A Desensitized Society

I apologize in advance if this rambles a little. I’m struggling with my own views these days.

I had just turned 14 years old the first time I recall being exposed to raw violence in the media. It was 1968. I’m not sure where or how I saw it, but I remember it vividly.  I’ll bet most of you also remember or have seen old photographs of a South Vietnamese officer raising his sidearm and summarily executing the leader of a North Vietnamese death squad who had killed several police officers and or their family members. I’m quite a bit older now but I still consider that a pivotal point in my life. Other such pivotal points were 9/11, the numerous videos of Syrian parents trying to get their children to safety, the slaughter in Rwanda, other news videos from Vietnam, the Oklahoma City Bombing videos, stories of systematic rape as a tool of war in places like Bosnia and Congo, and countless more news stories reporting death and violence over the years. Then add in all the cowboys and Indians I saw killed in movies and on TV growing up, the number of people I watched John Wick and other movie characters kill, the number of deaths and incidents of violence I’ve witnessed in video games and books, and…you get the idea. I’ve been exposed to a great deal of violence and death, and violent deaths, during my lifetime. So have you.

I believe this desensitizes us to mass violence. There is an interesting phenomenon referred to as “mountain climber syndrome”. If one mountain climber is stranded on the wall of a rock face with a broken rope and no way to climb up or down, our news media will constantly report on the progress of rescue efforts, we will expend almost unlimited resources to rescue the climber, and we all sigh relief when the climber is rescued. On the other hand a bomb in Afghanistan can kill dozens of people, large numbers can be killed by an earthquake, or a bus crash results in death for fifty passengers, and we either ignore it or forget about it quickly.

This obviously matters because it makes ignoring mass genocide possible. In 1994 as many as 1.5 million Rwandan’s died and another two million became refuges because of a war between the Hutus and Tutsis. As many as 300,000 people have died since violence erupted in Darfur in 2003 (of course the Sudanese government’s estimate is much lower) and 2 million more displaced.  Estimates are that 6 million people have died in The Democratic Republic of the Congo since war there broke out in 1996 (possibly the most deadly conflict since WW II). And now close to 500,000 Syrians have died and another 5 million displaced since the civil war started there in 2011. Why is it that we largely ignore those statistics until we are confronted with images such as those of children suffocating from sarin gas dropped on them by their own government?  After all, only a few dozen died in this attack, a small drop in that very large Syrian death bucket.

All of this just bothers me. It makes me begin to question a lot of things about myself and my fellow citizens and it makes me wonder how we should respond. This year I’ve had the chance to teach my favorite course sequence, Classical and Contemporary Political Philosophy (with some very cool students, by the way). One of the themes we discuss is human nature because a writer’s  conclusions on that subject determine her or his structural and procedural solutions. In other words, if a writer believes people are genuinely good and can be trusted, less governmental controls are necessary. However, if a writer believes people are essentially driven by passions, are greedy, are selfish, and cannot employ reason when making decisions, government must be more controlling. Sorry…that’s a long way of explaining why I’ve been contemplating human nature a good bit lately. It also forces me to consider my own beliefs on related subjects such as our obligations to each other.

I believe people are essentially good. As I’ve said previously, I’ve never been anywhere in this country or in any other country where that was not true. However, that doesn’t help me understand how the leader of a people can easily kill a number of those people for political gain. I can’t understand how ethnic or religious differences justify murdering masses of people. It doesn’t help me understand how someone can become so angry with his political leaders that he consciously sets of a bomb outside a courthouse knowing innocents would die. It doesn’t help me understand how someone could be so filled with racist hate that he could sit in on a prayer meeting for an hour then stand up and slaughter the other congregants.

The easy conclusion is that some people are just evil by nature. Maybe. But some are probably evil because of the things to which they’ve been exposed throughout life. Either way they are, as John Locke would argue, declaring war on society. They have demonstrated an inability to play nice with the rest of the world. Unfortunately they are also the ones who receive the most media coverage so we think they are the majority. They are not!

How do we respond to these people? If they are irrational should we try to deal with them rationally? If I happen upon a scene where an adult is attacking someone who cannot defend him or herself, am I to walk up to the attacker and try to reason with him? Years ago I read a story about a man attacking a child in a park while people walked by and ignored it. Nope! Wrong response! I’m not a big guy and I’m 63 years old, but I’m pretty confident I would try to rescue a defenseless child, woman, or man if necessary.

The above analogy isn’t perfect, obviously, but how should we respond to international bullies who are raping, killing, and torturing defenseless and innocent people?

  • Should we ignore the abuse and say it isn’t our problem? This works for the random racist (such as the lady who kicked two of my friend’s workers off her property this morning because they don’t speak English) or sexist (guys bragging about their sexual exploits) as long as they are not directly hurting others. It doesn’t work for tyrants on a larger scale.
  • Should we try reasoning with them? Is it possible to reason with Kim Jung-eun? With Bashar Al-Assad? With the likes of Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin? With Pol Pot?
  • Should we intervene?

I’m a pacifist by nature. When I was a kid I got whipped a few times because I didn’t like to fight. I haven’t really changed much as an adult but I do question whether we as a society should sit by and watch bullies harm the innocent just for their own political gain. I’m hoping some of you will help me find clarity on this issue.