Carl Sagan warned us about Mutually Assured Destruction 40 years ago. If we do survive a nuclear war, the condition of our planet will be such that any life afterward will be miserable. We humans have spent trillions of dollars in an effort to learn to kill each other more effectively, quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and remotely. We have a massive war industry. And War is the polite term for mass murder.
Already in Ukraine, as of March 17, 2022, more than 100 children have been killed as a result of Putin’s attacks. Children. They have done nothing to deserve death. They are children. This is sickening. This is immoral. This is wrong in every possible way. It is unforgivable. There is no defense for this state of affairs.
Yes, there is! They are the enemy. The enemy needs to be killed. That’s the way the world works.
Perhaps it is. But it shouldn’t be.
There are certain undeniable truths that we need to understand. One is that there is no Them; we are all Us. Everyone who dies in a war is someone’s son or daughter. They are people just like you and me. They may have different ideas. They may have different beliefs. They may have very different lives. But they are human beings who are here for an incredibly brief time, and we have shortened it by killing them. We can make up reasons to decide it doesn’t matter when someone dies, but it still does. We don’t feel the deaths of strangers as deeply as those close to us. We shouldn’t. If I felt every death as deeply as I did the demise of my Dad or my Dog, I would spend all my time curled up crying in a fetal position. That doesn’t mean the deaths don’t matter. Of course they do. And nearly everyone who dies has someone who feels the death as painfully as I felt the loss of Melanie.
The second fact about which there can be no debate, is that we are all living on the same planet at the same time.
More than 40 years ago, when I was an adolescent running around in as much of a hormone haze as I now am surrounded by the Fog of Idealism, I was as madly in love as a boy could be with a girl whose intellect and compassion I admired nearly as much as her physical form. When you’re 16, it’s difficult to see much beyond appearance. Or, at least it was for me. Perhaps today’s adolescents are more enlightened than I was.
Among the reasons I fell in love with her was her Idealism was seductively attractive to me. She was a member of a religion of which I had never heard, called Baha’i. I had, even then, no supernatural beliefs, but I loved the idea of unity that was at the core of her religious beliefs. She had on her car a bumper sticker that has the unique status of actually affecting me. It said, “One Planet, One People… Please?” I have never forgotten the words. Now, I believe, she’s off living with her husband on a farm somewhere, and we say hello to each other occasionally on Facebook, but we don’t really have a serious friendship anymore. Her influence over my thinking, however, has only grown in the intervening decades.
She was the water and sunlight that made the seed planted a decade earlier grow and flourish. What planted the seed? It was Star Trek, of course. In Star Trek, we are all one people sharing one planet, and we’re not only working together as humans, but we are also working with species from other worlds. We spend our time trying to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. It is cooperation and exploration at its best.
I believe if we could all embrace the idea that we are all deserving of life, that all of us matter, that there is more we share than there is that separates us, we might find wars would stop.
There is much debate right now about what the United States, and/or NATO should do about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine. I wish that I were wise enough to tell them what to do, but I honestly don’t know. I have no knowledge of military tactics. I have no expertise in winning a war. Should we use our military to stop Russia? I don’t know. If we do, will this lead us to World War III? Will it lead to a nuclear holocaust that could destroy most of the species, and leave behind a cold and barren horror story in which to live? I have no idea.
What I do know is that people are being murdered on a massive scale. I know that to be true of every war ever fought by anyone on this planet at any time in history. I know that it will be true of every war we fight in the future. We count the value of war by determining the number of lives saved against the number of lives extinguished. If the United States hadn’t bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how many lives would have been lost in the continuation of the war? Had Japan or Germany won the war, how much more horrible would the world be than it is now? I don’t know. I can’t know. I’m not Q. I have no power to view alternative time lines. I can guess. I can speculate. So can you. So can people much smarter than we are. No one, however, can know.
What can we know? We can verify that nearly 200,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb. How many people is that? To put it in a personal perspective, I have nearly 2,000 friends on Facebook. There may be 20 or 30 I’ve actually met. So… everyone I know would be 1% of the loss caused by the atomic bomb. Assume I’ve met at least 2,000 people in person over my 59 years in wandering this planet. That brings me to 4,000 people. Fifty times that many died because we used atomic bombs. That’s more than enough to leave me utterly alone in my life, fifty times over. That would knock me out of human contact for this and, if we get reincarnated, the next 49 lives. I’m guessing your numbers are different from mine, but not substantially so. Everyone you have ever known, and everyone you ever will know is almost certainly dwarfed by 200,000 people. And today’s weapons are infinitely more powerful. The damage we can do to each other is unimaginable.
Why, God, why do we insist on mass murder? Why must we be consumed by homicidal hatred instead of united by love?
Arizona’s Governor, Doug Ducey, had this on his Facebook page:
In Arizona, we will secure our border. With advanced equipment & drone technology, we can bolster surveillance and stop the criminals in their tracks. Discussed some of these tactics with Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR and defense-tech company Anduril Industries.
I posted a comment that I thought was fairly obvious:
When someone commits a crime that hurts someone, by all means, arrest them. No one is hurt by someone crossing the border. They are human beings. They deserve the best life they can have. If they come here, they can, and often do, help us to build a better world.
