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Cogitation: They Just Never Meant Very Much To Us


Samples From An Ocean Of Suffering

In 1992 a group of neuroscientists travelled to India to research the effects of meditation. In the mountains above Dharamsala, the scientists spent time with a young monk who had been meditating intensively for six years. Richard Davidson, a psychobiologist from the University of Wisconsin, had done pioneering work correlating minute shifts in facial expression with emotions. He explained to the monk that he would be shown a video of Tibetan demonstrators being beaten by Chinese security forces. His face would simultaneously be videoed to record any reactions. Writer Alan Wallace described the result:

"As the monk watched the video, we didn’t detect any change of expression in his face at all, no grimace, no shudder, no expression of sadness." (Wallace, Buddhism With An Attitude, Snow Lion Publications, 2001, p.176)

The monk was asked to describe his experience while watching the video. He replied:

"I didn’t see anything that I didn’t already know goes on all the time, not only in Tibet but throughout the world. I am aware of this constantly."

It was not that the monk failed to experience compassion while watching these brutal scenes, Wallace explains: "He was aware that he was simply being shown a video – patterns of light – representing events that took place long ago. But this suffering was simply one episode in the overall suffering of samsara [existence], of which he was constantly aware. Hence, while looking out over the ocean of suffering, he didn’t feel anything extraordinary when he was shown a picture of a glass of water". (Email to author, July 15, 2005)

This account came to mind when I saw the response to the July 7 terrorist atrocities in London. In the video experiment, the monk’s mind was so steeped in compassion that his expression did not change at all even when he saw images of his own people being brutalised. So what does it tell us that so many British people were so deeply shaken by the suffering of their fellow citizens?

After all, have we not been reading and watching endless accounts and footage of near-identical horrors in Iraq and Palestine on mainstream and internet-based media over the last few years? The suffering of the Iraqi people, for example, is almost beyond belief. When the West again blitzed Baghdad in March 2003, this followed years of war and sanctions that had shattered the country’s infrastructure. The population again being bombed had already had to endure the deaths of literally hundreds of thousands of children from malnutrition, water-borne diseases and other horrors caused by US-UK sanctions. This truly was suffering heaped on suffering.

Howard Zinn made the point after the September 11 attacks:

"One of the things that occurred to me, after I had gotten over my initial reaction of shock and horror at what had been done, was that other scenes of horror have taken place in other parts of the world and they just never meant very much to us." (Zinn, Terror And War, Open Media Book, 2002, p.90)

One Second Per Death

I don’t believe this comparative indifference is hard-wired into human nature. The truth is that we are trained to value the lives of our countrymen more highly by a socio-political system that has much to gain from a restricted, patriotic version of compassion, and much to lose from an excess of popular concern for suffering inflicted on ‘foreigners’ by our governments and corporations.

It was a very real disaster for American elites when ordinary Americans became outraged by the catastrophe inflicted by US power on the people of Vietnam. This concern seriously obstructed US realpolitik, stirring previously slumbering democratic forces and threatening elite control of society (see Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History). Famously, the champion boxer Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, saying:

"No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end." (Ali, 1966. Quoted, Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History, Seven Stories, 2004, p.431)

At time of writing, the death toll from the London bombings stands at 56 dead. In the early evening of March 28, 2003, the media reported the killing of 55 Iraqi civilians (the final toll was 62) by an American missile in the al-Shula district of Baghdad. Hours later, David Sells of the BBC’s Newsnight programme devoted 45 seconds to the atrocity 16 minutes into the programme – less than one second per death.

These 45 seconds presented the slaughter as an Anglo-American public relations problem, and a predictable one at that: "It is a war, after all", Sells observed blandly over footage of Iraqi women wailing in grief, adding: "But the coalition aim is to unseat Saddam Hussein by winning hearts and minds."

Imagine if Sells had commented on the London bombings that people +had+ died, "It is a terrorist campaign, after all", but the bombers’ aim was "to win hearts and minds".

I asked George Entwistle, then Newsnight editor, how he justified just 45 seconds of coverage. He replied: "As a current affairs programme we lead on a news story where we think we can add analytical value; i.e., can we take it on? We didn’t feel we could add anything." (Interview with the author, March 31, 2003)

Something of "analytical value" would certainly have been found if the victims had been British or American. We can make all the excuses we like, but the fact is that tragedies of this kind just don’t mean as much to us.

Last week, the Independent noted that an October 2004 report in The Lancet had estimated Iraqi civilian deaths at nearly 100,000, but that the methodology "was subsequently criticised". (Terry Kirby and Elizabeth Davies, ‘Iraq conflict claims 34 civilians lives each day as "anarchy" beckons,’ The Independent, July 20, 2005)

But the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducted the survey, is one of the world’s most prestigious research organisations. And The Lancet is one of the world’s leading science journals. I asked Terry Kirby, co-author of the Independent article, which criticisms he had in mind. Kirby replied: "So far as I am aware, the Lancet’s report was criticised by the Foreign Office." (Email to the author, July 22, 2005)

You couldn’t make it up!

