writes, “had been observed refusing to eat after the death of a mate.” The same refusal is found in our poems of grief: we “rage against the dying of the light”, we “stop the clocks, cut off the telephone”. To know grief is to know this defiance and the sense of obligation that binds us to it.

To be a wrongdoer and recognize oneself as such involves a similar yearning, or call, that life and existence should come to a halt. But it all goes on, of course. Thus, notwithstanding important differences between their predicaments, mourners and wrongdoers must face a similar problem: How to refuse to live with this loss, remain unwilling to accept it, committed to not bearing it, and yet live with it, accept it, and bear it? Having lost or having done wrong, we ask, again and again, how we live on without denying our own experience of life and love and duty. How, or to what extent, can we go on truthfully in light of what happened? 

Carrying It

I don’t know if I forgive myself, nor whether I should; I don’t know whether I’m doing what I ought to do in order to repent or at least to account for my actions. I don’t know how to live truthfully and what exactly that requires. But I have come to believe that the weight and force of these questions must be a permanent part of my life, even if I will eventually come closer to having some answers. Good answers would not relieve us of questions. The questions will have to be addressed again, and again. There should be no release from the past and there should be no pardon from its weight. Though I’m no longer broken—my life is full and good—I should not expect to be entirely whole. I will remain restless with questions. 

To be truthful about the wrongs that I committed, wrongs that are still being committed by others like me as I’m writing these words, is to be irreconcilable. These wrongs should not have happened, they must cease to happen, and the world in which they have happened and continue to happen is both actual and unacceptable. Even as, over the years, I’ve come to accept my past as mine, I haven’t lost touch with the sense of shock and horror at my own actions. Every once in a while, this horror washes over me, there is nothing except horror, and I’m paralyzed; usually, it is a silent presence in the back of my mind. I accept this self-revulsion as integral to who I am. Even the best moral answers, answers that tell me what I must do and how I must live as a person who is directly and indirectly implicated in the oppression of a whole people, would not rid me of the problems they address. The sense that I did something unbearable must remain alive within me even if and when a process of genuine moral repair will be completed.

The irreconcilability I describe may seem to result from the impossibility of repair in my particular predicament. For one thing, repentance and forgiveness are not possible in the current political situation in Israel/Palestine, because, as I already said, the wrongdoings in which I’m implicated are elements of a larger, ongoing political injustice. The fact that the victims haven’t been acknowledged or compensated, that the Occupation continues, and that the political situation is premised on the denial of the wrongs I profess to have done, makes the question of moral decency all the more pressing. But even at the level of my specific actions, it is unclear what a process of moral repair would involve. For instance, who would I ask forgiveness from? The specific individuals who passed through my checkpoint? The Palestinian people? What is the relevant punishment I should endure? Even if answers to these questions are in principle available, they are certainly not straightforward. So there is an epistemic if not a conceptual difficulty that makes the question of resolution and reconciliation seem to lack a satisfying answer. Thus, it might be argued that my personal case only demonstrates that there are circumstances in which a process of moral repair and reconciliation cannot be carried out. This is indeed unfortunate, but it does not require any revision of our standard picture of moral repair. Repair is hard and might depend on contingent factors, the objector might admit, but when it can be successfully completed, it extinguishes moral distress about past wrongdoing.

It is true that my distress is exacerbated by the continuation of the Occupation and the seeming impossibility of repair. But when I imagine that the Occupation ends tomorrow, and Palestinians gain political independence or live as equal citizens and receive reparations for years of oppression, my judgment about the proper weight of my past doesn’t change. Forgiveness and repentance offer a crucial measure of reconciliation and peace, but they do not eliminate all traces of wrongdoing. 

Still, the source of this enduring moral pain may seem confusing. Not all wrongdoings should give rise to it. Many wrongdoings, even serious ones, need not leave a mark once they are properly addressed. What singles out cases in which the anguish I describe persists? Though I’m not sure what makes a wrongdoing one which we continue to carry past repair, I’m sure there are such wrongdoings. Moral repair cannot always wipe the slate clean and deliver our innocence back to us; moral repair isn’t time travel. For one reason or another, some wrongdoings are inscribed on the individuals we become. They need not keep us from leading our lives; they are part of what we bring to the life we lead. 

To be sure, such wrongdoings remain a burden, but not a merely negative one. The bad and the good in our past are intertwined. In grieving we hurt but also sense and cherish the value of the person we lost. Similarly, in continuing to be anguished by our wrongdoing we sense the force of the moral commitments that define us. The wrongs we inflict and the wrongs we suffer—like the loss of the people we love—can and often do leave us fractured beyond repair, but even so we can live full, meaningful, and good lives. Indeed, it is the mark of human life that it can be full, meaningful, and good in its brokenness: its fullness includes its longing, its meaningfulness includes its alienation, and its goodness includes its sorrow.

The Raven Feather

I’m insisting on the possibility of a different kind of redemption, one that is able to embrace the fact that sometimes peace and reconciliation should never be attained in full. And I’m suggesting that this is a crucial boundary on our moral aspirations. Our search for moral answers is not guided only by the specific moral questions we ask, but also by our sense of what the answers should do for us. In asking moral questions we ask things of morality. If in asking how to respond to our own wrongdoing we look for an answer that can rid us of moral distress, then we may dismiss answers that fall short of such a result. However, once we realize that we should not be entirely relieved of our distress and that peace of mind should not be sought, our questions change. Rather than seeking moral answers that can purge us of our past, we seek moral guidance about how to live with our past. If, alternatively, we assume that correct moral answers dispel moral dissatisfaction, then we may take the moral answers we find to accomplish more than they can, or should. 

The answers of morality might be thought to free us from moral concern: as long as we have all the correct moral answers and do what we morally ought to do, there seems to be no more reason to worry about morality. But this is a mistake. A perfectly moral life is not a life free of moral distress and anxiety; on the contrary, it is a life that is highly sensitive to the conundrums that morality struggles to navigate. It is a life of moral humility, moral inquiry, and moral dissatisfaction. Morality cannot fix what’s broken; it can only hope to tell us how to live with it honestly. 

This conclusion is important not only because it may lead us to different moral answers than we would otherwise endorse, but also because it suggests that morality has a role in our lives that tends to go unnoticed. We often wrong others by denying that we wronged them in the past. We also wrong others in order to deny that we wronged them in the past. I know this from my experience of myself and of the society I live in. The horror and alienation that are essential to recognizing our own wrongdoing can lead us to adamantly deny that we did anything wrong. We may be unable to accept the truth of our crimes and therefore refuse to acknowledge them. One way to indulge in denial is to double down, to affirm injustice by calling it “justice” and to affirm wrongdoing by calling it “moral necessity,” or even “moral duty.” “Not only was I not wrong,” we say, “here I go again!” More wrongs are done, with a show of pride and in the name of what’s right but for the sake of denying previous wrongs. Underneath false speech, one’s self-revulsion grows; the vehemence of frantic, disingenuous self-affirmation grows proportionally. Wrongdoing is piled upon wrongdoing, each seems to push recognition further away because the stakes become immeasurable. It is a moral Ponzi scheme; the thought that we are morally beyond repair drives us to moral decrepitude. 

We need morality to find our way out of this spiral of corruption. A guide to horror, morality can teach us how to live with what we’ve done. It can help us acknowledge our revulsion at our own actions without immediately denying that we feel it and without being entirely consumed by it. This is something we should ask of morality: neither absolution from guilt and blame and attainment of moral purity, nor a vision of an ideal society and an ideal agent, but a way to live with the moral horror of this world, a way to live with the horror we inspire in ourselves.