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Empathy and intelligence — a last opportunity for reconciliation

By Louis René Beres

While stunningly counterintuitive, the critical gap between technical intelligence and human empathy is more insidious than ever before. In response, one fundamental question should spring immediately to mind: What has created such a strange and wholly injurious state of affairs – where, precisely, have we gone wrong, not merely as citizens of one country or another, but much more broadly, as key elements of a far wider and integrated human community?

This is not a narrowly academic question posed solely for the philosophers. Rather, it represents the single most pressing practical question. Until we venture a reply, any proposed solutions to war, terror and genocide will remain intolerably partial, intellectually limited, and resoundingly temporary.

Whether we should care to admit it or not, Americans are immutably part of a much larger human family. Significantly, this imperiled global community continues to accept, without any evident humiliation or embarrassment, the painfully fragile veneer of presumed social coexistence. Inter alia, we must learn to admit that behind this veneer lurks a dreadful and inconsolable barbarism.

Merely reading the latest world headlines, we should readily acknowledge that our entire world could once again become “bloodless,” a skeleton, morphed from what had been the deceptively lacquered corpse of further civilizational ruins-in-the-making.

We must candidly inquire: How has an entire species, one so deeply scarred from its start, managed to scandalize even its own blistering creation? Is it “simply” that we are all potential murderers of those who might live beside us? Looking at history, and also at current world affairs, we will acknowledge that this is not a naive or foolish question.

Not at all.

Wittingly or unwittingly, and in all-too-many different cultures and geographies, the human corpse remains a more-or-less sacred object of veneration, sometimes even one of ritualistic worship. Perversely, especially with spreading weapons of mass destruction, whole nations of corpses could soon become the “fashion.” After all, following even a small nuclear war, cemeteries the size of entire cities would be needed to bury the dead.

Before anything decent could be born from such a post-apocalypse world, a hideously snarling gravedigger would first have to wield the obstetrical forceps.

Yet again, the silence of “good people” is vital to all that would madden and torment. These good people, these eternal “bystanders,” moreover, both here and in other countries, remain determinedly “uninvolved.”

Naturally, there will always be impassioned reactions to the latest human exterminations in Africa or Asia or Europe or the Middle East, but here, in Donald Trump‘s America and amidst our own seemingly advanced “America First” ethos, audible sighs of suffering elsewhere have yet to become seriously bothersome.

For certain, they never quite rise to the level where they might annoyingly interfere with golf.

Whatever our predilections for self-delusion, really big questions must rise to the fore. How much treasure, how much science, how much labor and planning, how many centuries have we humans already ransacked to allow a plausibly unstoppable carnival of chemical, biological or nuclear harms?

Frightened, always, by the irrepressible specter of one’s own personal death, and also by the often desperate need to belong – to be a recognizable member in good standing of a particular state, a faith, a race, or a tribe – how long can we continue to seek personal succor or national security within the perpetually lethal illusions of “me first” or “everyone for himself?”

I don’t know the precise answer (nor does anyone else), but I do know that it is surely not a comfortingly long time. I also know, correspondingly, that we cannot remain forever unmindful that these seminal queries represent the most vitally important questions before us today.

It follows that finding correct answers will be indispensable to solving all of our overlapping survival, security and economic challenges.

Quite literally, all of these challenges.

History is not merely for adornment. Always, it must have its proper and respected place, a stable position of usable erudition. In this connection, French philosophers of the eighteenth-century Age of Reason wrote of a siècle des lumieres, a century of light, but the early twenty-first century is still mired in a conspicuously bruising and restrictive darkness.

In principle, at least, this forbidding pall can be loosened or changed, but only if we first learn the core differences in human affairs between cause and effect. We must learn to base our national and international remedies on conquering the real disease, the truly causal pathology, not just the evident symptoms.

Through even the most opaque depths of history, we should be able to make out multiple phantoms of still-earlier ships of state, and thus learn much more about the thenforeseeable disasters that sank them.

For Americans in particular and for our misguided species in general, the barbarians are not primarily outside the gates. We must, therefore, learn to look much more closely within.

The increasingly corrosive human inclination to reject necessary empathy in favor of narrowly technical kinds of intelligence and “progress” – an inclination now most patently apparent in these bewildered United States – is to miss the most important point of all.

We are all irreversibly interdependent: Absolutely all individual and collective human futures are irremediably and profoundly interconnected.

Accordingly, unless we can finally begin to value the open secrets of coexistence more seriously than those of casually distracting technologies, there will be no tolerable human future at all.

To those proud “pragmatists” who might disagree on certain supposed grounds of “practicality,” it would be best for them to consider the broadly insightful (and prophetic) words of Frederico Fellini: “Ultimately,” said the imaginative Italian filmmaker, “the visionary is the only realist.”

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was first published in The Hill 


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