What a crazy morning this has been. One minute, I’m looking at last night’s photographs from the streets of Paris – the filled body bags, the wounded survivors, the ubiquitous policemen. The next minute, I’m looking at the photographs that have just now been released from my daughter’s wedding – the beaming bride and groom, the adoring friends, and yes, even the proud, balding father-of-the-bride.
There is so much in life to be thankful for, and nothing quite like wedding pictures to bring that point home. But today, it is difficult to devote ourselves to thanksgiving. It is a day that should be devoted to contemplation – and sorrow.
I call this blog the Empathic Rationalist, based on the philosophy espoused in my first novel, The Creed Room. The centerpiece of that philosophy was a simple rallying cry: Let passion be your sail, reason your keel, and empathy your rudder. You will note that in the name of that philosophy, the “reason” element is the noun and the “empathy” element only the adjective, but when it came time to formulate a credo, it was empathy that was featured the most. We are advised to steer our way through life primarily using our empathy. After all, passion can be violent, and reason can be cold. But empathy? It is almost always a thing of beauty.
This morning, however, I find that my empathy is being challenged. To be sure, it’s easy enough to empathize with the victims of the Paris attacks and their families. But for every moment I spend feeling compassion for them, I spend another moment feeling hatred for the terrorists who turned Paris into a bloodbath. (It is OK to use the term “terrorist” for those creatures, is it not? When civilians are killed in Israel, I note that in many circles, the terrorists/murderers are often thought of compassionately, more as soldiers than as terrorists. But hopefully, I can use the T word for the perpetrators of last night’s massacre and not worry that there is a soul reading this blog who would use a more gentle word on their behalf.)
I keep thinking to myself, how can so many members of our species support the killing of innocent people? Do I have to think of these killers as human, rather than simply as evil creatures? Have they not given up their right to claim personhood status? Or is it appropriate for us to show them at least some measure of compassion, if not because of who they are today, then at least because of who they have the potential to become in the future, if only they can somehow wake up to basic human values?
Maybe my feelings are too raw for me to answer these questions today. Maybe I’m still too much in shock to reason intelligently about this topic. So let’s try this. Let me remind you of what I said in the Creed Room when I addressed this topic under more sober conditions:
“Even the greatest empaths can’t encounter everything, or every one, empathetically. In fact, no matter how empathic the soul, at times he will encounter a person whom he finds distasteful. We’re talking eating-a-bad-tomato distasteful. Perhaps the person is a malicious gossip or a pathological liar. Perhaps he’s just plain violent.
“To be empathic in these situations doesn’t require turning the other cheek. Sometimes people have to be confronted and stopped in their tracks. Yet, even in the darkest of encounters, an empath must act respectfully toward the ‘other.’ He must recognize that this distasteful or violent person is a human being cut from the same basic cloth as the empath himself.
“When encountering a walking, talking bad tomato, the situation is no different from when the empath recognizes something about himself he doesn’t like. He doesn’t wallow in self-loathing. Where’s the respect in that? For the same reason, he shouldn’t wallow in hatred for others.
“That said, if it turns out that an empath finds himself in the same situation that a certain writer did in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and is forced to witness the ‘other’ raping his wife before his very eyes, we suppose a heaping handful of hatred is in order. But even then, the pilot light must at least be flickering.”
Those were my words from a decade back, as I contemplated distasteful and even violent individuals. But what happened last night in Paris wasn’t merely a showcase of one or two distasteful or violent individuals. The perpetrators of last night’s mayhem didn’t behave like human beings, even sick human beings – they behaved like the Borg from Star Trek. Wikipedia defines the Borg as “a collection of species that have turned into cybernetic organisms functioning as drones in a hive mind called the Collective, or the hive.” In the case of ISIS, we are dealing with creatures that are weaponizing themselves into instruments of terror and homicide, fueled by a belief-system based on sheer contempt for contemporary human beings. How am I supposed to think of them as people? Insofar as I think of them at all, how am I supposed to keep that pilot light (of love) flickering?
Nights like last night are indeed eye openers. Perhaps, for the first time, some of my fellow gun control advocates are appreciating the arguments for allowing law abiding citizens to bear arms. And perhaps President Obama may appreciate the value of confronting extremist Islam as such – rather than using euphemisms to characterize this deadly movement that we are now facing. I have spoken a fair bit in this post about my first book, The Creed Room. But above all else, when I’m not feeling sorrow for last night’s victims, I’m thinking about one of the themes of my second book, Moses the Heretic. That’s the one where I spoke about the dangers of rapid and constant advancements in weapons technology. Last night in Paris, fancy guns killed well over 100 people. But what will happen in 50 years, when the successors of ISIS gather the most up-to-date biological or chemical weapons available and try to kill 100,000 people? Do we really believe that can’t happen? And if it did, are we really expected to empathize with the killers?
So there you have it -- something to think about on a grim Saturday morning. A little oy to go with your joy. Shabbat Shalom.