Friday, August 29, 2014

The limits of empathy

Its clear that President Obama believes that empathy is a necessary ingredient for solving our differences. That's why in his book The Audacity of Hope, he wrote:
I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him. That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.
As we've watched him over the years, this is not the empathy of weakness or surrender. It is about recognizing your own limitations and combining that with a deep understanding of your opponent.

And yet, when I hear him talk about ISIS, I hear the limits of empathy. He's come to the conclusion that they must simply be defeated via force, not understood.

I am reminded of what he said in his Noble Peace Prize acceptance speech:
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason...

So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.

So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
Frankly, this is something I struggle with. The folly of war is so immense. I remember this coming home for me in my 20's when I shared my apartment with a young woman who was visiting from Germany. We watched a war movie together and afterwards talked about the fact that if our fathers had been born just a few years earlier, they could have met on the battlefield...trying to kill each other. That was unthinkable to us.

On the other hand, one of President Obama's favorite philosophers - Reinhold Neibuhr - gave up his commitment to non-violence when he witnessed the ravages of Nazi Germany in Europe. In many ways it was a case of the lesser of two evils rather than a moral acceptance of "the world as it is rather than as we want it to be."

And so, I want to continue to struggle. That's why I appreciate the thoughtful way this President approaches this kind of decision. And its why I find Bill Kristol's "lets just bomb them for awhile and see what happens" to be morally repugnant.

I'll admit that I find no empathy in my heart for ISIS at this point. But engaging in war - while sometimes necessary - is always "an expression of human folly."


  1. The human folly attaches to ISIS. They are anarchists bent on destruction and total control. I like that the President isn't launching headlong into this. He appears to be taking his time to allow intelligence to be gathered. He has signaled a desire to build alliances and gain consensus. I think he is uniquely qualified to examine the problem at hand and develop effective solutions. If bombing equipment and arms used by ISIS is part of that plan, I support that. He wants a diplomatic and more long-term solution which includes the Iraqi government change its tune toward their minorities and become more inclusive. Hope that aspect succeeds. Hope his successor is able to continue whatever he builds in the way of a coalition.

    1. I believe that the human folly is the conditions that led to the formation of ISIS.

      But I agree wholeheartedly that the key to a successful strategy to defeat them is a coalition. Iraq has to get its act together - and I believe the key to the alliance PBO is building is Saudi Arabia. That's where the conditions that led to the formation of ISIS are rooted.

  2. Yeah, any solution involving these jihadists has got to involve Saudi Arabia.