The human ability to abstract reality has given birth to many beautiful things. What human beings have imagined: soaring cathedrals and bridges, spacecraft, ballet and jazz, they have created. But imagination’s dark side is our ability to abstract other human beings, so that manifestly irrational behaviors like the intentional bombing of civilians, the premeditated sale of tainted milk and peanuts and the dumping of toxic waste can be rationalized. Governments, corporations, and even religious figures take advantage of this aspect of imagination by utilizing useful abstractions like ‘Democracy’, ‘shareholder equity’, and ‘God’.
I’m not saying that God doesn’t exist – I’m saying that when a religious figure invokes God to incite violence or promulgate intolerance, or preach, beyond all reason that condoms make the AIDS crisis worse, they are using our abstract concept of God for their own uses. Similarly, I love democracy, but most of the wars this country has fought in the name of Democracy were in reality about money, power, and subjugation.
People too often justify whatever is done by their government, their corporation, their military unit, their church, by citing rules, regulations, books and slogans. This is how mild mannered clerks kept the trains running and the gas well stocked at Auschwitz. How Douglas McArthur justified his massacre of Bonus Army veterans during the Depression. And how General Curtis LeMay rationalized not only countenancing, but actively trying to foment World War Three with the Soviet Union.
During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay took unilateral, illegal steps, like sending our strategic bomber flights way past their normal turn-around points, in hopes of goading the Russian bear into war. No one questioned the sanity of their superior officer when he spoke of dropping 7000 megatons on the Soviet Union as ‘acceptable’. LeMay opined for the rest of his life that it was too bad we didn’t start World War Three while we had the chance to win it. This highly decorated general, who later ran for vice president on a ticket with George Wallace, was a sociopath; How else to describe a man capable of countenancing the death of millions of innocents as ‘collateral damage’? And LeMay literally had his finger on the nuclear trigger in those days, as there were no locks on these weapons, and the chain of command during times of heightened alert was quite ambiguous. Just think how America would be seen in the history books had he prevailed; how this butchery would have dwarfed Stalin, Mao, and all the other murderers of history combined. .
Imagination permits some people, even people with little girls of their own, to view an innocent little girl as a ‘towlhead’ who should be ‘bombed back into the stone age’, because the abstractions of war, firepower deployed via pushbutton at 30,000 feet, allow them to escape the reality of blood and carnage. Perhaps a media that resolutely insisted on showing us that carnage rather than cravenly substituting video-game like displays of weaponry would make that particular abstraction harder to sustain.
When I visited the Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic, I often wondered how the commandants, the guards, the myriad others needed to run an enterprise like that could live with themselves. How could they starve little children, only to go home to play with their own? What trick of imagination allowed them to survive such cognitive dissonance?
But could empathy be taught? Could we as a society make the teaching of empathy a priority in our schools? What would emerge if were all trained to feel what others are feeling, to retard our ability to objectify and rationalize; taught the simple primacy of human life over so-called human values? Sure, the true sociopaths – the rapists and thrill killers among us would still exist. I know we couldn’t cure them – but what if we could cure the little complicit pieces of them in all of us?
We’d have a society where men like LeMay would never get their hands anywhere near nuclear weapons, for there would be no nuclear weapons, and no one would be poisoned by greedy corporations or murdered by religious fanatics.