Your Empathy Is Not the Problem

In a December 6th column in the NY Times, Nicholos Kristoff called on all of us—regular folks and political and military leaders alike—to value children in Israel and Gaza equally. Kristoff joined the Times as a reporter in 1984 and has spent his career shining a light on health, poverty, and gender issues too often overlooked, mostly in the developing world. Unlike the majority of armchair warmongers who populate the pundit class, he has put his boots on the ground in war zones.

In his piece, Kristof condemned Hamas and acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself. He noted that he’s “covered lots of conflicts, and one of the striking things about the bombardment of Gaza is how intense it has been… The pace of killing of civilians has been much greater than in most other recent conflicts; the only one that I know of that compares is perhaps the Rwanda genocide in 1994.”

He concludes: “The lives of Israeli, American and Palestinian children all have equal value, and we should act like it.”

Acknowledge that lives of all children have equal value. Not a big ask.

Unless it is.

The comments section to Kristof’s column was full of feedback from those who agreed and disagreed with him. One stuck out to me:

To Bill, the problem is empathy. In this view, empathy keeps us from steeling ourselves against the dirty task of killing children to achieve our morally justified goals.

Bill is not alone in his view. But he misses that his comment is a perfect argument in favor of empathy. With his morally justified objective in view, he cannot see or care for or value in the least the children in Gaza. What about if he could see those children through the eyes of their parents?

How might he do this?

According to his comment, Bill is from North Carolina. So, Bill could summon all the powers of his imagination to envision a 140-square-mile area around his own home. He could imagine that, rightly or wrongly, his corner of North Carolina is fenced in and inescapable. Imagine it is bombarded daily, to the point that half of all the buildings there are now destroyed. If not his own home, then likely his neighbor’s home is gone, a pile of rubble. He and his family are threatened every day from bombs and artillery.

In this situation, how willing is Bill to accept that his children must die for the bomber’s morally just objectives?

Unless Bill is on board with such a sacrifice, he’s missing the obvious. His worldview, where innocents pay the price of war, is one shared not only with other faux war hawks. It is also shared by Hamas.