On the same day, an Independent leader added that the Lancet findings had been reached "by extrapolating from a small sample… While never completely discredited, those figures were widely doubted." (Leader, ‘The true measure of the US and British failure,’ The Independent, July 20, 2005)

Lead author Gilbert Burnham from the Johns Hopkins School told me the sample size was entirely standard:

"Our data have been back and forth between many reviewers at the Lancet and here in the school (chair of Biostatistics Dept), so we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!" (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to the author, October 30, 2004)

By contrast, an independent website, Iraq Body Count, last week published a report estimating that nearly 25,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion and occupation began. The report was not conducted by a leading research body, it was not peer reviewed, and yet it was broadly accepted and granted headline status by the BBC, ITV News, the Guardian and many other media. Even senior government figures were happy to mention the website’s results.

This is a perfect example of how the establishment tends to see only what it wants to see. That would be fine, except that the public is therefore unable to understand or address the real problems our governments have created. That means more suffering for everyone.

Repeated endlessly, and contrasted with mass coverage of Western victims of terror, such entrenched bias inevitably trains us to value Western lives above non-Western lives. Like the air we breathe, this parochial compassion comes to seem normal and natural to the extent that we barely even notice when our armies are killing Third World people in vast numbers. Noam Chomsky is a rare voice willing to discuss this reality:

"If they do something to us, the world is coming to an end. But if we do it to them, it’s so normal, why should we even talk about it?" (Chomsky, Power and Terror, Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.20)

We Cry! We Live!

I’ve sometimes had discussions with people on the subject of altruism, love and compassion where someone has indicated, say, their wife and children, and declared: "I’d sacrifice my life to protect them."

Alan Wallace invites us to consider whether this kind of commitment is necessarily rooted in compassion and altruism, or whether it might involve an extension of selfishness. Are we in fact defending what we see as part of "me" and "mine", extensions of ourselves?

The media praise public outpourings of compassion and grief for the victims of London, New York and Madrid as signs of a nation’s humanity. And surely they are. But how much of this concern is also rooted in a sense that we – our people, our security, our way of life – are under attack? How much is our reaction actually an expression of self-concern?

It is vital that we aspire to broaden and equalise our compassion for suffering. Not because it’s "nice", not because we should "teach the world to sing". It is vital because otherwise there is a real danger that, in caring deeply for real and important ‘us’, and ignoring irrelevant ‘them’, we become utterly blind to the misery we are causing, and entirely ruthless in crushing those who cause us harm.

Even as the media were asking how on earth human beings could kill innocent commuters in London, Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Daily Mirror: "We shall track down those responsible. States that shelter them will know no peace." (Hitchens, ’07/07: War on Britain,’ The Mirror, July 8, 2005)

In the New York Times last week, leading columnist Thomas Friedman wrote:

"We need to shine a spotlight on hate speech wherever it appears. The State Department produces an annual human rights report. Henceforth, it should also produce a quarterly War of Ideas Report, which would focus on those religious leaders and writers who are inciting violence against others. I would compile it in a nondiscriminatory way." (Friedman, ‘Giving the hatemongers no place to hide,’ New York Times, July 22, 2005)

And yet this is the same Thomas Friedman who had himself written at the height of the NATO bombing of Serbia in April 1999:

"Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too." (Friedman, ‘Stop the music,’ New York Times, April 23, 1999)

Many people believe there is a deep divide between ethics and politics. But a patriotic version of compassion is often the most potent weapon of realpolitik. It is used to persuade us to ignore our own crimes and to turn against "evildoers", official enemies often selected on the basis of carefully hidden agendas.

Compassion can also, however, be the most potent tool of liberation, breaking the links of greed, hatred and ignorance from which our political chains are formed. Power needs compassion to be partial, patriotic, rooted in self-concern. Humanity needs compassion to be universal, unconditional and equal.

The basis for this equalised concern is straight forward enough: everyone is identical in yearning from the depths of their hearts for an end to suffering and for lasting happiness. Recognising that this is so – that others truly are just like us in this respect – provides a basis for universal compassion. Or are we seriously to believe that suffering is somehow deeper and more important ‘here’ than ‘there’? Suffering is simply suffering.

Every time our media present Third World people as anonymous crowds, as inconsequential extras in grand Western dramas, we might remind ourselves of the deeply humane words spoken by the cousin of a Palestinian man shot dead by the Israeli army in Nablus refugee camp. The man spoke of his shock at the events of September 11, but continued:

"I know what they feel. But I want them to know what I feel. I think many of them don’t want to know about us, don’t want to know what we feel. They think we are from another country, or from another star. We also, like them, we cry! We live! We feel sad! We feel happy! And we have minds, also! I want them to use their minds and to understand what happened here." (Through Muslim Eyes, Channel 4, September 6, 2002)

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