Sunday, January 23, 2005

War of Compassion

The overall response of the American public to the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami has challenged one of my long standing rules of thumb: the compassion of the American populace, on the whole, in matters of disaster or tragedy, is inversely proportional to the number of people involved, the distance from American shores and the darkness of the skin of those affected. I do not mean to deny or diminish the real and significant work of many caring people in the US. But, on the whole, a single white child trapped in a well somewhere in middle America seems to create a larger outpouring of compassion than ongoing distant suffering.

Clearly the magnitude of the tragedy in Asia is in large part the reason for the outpouring of compassion. The incomprehensible mounting death toll is only part of the impact on our collective consciousness. The scope of the disaster became obvious on the surface in the days afterwards. My cynicism aside, there is a deep and fundamental vein of compassion the runs through American culture, however prone it is to localism and particularism. The battle that this compassion does daily with the cult of individualism is one of the defining aspects of American society.

It is hard not to compare, however, this response to the response to other recent tragedies. One year to the day before the tsunami, a 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit southeastern Iran, causing approximately 31,000 deaths. This last September saw a hurricane killing more than 3000 Haitians. The summer of 2003, a heatwave descended on Europe, killing approximately 35,000 people. None of these events penetrated the American consciousness in the manner of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Nor did they have anything close to the psychological impact of the 3000 plus people who lost their lives in the US on September 11th, 2001.

Death toll figures cannot be the determinate of compassionate response. The malignant evil of the attacks of 9-11 must surely inform and structure the response of a compassionate people. Yet this alone is insufficient to explain how 9-11 was able to fundamentally restructure American society while the ongoing warfare in the Congo, closing in on claiming the lives of 4 million people, has barely touched the consciousness of most Americans.

There is, I think, another death figure that must be reckoned with. It is one that is deliberately hidden, denied and shrouded in secrecy. It is the number of civilian deaths in Iraq since the US invasion, as a result of that invasion and subsequent occupation. It is a difficult number to arrive at, made more so by the deliberate decision of the US government and military to ignore it. Nevertheless, the November 20th, 2004, issue of The Lancet estimates:
Making conservative assumptions, we think that about 100,000 excess deaths, or more have happened since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.

The Lancet’s estimate did not receive much attention in the American news media. Yet it made manifest that which had been forced into the recesses of our collective conscious.

I contend that it takes more work to maintain the bubble of illusion of the invasion of Iraq as a nearly bloodless liberation than is apparent on the surface. Take for example this story about an explosion outside of a Baghdad Mosque. There are stories like this daily. When there are American casualties, these are always specifically mentioned – something like an attack leaving X number dead including Y Americans. Stories of American actions, such as the attack on Fallujah, resulting in Iraqi deaths are a more difficult matter. Here the stories tend to focus on the reasons for the action rather than the death toll, the exact opposite of stories about “insurgent” violence. The purpose of course is to paint deaths resulting from American violence as a regrettable necessity caused by the insurgency. While deaths due to insurgent violence are without reason or cause other than blind hatred or evil.

Yet the they-made-us-do-it defense is clearly insufficient. Otherwise the staggering Iraqi civilian death toll would be offered as proof of our just cause rather than denied or suppressed. Ever eager to bring us the news we want to hear, the American media do not tally the Iraqi dead like the American dead. Nor do they bring us images of the daily distress, destruction and death in Iraq. Blame the insurgents all you like, but our inability to look upon these images tells a different story. People die in wars. We know that. We knew that before the invasion. No matter how we may try to atomize the individual stories of violence and death in Iraq, we cannot avoid noticing the ever increasing body count. It takes work and effort to continue to believe that our initial support of the war did not result in a massive loss of life. No gloss of noble purpose or demonization of the enemy is sufficient to maintain the kind of denial necessary to support the illusion that Americans have borne the brunt of burden of the invasion of Iraq.

So I offer this thesis: tsunami as Iraq by proxy. The tsunami affords us the opportunity to care about distant suffering without the threat of blame or responsibility. It is no accident that a number of television crews were invited along to witness the delivery of relief supplies to tsunami victims by American military personnel.

I want to be very clear about something. The caring is genuine. The compassion is real. I am not contending that the compassionate response of the American public is somehow false or manufactured to assuage repressed feelings of guilt over the consequences of our invasion of Iraq. What I am contending is that our instinct of compassion toward the Iraqi people has been structured by our need to deny any degree of American culpability for the suffering of Iraqi people.

