Empathy for the Common Man

Raul and Brisenia Flores

Raul and Brisenia Flores

I was going to try to write something in a humorous voice about how Darth Limbaugh was directing Emperor Cheney’s imperial storm troopers, dressed as Senators Graham and Boehner, out to savage and malign Sonia Sotomayor. I figured that there must be some workable pun in the idea that they can take the white sheet off Graham but they can’t make him any less of a cracker.

But then I got an email response to my essay about empathy. The message was from a proud progressive, who argued that empathy is a uniquely human trait. He went on to say that their lack of empathy showed that Republicans, soldiers, and Cheney in particular could be classified as non-human.

I’m worried. What does it mean that thoughtful, caring progressives may be reaching the point of dismissing people with whom they disagree, the same way Republicans, Faux News stars and neo-cons seem to dismiss all non-whites and non-“Christians”?

Are we that frustrated, after years of apparent criminal conduct and colonial warfare by our governmental leaders? Are we that frustrated, after rejecting Gropenator Schwarzennegger’s right-wing ballot measures, to see him (with help from “Democrat” legislators) giving more tax breaks to big business? Are we that frustrated as we learn that Barack Obama is really a middle-of-the-road politician, whose actual policy positions do not have the strength of his mighty rhetorical gifts?

Does our frustration justify abandoning thoughtful analysis of complex issues and adopting the right wing’s catch phrases, ad hominem attacks and contempt for facts? Should we, can we, dismiss those with whom we disagree as simply non-human?

The progressive email arrived while I was lamenting the press coverage of the shooting at the Holocaust Museum. The facts of the shooting don’t seem in much doubt. A bigot with a long history of expressing his racism finally tried to go out in a blaze of hateful glory. And, like the plans for glory of so many other hatemongers, including Hitler, his plans failed. Hitler and Pol Pot had to face the judgment of history. This killer, like Timothy McVeigh, will have to face the judgment of a jury of his peers. His actual peers, not those he might wish were his peers.

But while the nation fastened its attention on the shooting of a guard in Washington D.C., the Associated Press was trying to circulate a story about another murder by racists. The story was about a Latino father and his young daughter who were gunned down by right-wing, border “militiamen,”carrying badges and pretending to be enforcing U.S. sovereignty. The story got no traction.

The father was a legal resident. He was employed. He was doing what the right wing says it wants legal immigrants to do. But he and his daughter are now dead, shot in their home by self-proclaimed “patriots”. That’s right, shot in their home, not while working as guards in a public facility. But like the guard, shot because they were “racially inferior” in the eyes of their killers.

Are they also racially inferior in the eyes of all those who believe that a killing by a madman in a famous venue is more important than the killing of a Latino family, in their homes, by an organized group of right-wing zealots?

Similar questions get asked every time a little white girl is kidnapped and murdered. As the news trucks gather and pundits spew, a few minority voices cry out asking why we don’t give equal coverage to the regular killing of children of color. And we have to ask it as we see the intense coverage of an attractive Iranian woman, gunned down by the religious secret police for the crime of being where people were demonstrating for democracy.

The murders in Arizona were different from these political murders. The killers were not religious fanatics trying to impose their viewpoint. They were members of “respectable” militia groups. “Respectable” bigots. The accused leader of the kill squad is a woman whose hate writings remained posted on a “respectable” militia website after the murders until the AP started asking about it. Now that she’s been arrested, the “respectable” bigots are trying to run from their association with the killers.

The police in Arizona say the “militia killers” did it for the money. They planned to force their way into a family home and kill all the occupants so they could steal money. The plan was OK to them, because the victims were Latino, not human. They dressed in law enforcement uniforms to gain access to the house. They shot a child so she couldn’t be a witness against them.

Where did they learn to kill little girls in their own homes? Our own Pentagon has refused to punish soldiers who rape and kill Iraqi and Afghani little girls, as long as the rapes and murders are in “combat zones.” These militia killers pretend they are fighting a war against racially inferior Latinos in our country. “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” said Dr. Johnson in 1775. And so it remains today. This is neocon courage.