Don’t waste resources, please, on keeping decent people out of our country.
This set off a firestorm of hatred directed toward me. I suppose I ought not to have been surprised. They dragged out the same old arguments: They have, they told me, nothing against immigrants, but they should come in legally. That’s a legal argument, not a moral one. If I were living 200 years ago, I could have owned another human being. It was legal, but, guess what? It was immoral. I don’t think any rational person would argue to the contrary in the 21st Century. The Law has little to do with Morality. The process of becoming a citizen takes years, it’s expensive, and, like anything else that involves our government, can be delayed or even shut down due to nothing more than paperwork errors that are no fault of the person applying for citizenship. All the while, they are trying to pay rent and put food on the table, just like the rest of us are. And they live under the constant threat that they will be removed from their homes and shipped like so much cargo to another country as though we were returning a defective DVD to Amazon. Legalism is an excuse for doing what we know to be wrong. Laws can be changed; this one ought to be.
I heard about drug cartels and human trafficking. Yes, those are conditions that exist. They are evil. And they have nothing to do with the vast majority of people coming to America in search of a better life. Statistically, immigrants are less likely to be criminals than those of us who were To The Manor, Born. If they engage in human trafficking or commit other crimes, we arrest them for those crimes, not for stepping over a line. There is a Tom Cruise movie in which people are arrested for crimes they’re likely to commit in the future. It’s an obscene idea. It suggests that we can’t change our minds. It’s Orwell’s Thought Police on Steroids. Could we please wait until someone does something to hurt us before we deny them the liberty about which my students chanted, hands over their hearts, every morning for 29 years? Is that really an unreasonable request?
Immigrants are fleeing Ukraine as I write this. Fortunately, there are other countries that will let them in, just as we used to do at Ellis Island. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries all that was required was a health check. If you were unable to pass it, you were held in isolation until you were no longer a health risk to the rest of society. You weren’t constantly living with the threat of deportation. You could join the Pursuit of Happiness, at least to some small degree.
There were the arguments concerning the use of our resources by people who were not Us. More than one terribly clever person suggested I take them in and support them, somehow equating the roughly 1,000 square feet of my condo with the 105.8 trillion square feet that make up the United States. That argument is too absurd to engage. In case you haven’t heard me say it 105.8 trillion times yet, there is no Them; we are all Us.
This is what we need to understand more than anything else. If we can feel for each other just the slightest bit of empathy, if we can learn to lead with love, we can change the world.
I’m going to end this episode with the piece that made a friend suggest I start a blog (I didn’t even know what a blog was at the time. I was just posting my writing on Facebook hoping someone would respond. It was the fact that my Rhiannon (see The Haunting of Horace for details) reacted that prompted me to keep writing.) that led to this show. I think it’s relevant now.
Empathy and Art
My earliest memory of feeling empathy is Christmas 1969. I was 7 years old, sitting under a tree with an obscene number of gifts I had just opened, and feeling truly ecstatic, when I noticed my Mother had no Christmas presents. Not one. I burst into tears of guilt. My father took me to a drug store, and we found Mom a candle, and it was my first present to her. Neither Dad nor I had any ability to wrap a candle, so we gave it to Mom to wrap. And when she opened it an hour or so later, she loved that candle as she loved her children. She got candles from me for decades after that, and for nearly every occasion. It took several additional hours for me to recognize that Dad hadn’t gotten any presents, either, and Mom took me to the drug store to buy Dad a pipe. I gave him most of the pipes he used to smoke. These Traditions were the product of Empathy.
I have, and I would guess most of you have, wept for Tom Robinson. I have cheered for Sherlock Holmes. I have spoken with Hamlet repeatedly about the value and meaning (or lack thereof) of life. I have felt joy for Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. I learned Friendship from Sam and Frodo, and Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I learned courage from Santiago and his marlin, and morality from Atticus Finch. I have faced George’s agonizing moral dilemma concerning his best friend, Lenny, when George tells him to think about the rabbits. These are all other examples of Empathy.
I believe Empathy is essential to being Human. Too much Empathy is dangerous, of course. You can’t possibly grieve for every tragedy in the world. No one has that vast an emotional landscape. But, the inability to feel for others is, in my mind, the root of evil. You don’t kill people not because it’s against the law, but because you can feel for someone besides yourself. You won’t commit most acts of violence or cruelty for the same reasons. You can imagine how you would feel if it happened to you. You can’t do something you believe to be evil because you can experience the emotions of Others.
I believe an exposure to The Arts is essential for increasing a person’s Empathy. It’s in books, movies, music, paintings, poetry, dance, and other forms of Art that we find our own feelings. And it’s where we learn to feel the joys and pains that our fellow travelers on this little ball in space are likely to feel, themselves. It’s in catharsis that we learn the most about ourselves and each other.
When we can understand each other, we can dispense with the idea of Us vs. Them. We can move forward together, as a species, and this is a product of Empathy. I care about you because I recognize some of myself in you. I hope you can see some of yourself in me, too.
Could we please stop killing each other now?
I love you.