There is a second and more difficult contention here too. Every good liberal knows what its like to wrestle with finding an appropriate response to a world that seems to offer a bottomless pit of need. Unchecked compassion creates the danger of consuming the individual. Demonstrating compassion involves taking onto ourselves some small portion of the suffering of the other. We devote time or donate money. We diminish the amount of resources available to fulfill our own needs in order to diminish the needs of others. A select few devote their lives to helping others. Some decide to “live simply so that others may simply live.” Most of us devise strategies for when to respond and how much. Thus the tendency to localism and particularism: we are more likely to respond to suffering when we feel a degree of connection and thus responsibility. Localism limits the range of demand of others on our resources and thus buffers us from draining effects of the bottomless pit of need. This tendency to take care of one’s own is not, I don’t think, a bad thing. Even those who are more prone to worry about distant suffering are taking care of their own. They simply define themselves as citizens of the world instead of their nation, city or community. Nor am I being critical of placing limits on how and when to respond to the suffering of others. Doing so is an absolute necessity. The question of what the exact nature of those limits should be – for the individual and as a society - is a complex and difficult one. It is far beyond my present purpose to address this. More importantly, I simply don’t have the answer.

Had we never invaded Iraq, there would certainly have been a significant response by the American public to the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. I am postulating that the psychological toll cause by the denial and repression of guilt over US responsibility for Iraqi suffering necessitated a degree of removal of limitations on compassionate response in the case of the tsunami. We want to care about the death and suffering of innocent Iraqis. It’s in our nature to care. But we cannot, due to the attendant danger of culpability. Whether our denied compassion towards the Iraqis intensified our response to the tsunami or our compassion towards the victims of the tsunami acted as a catharsis for our repressed compassion towards the Iraqis is unknowable, and, in any event, is a distinction without a difference. In either case, the tsunami afforded a safe and desperately needed opportunity to care about the suffering of others.

The relative lack of response to the earthquake in Iran one year prior in contrast to the response to the tsunami has a few determinants. Firstly there is the relative magnitudes of the events. There is also the role Iran plays as part of the “axis of evil” and the too close connection between Iran and Iraq in the American psyche, creating a degree of ambivalence towards Iran. The PIPA report demonstrates the degree to which, prior to the recent election, Americans were still in high denial over Iraq and the Middle East in general. I would argue that the maintenance of that denial created too high a barrier to access our feelings of compassion towards people so closely connected to the source of our repression. But I’m not sure that it would have made much of a difference had the quake happened in China or Africa. We were too self-involved, still nursing the wounds of 9-11, made anew by the implicit debate the election precipitated. Post-election, when the war’s supporters could feel a degree of vindication by the results, it became more possible to care about the suffering of others, just still not possible to direct that towards concern over Iraqi civilian death.

Similarly, when hurricane Jeanne slammed Haiti, we had our own hurricane destruction to worry about. The European heatwave of 2003 brought to the fore resentments over the refusal of much of Europe to support us in the war. It was further complicated by the claim that global warming was responsible for the heatwave. And the devastating tragedy in the Congo coupled with the lack of US intervention challenges the claim of the Bush administration that our involvement in Iraq is primarily humanitarian. If we are only interested in helping others, than why not the Congo?

And what of the claim by the administration and others that our invasion of Iraq is an act of compassion? After all, no one denies that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator and that the Iraqi people suffered greatly under his rule. In fact, some people on the far right have gone so far as to claim that our problem in Iraq is not too little compassion, but too much. In an article entitled America's compassion in Iraq is self-destructive, the author contends:

Things are going badly not because, as some claim, the United States is arrogant and lacking in humility -- but because it is self-effacing and compassionate.
The Bush Administration's war in Iraq embraces compassion instead of the rational goal of victory. Such an immoral approach to war wantonly sacrifices the lives of soldiers and emboldens our enemies throughout the Middle East to mount further attacks against us.
America's attention has been diverted to rebuilding Iraqi hospitals, schools, roads and sewers, and on currying favor with the locals (some U.S. soldiers were even ordered to grow moustaches in token of their respect for Iraqi culture, others are now given cultural sensitivity courses before arriving in Iraq). That attacks on U.S. forces (including those engaged in reconstruction efforts) have gone unpunished has emboldened the enemy.

