Category Archives: Empathy

Choices

My wife and I were looking at some photos of ourselves the other day, marveling at how young we once looked and subsequently commiserating at how old we appear today.  I stared for some time at one photo in particular, one that seemed to capture the relative innocence and naivete of the young man in question.  I tried to recall his state of mind at the time of the photo, what issues weighed heavily upon him, and the decisions with which he would be confronted in the days and years ahead.  Hindsight is a wonderful perspective to play with; when you already know the result, the journey becomes an interesting study of choices.

Each of us is, after all, the sum total of choices we have been permitted to make throughout our journey of life.  Our choices reflect not only preferences but, more importantly, our values, our principles, our character.  They serve as articulations of who we wish to be and of who we actually are.  And they are the milestones of our journey, marking the signal events of our lives.

Choices are the acts of bringing to life our beliefs.  They are the expressions of our innermost feelings about lifestyles, about the type of vocation to which we aspire.  Choices reflect our most intimate feelings about having a family and what is important in our personal and spiritual lives.  Choices are dynamic portraits of who we are.  I reflected long and lovingly about the choices that the young man in the photograph made over his coming years, with a sense of satisfaction that his decisions had been, for the most part, the right ones for his own unique psyche.

But what if I had not had the luxury of choice?  What might my portrait look like if my life, instead, had been channeled at every turn. if the circumstances of my being were such that I had no choice?

I might never have been introduced to and courted by music.  Maybe I would not have encountered the opportunity to know sports and fitness, the elements of my physical well-being.  Perhaps I would never have known the centering peace of my spirituality.  What if there had been no option for education?  Possibly I’d have served in the military during the Viet Nam war.  What if Katie and I had never met?  Our adopted children would have been raised in different homes; our mutual, familial love for one another would never have come to be.  Maybe our beautiful grandchildren would never have been born.  What if circumstance had dictated that I spend my days in search of food instead of organizational strengthening?  The list of choice-based outcomes is nearly endless.  How might you own life have evolved differently if you had not had the blessing of choice?

The luxury of choice stems, in part, from political philosophies which recognize and value human independence.  It also arises from circumstances that allow the human spirit to envision new aspirations and realities for itself.  In the absence of these elements, choice is minimized.  And outcomes are dramatically different.  It’s true everywhere.  In the U.S.  In Nicaragua.

Winds of Peace Foundation works with many organizations and individuals in Nicaragua who have few choices.  They are moved in directions dictated by their realities and their histories, in the former cases often motivated by need for survival, in the latter cases motivated only by what they know from previous generations.  And when motivation stems from either absolute need or limited knowledge, then choice is often a forgotten, impractical dream.  The nature of the Foundation’s work is to create the environments for more choice, with the certain knowledge that, over time,  greater choice invariably leads to better outcomes.  I wonder what Nicaragua might look like today if their history was populated with greater choice and fewer outside impositions that eliminated it.

In the years ahead, I expect to make lots of choices about things.  Perhaps the Foundation will adopt some new methodologies. Maybe I’ll move into a new vocation altogether.  I might do some more writing.  My wife and I will make some determinations about eventual retirement.  We’ll think about travel that might be important to us.  I’ll even continue to choose the kinds of food I want to eat, whether for my health or for my enjoyment.  But whatever the issue, I’ll have in mind my gratitude for having the opportunity to choose, and a hope to be a resource to those who do not….

 

 

 

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….

3 In 10

I suppose that one cannot be in any line of work for very long without becoming a student of human behaviors, intentionally or unintentionally.  The stories that I can tell from my years in a for-profit environment reveal the zenith of both corporate heroism as well as personal greed.  (Ask me about those sometime.)  Likewise, my past ten years in the not-for-profit arena contain tales of stirring courage as well as frustratingly open self-aggrandizement.  In whatever venue we travel, the polars of humanity are there.  “The great central human considerations may be found everywhere,” wrote author Joseph Langland.

With that in mind, I read a recent report by a midwestern college that provided a short profile of its first-year students, their capacities and their outlooks on certain matters.  And there in the second line, I read a statistic that both puzzled and discouraged me. The report stated that 71.8% of this group feel that it’s “very important” to help others in difficulty.

I don’t believe that these statistics were presented as either positive or negative traits, but rather a report about how these students look statistically.  Nor can I say that they are typical for the age group or an overall college population.  But I could not prevent myself from a certain degree of amazement that nearly 30% of any diverse group would respond in this way, let alone a group of college students whose education and experiences might be expected to produce reports of greater compassion.  Yes, 71.8% of the respondents signaled a high degree of commitment to those in trouble.  Maybe the real story lies within that metric.  But nearly 3 in 10 did not think that helping others in difficulty was very important at all.

I don’t think that I am naive,  Particularly in an age where every sordid and unkind act is reported in detail over ubiquitous social media outlets, criminality and cruelty seem to be rather common. Yet I was struck by the response of this audience, one which, on the whole, might be considered to be more worldly, more in tune with the interdependence that mankind requires for survival, one which seems to pride itself in its attacks upon injustice, calamity and even boorish behaviors with their techno devices in hand.  This was an audience of men and women with at least one full year of college under their belts, more than enough to have begun the awakening that society craves in its “next gen” leaders.  And 3 in 10 have little apparent concern about helping others in trouble.

Maybe these are the outliers, the slow-to-mature ones who have yet to cross the threshold from narcissistic self-serving to a more selfless giving.  Maybe they see the development of their future careers as so all-consuming as to have tunnel vision to those futures.  Perhaps they didn’t understand the question.  But whatever their excuses, these respondents are cause for worry, both for themselves and those for whom they do not see the need to help.

Our reality is that we depend upon the sensitivity and collegiality of one another now more than ever.  Some may deceive themselves into believing that they have survived and thrived in their lives all by themselves, without the presence of others.  But it’s delusional thinking.  Even without mentors or family members, we are impacted daily by the density of humanity on earth and the speed with which our actions are felt by others.    The statistic above makes me wonder what those 3 in 10 feel about all of the actors in their lives, known and unknown, who helped them attain the chance at a college education.

The survey question didn’t even come close to broaching the issue of our global interdependence.  Without a sense of importance about helping those in difficulty at home, the 3 in 10 can hardly be looked to for global solutions to poverty, human rights violations, foreign wars or maybe even  (could they be this myopic?) climate change.  The most pressing issues of our present and future demand extraordinary abilities to “walk in another’s shoes” and live our lives in the mutually dependent manner that our future requires.  It will take 100%  of our human capacities to survive those most pressing issues.  And that’s a statistic which requires little interpretation….