David B.




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July 16, 2009

The War on Empathy


One of the most confounding aspects of the swirl of information and disinformation surrounding various atrocities associated with the Iraq War and the broader “War On Terror” has been not only the broad indifference of the American public, but the active championing of various war crimes by citizens who consider themselves die-hard patriots.


It is clear, by and large, that America just doesn’t care that, for instance, a high-ranking government lawyer such as Jay Bybee would actively argue that the American state has the right to “crush the testicles” of a 10-year-old child if in so doing it might gain information concerning terrorist activities. There has been no mass outburst of popular rage. America has scarcely managed a shrug. 


One needn’t look further than the comment boards beneath torture-related news stories on major network web sites or online communities such as RedState or FreeRepublic to find not only blanket excuse-making for the Charles Graners and Lynndie Englands of the world, but active encouragement for their actions. When you think about it, it’s really very strange: Why would those who consider themselves ardent defenders of “liberty and justice for all” and for the principles embodied within the Constitution and the Bill of Rights be so eager to excuse individuals whose actions clearly and demonstrably contravene the words and principles embodied therein? These people don’t hate America, or the principles upon which it was founded; nor does it seem likely that they actively hate humanity. So what accounts for the mass mental hiccup that does not acknowledge that a 10-year-old Iraqi child is every bit as guiltless and every bit as deserving of humane treatment as an American one?


How can we not be collectively and individually outraged? What have we become?


Well, it seems certain that if nothing else, we have lost a measure of our ability to see others as human beings rather than in the abstract. The recent histrionics decrying Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s supposed “empathy” speak to this: At what other point in U.S. history – indeed, human history – has “empathy” in a judge or other government official been considered a bad thing, apart from Germany in the 1930s? Senators such as Jeff Sessions have actively derided what had hitherto been considered one of the noblest, most advanced and most admirable human characteristics, demanding instead a mechanized, unfeeling form of justice unconstrained by such human “weakness.” The sick thing is that Americans listen, and take such demented rankings as serious and reasonable.


This is only possible when through acculturation, through fear, or through some other undefined factor the mass of Americans have come to see themselves as wholly separate and apart not only from the peoples of other nations, but from those of other broad classes: “Minorities,” “defendants,” “the poor,” “the unemployed” – pick a caste, any caste. The same dynamic applies. The circle within which we are willing to extend our humanitarian impulses is being drawn steadily smaller around those who look, act and think precisely like ourselves. Those in the broader excluded class are relegated to the status of an enemy Other to be reviled, feared and smited wherever possible.


A 10-year-old detainee and a defendant in a courtroom wind up being similarly stripped of their humanity in the public mind. Apart from those who expend the energy to actively hate them, they warrant none of the attention, care or concern that we expect and reserve for ourselves and our own. It marks a reversion to animalism, to cultural baseness, to the very amorality and/or evil the would-be patriots claim to oppose. If this trend is left unchecked, it seems only a matter of time until all of us are relegated to the excluded enemy class.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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