The fact that liberating the Iraqi people from oppression was not the original primary motivation for going to war does not change the fact that much of the war’s supporters have gladly shifted rationales along with their commander in chief. We can argue over whether the war has provided a net benefit to the Iraqi people, but there is no denying that, currently, liberation as an act of compassion is a genuine part of the motivation of the war’s supporters. Thus we get a spate of stories about soldiers or ordinary Americans helping Iraqis in need, like this story of a Texas doctor providing prosthetic limbs to some Iraqis who had their right hands cut off under Hussein’s regime. Or this story, cited by Katha Pollitt in The Nation.

I was listening to Morning Edition on December 30, and up came one of those end-of-the-year heart-warmers that's supposed to make you feel there's hope for this old world yet. It seems that a 9-year-old Iraqi boy, Saleh Khalaf, came across a cluster bomb and "because it was round and smooth" he picked it up and it blew off all of one hand and most of another, opened up his abdomen, took out his left eye and horribly scarred his face. His 16-year-old brother was killed. Fortunately, and this is the point of the story, he was treated "against protocol" in a US Army hospital and flown with his father for further treatment in Oakland, where he was showered with help by a generous local couple and is now learning English and American expressions like "hold your horses."
So this is what we've come to: We celebrate the rescue of one child and gloss over the inconvenient fact that it was our weapons that maimed him for life. The boy who lives cancels out the brother who died, the moral heroism of his befrienders cancels out the moral turpitude of our government, excuses ourselves, and lets us bask in poignant uplift.

These stories point to the fact that compassion isn’t simply caring about the suffering of others. Who you care about, how you care and why you care are all involved. For some, caring about the 16 year old is in conflict with caring about the 9 year old. Do we care about the suffering of Iraqis under Hussein and how de we properly manifest that care? Can we care about those innocent Iraqis who lost their lives instead of their oppression on the night of “shock and awe”?

Compassion is political. Signs extolling us to “Support the troops” that adorn yards and car bumpers mostly mean, “Support the war, because to criticize the goals of the war is say that the troops are doing a bad thing.” When Bush speaks of being a “compassionate conservative”, he isn’t redefining conservatism, he’s appropriating compassion. He’s saying that you can declare that the poor are just lazy and do not deserve public assistance and still be “compassionate.” Bush’s compassion, in practice, is specific, not general. It doesn’t concern itself with philosophical questions. It is unconcerned that liberation as compassion applies uniquely to Iraq.

But this paints a picture of compassionate conservatism that is too simple and not entirely accurate. There is a vision of appropriate compassionate response that starts with a coherent moral theory and then tries to apply itself to reality as best it can, seeking to maximize the benefits of actions. It is eminently practical and adjusts to experience.

And there is a vision that starts with a fixed ideology which then seeks out opportunities to apply itself. It is a vision convinced of its own essential correctness and so proceeds with the assumption that the key to a good result is to maintain the integrity of the vision. Since this idea of compassion doesn’t depend on reference to the external world for validation, it is unconcerned when reality fails to produce the predicted results. It is equally unconcerned being universally applicable. It happily excepts validation wherever it comes from. It doesn’t worry about what it ignores or when reality contradicts it. It simply assumes that faithfulness to the original vision will, eventually, produce the desired results; or, if not, that some external force is actively preventing the realization of expectation.

Bush’s conviction that western civilization is the pill to cure the world’s ills is straight out of the nineteenth century’s colonialist playbook. Europeans colonialists and those later comers, the Americans, may have gone into their foreign misadventures convinced that they were shoulder the “white man’s burden”, but freedom cannot come at the barrel of a gun. Just as with our colonial forebears, sincere compassion does not guarantee that its recipients will actually benefit or come to appreciate their benefactor’s charity, nor does it preclude pecuniary interests.

This is compassionate conservatism. It worries about preserving Families, the idea, instead of helping families, the people, based on the belief that protecting the former will, eventually, help the latter – barring the active interference of those meddling liberals. It offers western democracy – and capitalism – to Iraq in the belief that this must inevitably create a stable – and friendly - Middle East – barring the active interference of the meddling insurgents.

Yet even the most faithful are not immune from the gulf between reality and ideology indefinitely. Eventually accounts must be reconciled or discomfiture ameliorated.

I cannot complain about nor criticize true charity, whatever its reasons. But if history is to be any guide, the psychological costs of what we have wrought in Iraq have only just begun. And, far more importantly, so have the real world costs for the Iraqis themselves.

Will we care?

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