They’re Strangers to Me; Kill Away!

The other day, while at a birthday party for a friend of my son, I initiated a discussion with a couple of the parents about the presidential candidates. The subject of the assassinated Iranian scientists came up because I, instigator that I am, brought it up. The two people with whom I was engaged expressed their being okay with possible U.S. involvement in these killings. One of them openly shared her reason for not caring: “I don’t know them. Nobody I know knows them.” Stopping Iran from producing a nuke seemed to be all that mattered. Don’t want to get wacked? Don’t be an Iranian scientist.

Last night, while listening to the latest debate, I heard the audience boo the suggestion that we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our dealings and relations with foreign powers and people. Ares forbid we treat strangers the way we want to be treated. Woe to those who put themselves in another’s place and consider the world from his or her perspective.

Enter Robert Wright: “I've long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of "moral imagination"--the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders.” When I reflect upon the gravest of social ills, I realize he’s correct: a failure of moral imagination underlies all of them. And what’s scary is that, while I cannot picture myself committing horrid deeds along the lines of terrorism, genocide, or butchery, I’m guilty of the disposition that gives these evils birth. For all my talk of hospitality and alterity and all that jazz, I’m a selfish, self-centered lout who all too often cares little to nothing for my fellow strangers, their walks of life, and their perspectives on the world.

How do we nurture a moral imagination? Freddie DeBoer gives us a clue. When he was thirteen, he took a trip with his father to Indonesia:
One night, he woke me gently and led me outside, where one of his Balinese friends waited for him. We were in the village, inland, where few tourists ventured, at least at that time. We got in a bemo and drove for awhile, and when we got out, my father led me by hand in the moonlight to a mass grave.
We met an old man there. If you know the right people and know how to ask, you can still find them, I'm sure, older Indonesians who will tell you the stories. He walked us over to the roadside-- I have no idea where we were, geographically-- and showed us a shaded ditch. It was dark, and anyway, there was nothing to see. Just dirt, just earth. You would never have known that bodies were piled underneath, just a few feet down. The older man started speaking and my father spoke to him. (He spoke such wonderful Indonesian, and serviceable Balinese, I envy it even now.) He translated for me, briefly. I bent over and put my hand on the dirt. I tried to imagine my own family, what was left of it then, crammed down underground, with dozens of others. I tried to do whatever I could to make it real. The dirt made it corporeal. It was something I could touch, lay my hand on. I have never been the same, never.
We have to find ways to make the lives and deaths of others real to us, because, if we don’t, then not only will we not care when bodies are piled in graves, being inclined instead to cheer the killing, but also we may be the very ones getting our hands bloody.  (VN)

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