Now look what’s happened even here in progressive essay land. I started out lamenting the lack of empathy and press coverage for the Latino victims of racist murderers. But I drifted away from the victims to the more sexy criticism of the racists. Just as the press drifted to the more sexy Holocaust Museum murder and the murder of an Iranian woman by the Ayatolla’s “religious” police.

Is it a lack empathy that we ignore the stream of murders of children of color while waiting for the next JonBenét or Caylee to weep for? If we lack empathy for the children of color, are we, as my progressive email correspondent would have it, non-human?

I do not believe that the deaths of JonBenét, Caylee, Stephen Johns, or Neda are more newsworthy than the murders of a 9-year-old Latino girl and her father by uniformed thugs pretending to be patriots. I also do not believe that young men, who go off to war, trained to believe and obey their leaders have abandoned their humanity.

My progressive correspondent tells me that empathy is a uniquely human trait. But there aren’t many other species that practice organized warfare against themselves. That too may be a uniquely human trait. A complete lack of empathy may indicate mental illness. The suppression of empathy may be just a business judgment. If we start calling businessmen “non-human” we cut a lot of people out of our conversations. And we cut ourselves out of many important conversations.

It is also a uniquely human trait to be introspective and to strive for self improvement. And so Obama acknowledges his ongoing struggle with nicotine addiction. Trying to improve himself and set a good example, while people who fear change mock him for the effort.

How many Latino families like the one gunned down in Arizona are working to improve themselves? Without press fanfare, they mow our lawns, tend our children, and clean our offices at night. And without press fanfare, they die from the violence of racist killers pretending to be “protecting the good people.” They suffer and die while “the liberal media” ignore them and wait for the next JonBenét.

tom_hall_2.jpgIf Obama can find the discipline to struggle with his nicotine addiction in the public glare of a hostile press, shouldn’t we, in the privacy of our own lives, be able to find the discipline to learn some empathy for the non-white, non-beautiful children who die each year from racist violence, poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, and the lack of healthcare? Shouldn’t we be able to find the discipline to learn some empathy for the least among us, yes, even for Cheney.

Tom Hall


  1. says

    Ouch….Once again, Tom, you are PAINFULLY honest,
    and massively on-point. We progressives have an important agenda– an urgently necessary message to deliver to the world, but we must resist the temptation to ‘fight fire with fire’ at the expense of our greater goals.
    The end cannot justify the means, but must DETERMINE the means. If we only want to raise some hackles and aggravate some bigots, we may very well employ the same dehumanizing and demeaning methods they favor, but if the end we seek is greater- to elevate humanity, to decrease the gulfs between the lonely, hurting people of this world, then our means must be very different. You very rightly and eloquently urge us to pass over the cheap shots and do the hard work of speaking the truth in love– of clearly stating and not overstating facts and issues as we truly see them. Thanks for persevering in doing the right things right.

  2. Diane says

    The notion that humans are better than other animals and only humans are capable of empathy is theological, not biological. A rat that can only access food by giving a painful electric shock to another rat will stop eating. Only humans are capable of torture.

  3. says

    Is it possible that what we are taught ad nauseam, that ours is a two-party system, is a sham, a PSYOP in the classic divide-and-conquer tactic? I saw a great bumper sticker that said, “Forget your stupid culture war until we figure out how to make our government obey the Constitution.” Freedom is not attempting to gain control of the levers of government to force others to live by your values. As long as one is locked in the left-vs.-right false dichotomy, that one will remain defeated, ineffective except to serve the state.

  4. Walt says

    JonBenét, Caylee, Stephen Johns, Neda, Hitler, Pol Pot, border “militiamen”, Barak Obama, Republicans, soldiers, and Cheney also the shooting of a guard in Washington D.C at the Holocaust Museum and the killing of a Latino family by right-wing.

    All this in one article trying to push the Progressive Political Party ideas.

    Its not too pretentious, I mean lets be fair, he did leave out the death of George Tiller.

  5. says

    Thanks for such a cogent, direct and thoughtful opinion piece.

    Calling somebody inhuman in a political discussion is simply an exercise in Straw Man Building and deflection from what is really important.

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