Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’

Circle of Empathy

November 15, 2015

I’m something of a Francophile. In my youth, I ignored American literature in favor of Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert. In cinema, I’ve long gravitated toward French (or at least French-speaking) directors. Last Friday night, a musician was on the radio saying that after his group had played a set at a jazz club in Paris called Le Sunset, they heard about the nearby terror attacks. The group decided it would be wrong to go on for another set. I was stunned, for I remember going to a club called Le Sunset in 1989 – presumably the same one. This slight connection intensified the horror for me.

But I’m uncomfortable with worldwide expressions of solidarity with one victimized country when no comparable solidarity is shown with places such as Afghanistan, Gaza, and Yemen where many more noncombatants have been killed. As it happens, my country is responsible for much of this slaughter, either directly or by providing weapons and diplomatic cover. If anything, that should increase my solidarity with the survivors, not shut it off.

The world has many problems, but one of them is that we are very, very selective in our empathy. To some, we send the message, “Your lives are precious; we stand with you.” To others, our silence sends the implicit message, “Your lives – and those of your children – are nothing to us.” If we truly wish to stop tragedies like the one in Paris on November 13, the first thing we must do is expand the circle of our empathy. If the world were horrified by all attacks on civilians, no matter where or by whom, we might not be mourning Parisians now.


Bombs and Bases over People

April 7, 2013

That the New York Times prioritizes US military objectives over the lives of people in other countries is on full display this weekend. Here we have exhibit A:

An American military airstrike in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border was reported to have killed 18 people, including at least one senior Taliban commander but also women and children, raising the thorny issue of civilian casualties for the third time in roughly a week.

I am quite certain that if 10 American children were killed in a Taliban attack on a US commander, the Times would not lead with how this raised “the thorny issue of civilian casualties.” To the Times, it’s not a tragedy when Afghan children are slaughtered – merely a “thorny issue” that might get in the way of more American airstrikes.

Civilian casualties have long been a sticking point between President Hamid Karzai and his Western allies. Harsh criticism by Mr. Karzai led to stronger rules on the use of airstrikes by American forces last year…

It seems that adjectives like “harsh” can never apply to US airstrikes – only to criticism of them.

Then, in an editorial, the Times declares: “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan showed political leadership by agreeing with the United States on a timetable for reducing the size of the American force and returning some land used as a military base.” Apparently it is “leadership” to do what the United States wants.

Three paragraphs later, we learn that the agreement is premised on moving the base from one part of Okinawa to another. The editorial is entitled “Progress on Okinawa,” but few Okinawans are likely to see this as progress. By a large majority, they insist that the base be moved out of the prefecture entirely.

It’s nice that the Times recognizes Okinawans’ “legitimate concerns about living among American bases — jet crashes, crime, environmental degradation and noise….” But at the end, this is revealed as nothing but lip service:

Mr. Abe’s government has tried to address the opposition with offers of generous financial aid and other efforts to court Okinawa’s governor, Hirokazu Nakaima, a member of Mr. Abe’s conservative governing party. Now the pressure is on Mr. Abe to deliver.

In other words, the editorial board urges Abe to show more “leadership” – by attempting to pay off the government of Okinawa. The insulting expectation that the people of Okinawa can be bought is likely to be disappointed.

On Empathy: Obama’s, Cheney’s, and Ours

May 14, 2012

Dick Cheney:
“Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it’s an issue our family is very familiar with. …With the respect to the question of relationships, my general view is freedom means freedom for everyone. … People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.”

Barack Obama:
“But I have to tell you that over the course of– several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about– members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together….At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that– for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that– I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Every positive development has a negative side (and leave it to me to find it). How fortunate for the cause of marriage equality that there are gay people on the White House staff, and that Dick Cheney has a lesbian daughter. Perhaps if the president had some staffers from Yemen, or the former vice president’s daughter married a Pakistani, they would awaken to the humanity of people in those places too.

But Obama’s recognition of the right of gay Americans to marry is not matched by an awareness of the right of Afghans to live free of airstrikes. Instead, we have an endless succession of horrors like this, sometimes (but not always) followed by apologies that would mean something if only they were followed by the complete abandonment of a strategy that leads inevitably to parents weeping over the lifeless bodies of their children. I doubt Obama would be so cavalier about civilian casualties if they happened in Chicago.

It’s nice that Cheney and Obama overcame a prejudice through personal experience, but no matter how many “friends” we have on Facebook, there will still be segments of society and parts of the world we don’t know well. With that in mind, we would do well to recognize and resist stereotypes habitually, not just when our experiences force us to. The more superficially “different” a group of people seem to be, and the more our communities regard them as pariahs, the more skeptical of our received opinions we should be.

I’ve long advocated what I call “diffuse empathy”. People tend to take more of an interest in the sufferings of others when they can relate to an individual’s story, and see how much they have in common with that person. This can happen through personal acquaintance, through art, or even the news media. For example, movies such as “Schindler’s List” help us feel the abstract horror of genocide acutely by taking us into the lives of particular victims. The problem is that this makes our compassion contingent on the particular stories that happen to reach us. Thus, while it’s important to keep the awful history of the Holocaust in memory, tragedies going on right now – such as in Palestine – rarely seem to gain Hollywood’s attention.

This perilous selectivity is also on display in the attention the U.S. news media pays to victims of war and terrorism. The New York Times devotes an extensive feature to the victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and NPR occasionally does a whole story on an American solder killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, including interviews with friends and family members. All of which is well and good. But when it comes to the innocent victims of U.S. violence, our news media cannot be troubled to even name them. Instead, such people remain anonymous statistics.

But really, it shouldn’t make any difference. Others shouldn’t have to convince us of their humanity to arouse ours. If empathy can be likened to light, a diffuse glow extending everywhere is far better than a powerful but narrow beam focused on a select few, while leaving the rest of the world in darkness.