Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Impossible Empathy of Being

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” “I am human, so nothing that is human is alien to me.” Publius Terentius Afer ~170 BC

A mentally ill man roams a campus in Virginia. He is yet another Christian seeking to do justice for his god and he is angry. He has weapons and so a tragedy unfolds. Thirty-two people are executed according to his judgment. A nation mourns. A Nation mourns.

Flowers are plentiful. Tears flow from every state and every city. Candlelight vigils fill the night. Bells ring and balloons are set adrift in the spring skies. News channels examine every pointless detail – over and over no less. Yammering news anchors even attempt to find logic and consistency in the last and rambling "manifesto" of a mentally-ill person. The lives of the victims are made public so that we will more acutely feel the loss. And heroes must also be paraded since there has to be something positive in all this – Right? It goes on for days.

At around the same time, about 200 people are killed in a bombing at a market in Iraq. Another tragedy. But this is different for some reason. It receives less than fifteen seconds on the nightly news. There are one or two short videos. There are no candlelight vigils here. No bells or balloons for these people. There is no outrage or grief at this massacre. Worse, they are anonymous – no personal histories are revealed about a single one of the victims.

Almost 3000 people died on September 11th 2001 and there was outrage and grief. Thousands of people went on passionate quests to rectify the tragedy. Some joined the military, some marched, and others set up charitable organizations. Yet, on April 6th, 1994, two Hutu militia groups began a genocide that lasted for three and a half months. 800,000 to 1,000,000 people died. There was no national outrage here. There was no swarm of compassionate people pressing themselves against the weight of the injustice. And even when some people noticed, very few really cared.

Why? What causes people to draw a line across which their empathy refuses to pass? Is it some bloody and artificial national boundary? Is it that trivial yet perpetual mask of cultural difference? Is it simple geographical distance on this tiny planet? Is it that ignorant and abusive idea about race? Does it just become eroded through frustration with imperfect and fallible social contracts? All of the above?

I don’t have the answer. I only know where my own empathy comes from. I know that I hate the idea that my life and my death will go unnoticed. I hate the idea that I am judged only as an object and never by the merits of my personality. I know that I hate being a disposable person. But mostly, I know that all I ever wanted was to be treated like a human being. And that’s why all these people matter to me – no matter where they live, what color their skin, what language they speak. Their lives and their deaths do matter to me because I want my life to matter to them. That’s why I get sad. And so that’s why I care.
- Just a peasant