Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Selective Compassion?

Thirteen years later, the observances last week were still poignant. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center have enduring power to make the tears well up, and pull the heart back to that beautiful and crisp early Fall day when, as we say, “3000 innocents died.” 

Innocent they were—as innocent as the vast number of peaceful civilians among the 200,000 who have died in Syria's brutal civil war. Innocent as 100,000 or more Iraqi civilians murdered in the brutal sectarian violence unleashed during the American occupation.

But those foreign deaths occurred at a greater distance from both our heads and our hearts than the events on 9/11—though not far from the hearts of fellow Syrians and Iraqis.  The brute fact is this: human compassion not only has its limits, but its own high degree of selectivity.

Ordinary compassion requires some kind of self-other identification, some “that could be me” sense. “Fellow human being” pales into abstraction when put up against a member of my family, my neighborhood, my town, my nation.” This capacity has always served a key role in binding groups together, part of our communal survival kit.

Us and Not Us

For most Americans, the 9/11 victims are “us." The Syrians and the Iraqis are, almost inevitably, “them.” Similarly, both the Gazans and Israelis usually belong to the “us” circle for the West. Founded mostly by Europeans, Israel has welcomed a goodly number of American immigrants. Millions of Palestinians have moved to the U.S. and Europe. The Israel Gaza strife was front and center in media and commentary just last month.

On the other hand, the five million dead in the ongoing Second Congo War (1998 to the present) belong, conversely, to “them,” and seem to merit little media coverage, much less the welling up of tears. For non-African Europeans and Americans, Africa is mostly not "us."

Even among the “us,” compassion usually works selectively. For example, the blood and destruction in Gaza is vivid and heart-rending. The pundits write about “disproportionate response,” which on the surface seems obvious. Far more abstract to most non-Jews is the fact that Israel faces an enemy which makes a boast of its determination to destroy the “Zionist entity,” actually celebrating the death of Gazan civilians as “martyrdom” in their cause.  To many, the multi-faceted threats faced by Israel seem so much less visceral.

Compassion reveals—and blinds

In the throes of compassion we see some things more sharply; other realities become veiled. When selective outrage joins selective compassion, head and heart can easily start down the slide toward justified violence against the Other. And the identity of the Other can easily shift. Our heart's selectivity makes it harder to see clearly the dynamics at work in any conflict, and naturally drives us to take sides.

This is our usual default way of operating, arising out of millions of years of evolutionary development—basic survival equipment for family, community, tribe and nation. With intention and practice, however, the heart can stretch beyond its present limitations, if only haltingly. Jesus calls us to this stretching, as did the Buddha and Confucius. A heart that sees the prior suffering, the insult or injury at the root of most violence, is more likely to support a head that sees clearly and can respond more wisely.

Such wisdom is most crucial whenever we decide we must take sides.

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