Empathy and the Logic of Murder

by MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL

The genius of the American Constitution is that it encoded a profound understanding of fundamental human equality into a viable way for a new country to understand itself and the world. Among equals nothing should impede life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The genius of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition is that it places the matter of equality at the beginning: Genesis. Into his image created he them. Whatever the temptations of hierarchy, equality is of our very being. It is irrefutable because it bears the mark of Divine fiat.

We hold these truths to be self-evident. Whether one is religiously inclined or a secular humanist, most would agree that the belief in equality is the quintessential American value without which the rest is incoherent. The insistence on it is in our bones and when we veer from its clarity we become a confused and aimless people.

In the spirit of equality and in a confused and aimless time, I suggest we adopt the World Trade Center as a standard of measurement. 2,795 people died in the World Trade Center. On television we watched people leap from the burning towers. Ash and the smell of burnt flesh lingered for months over the city. And around the gash in Manhattan, loved ones began making altars to the dead so when pilgrims arrive they grieve not only the unfathomable but this son, this mother or friend. Not mass death: A nation continues to grieve for each story cut short.

It is precisely this welter of individuality that makes the World Trade Center a useful standard with which to invoke empathy for the innocent dead in a death-dealing era.

To deprive the innocent dead of faces is to concede to the logic of murder. What if, in the name of the equality we hold so dear we were to risk that leap of faith into the obvious that the innocent death of, say, an Iraqi is in every respect equal to the innocent death of an American? What if instead of an eye for an eye we live from our values: for every I an I. The World Trade Center offers a standard based on ethics and empathy in a world where conflicting parties are eager to make civilians bleed. Until a single standard for the value of human life is honored we will forever be creating enemies and provoking them.

The twentieth century completely transformed the nature of war. At the beginning of the century ten percent of war dead were civilians. World War II was a spasm of violence that delivered the world into a routine heartlessness: ninety percent of the deaths were noncombatants. Human beings have maintained that quota ever since.

It must be remembered that this was fully a collective psychosis. During the Good War, long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. systematically bombed civilians, 100,000 dying within six hours during the firebombing of Tokyo. In 1937 the Japanese killed 300,000 people during the Rape of Nanking. In February of 1942 bombing cities became official British policy–to destroy the morale of the enemy civilian population and, in particular the industrial workers. A few months later, hundred of German bombers killed 40,000 in a single raid on Stalingrad.

The epic poetry of war and its underlying world of ethics that has persisted since the Iron Age has been made obsolete by sheer technological brutality. The cold profanity of this is illustrated by the celebration of the smart bombs during the Gulf War. In the ten days of the war, 148 American soldiers died and 100,000 Iraqi. Nowhere did Homer praise the ancient equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.

September 11th placed American into the terrified recognition of what most of the world has known for decades: not only are civilians not spare but rather often they are singled out. This delivers us to an ethical geography very different from the one we lived in before. Because our belief in equality will always be the North Star of any moral reckoning the World Trade Center standard can help us find our way through a strange and dangerous land.

Lets apply it first and foremost to the current situation with Iraqi, this particular historical moment that teeters on the edge. I suppose one could go way back to when the West created Iraq after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Or one could go to the bloodbath that followed the CIA engineered coup in 1963 that installed the Baath Regime that Bush is eager to change. Perhaps one could apply the WTC standard to Saddam-the-ally who we armed against Iran (even as the Reagan administration secretly armed Iran against Iraq). But all of this really speaks only of the decadent state of what was once called the art of war. It doesnt speak of the killing of civilians the way September 11th does. Better to look to the brief slice of history in which we have tortured the Iraqi people since the end of the Gulf war.

By way of weekly bombings these last twelve years, by way of the ruination of sewage systems and water treatment plants, by way of the six fold increase of leukemia in a county covered with depleted uranium, in a hundred ways vicious and bureaucratic, an estimated 1,200,000 Iraqi citizens have been killed, half of them children and each as fully innocent as anyone who lost their lives on September 11th. Roughly five percent of the population.

One can see the possibilities of the WTC standard. That incomprehensible number 1,200,000 is 431 World Trade Centers. But given that Iraq has about a twelfth the population of America it may be more accurate to multiply this figure proportionally. 5,041 World Trade Centers means the equivalent of one September 11th every eighteen hours for the last twelve years.

Remember the reliability of the WTC standard relies on the courage to risk empathy in a bloody time otherwise the numbers grow cold quickly. Not death but a welter of individuals: for every I an I. For every altar limning Ground Zero the grave of a child in Baghdad, her mother wailing, inconsolable.

Multiply that by 5,041 and one sees that Iraq is a country saturated in a grief that one hopes America never knows. The WTC standard makes abundantly clear that having visited mass destruction on the people of Iraq the United States is singularly unqualified to exact what will surely be a massively destructive war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. It becomes clear also that, given recent history, not a few Iraqis are likely to see Saddam Hussein as the lesser of two evils should America attack.

MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is coauthor with Augustine Kandemwa of Gathering in the Names (Spring Journal 2002). The companion pieces to this essay, Overcoming Terrorism and The Looking Glass War are posted at www.gatheringin.com. He can be reached at michaelortizhill@earthlink.net.

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