Oct/Nov 2002  •   Salon

Empathy for the Machine

by Tom Dooley

Kill one man and you are a murderer. Kill millions and you are a conqueror. Kill all and you are a god. —Jean Rostand

Denounce all those material things you gain by exploiting other human beings. —Tracy Chapman

Two weeks prior to the first 9-11 anniversary, Dennis Miller opened his farewell HBO broadcast by calling for a US-led war on Iraq. This week, the US Congress is furiously debating whether to give George W. Bush a "blank check" authorization for just such a war. I'm at a loss to make sense of it all, but I'm willing to try outlining, at least, what is confusing me so.

First, why did HBO cancel Dennis' show? His recent, weird, right-wing pivoting aside, without The Dennis Miller Show, the adult, thinking American public is going to have to rely on Saturday Night Live for all of its satire, political and otherwise. Judging from the season premiere, the current cast of SNL is nowhere near up to the task of filling its own shoes, let alone Dennis Miller's. More disconcerting, we're losing the only place on television where really smart people who aren't necessarily celebrities with aggressive publicists and movies to hype can sit and verbally spar with the 300-pound gorilla. Absolutely devastating is our loss of a mechanism for conceptualizing the absurdity of current events, laughing about them, and still caring a half-hour later about our fellow human beings.

Second, tell me again why George W. Bush is our president? Oh, yeah. I forgot. A slim minority of the American public elected him as such. And now, in spite of his complete lack of political mandate and his being, without a doubt, the least capable, least accomplished, least articulate president ever, he is investing himself with more power than any previous occupant of the Oval Office with the exception of FDR. If someone doesn't stop him, ole G.W. will have pulled off the equivalent of the Supreme Court's Marbury vs. Madison decision—effectively redefining the authority of his own branch of government. Meanwhile, Bush's dad and a bunch of ruling-elite big-wigs are mixing politics and profits, looking to cash in on Junior's military maneuvers. If we're going to crack down on Martha Stewart, shouldn't we look into why Bush Sr. is buying oil tankers?

Third, speaking of that sort of thing, why is it we can't trust anybody in this country? Our politicians and political leaders, from the beloved Rudolph Giuliani to Jesse Jackson, have been caught red-handed boinking women other than their wives and pocketing kickbacks from special interest groups. Our religious leaders, from predictably sleazy, whore-mongering televangelists to the little-boy-pimping Catholic Church, have proven unworthy of our trust. Our corporate leaders—well, why bother even getting started on them? The point is, corruption and greed have replaced leadership and responsibility across the board.

Fourth, besides the obvious affronts to common sense and decency, is there really anything wrong with just going with the flow and letting the Bush administration do its thing? I mean, we knew Clinton was a liar and a womanizer before we elected him the first time. We kept buying his line, and things turned out all right. Better than all right, really. We know Bush and the people pulling his strings are big-money energy moguls, right-wing conservatives, militarists, anti-environmentalists... In the end, so what? In most organizations, it doesn't matter who's in charge, just as long as somebody is in charge. On a sports team, there's a right way, a wrong way, and the coach's way. Success usually goes to the team that buys into the coach's way, right or wrong. It's called unity, brothers. Never mind that Coach Bush is relying on just such a mentality to get everything he and his cronies want. Included in what they want, I'm sure, is American prosperity and global good will. One would hope.

Fifth, can corruption and exploitation sometimes turn out to be a good thing? One could argue America is the most powerful country in the world precisely because men like the ones pulling Bush's strings have had the guts, balls, and narcissism they needed to win and prosper—at whatever costs they deemed expedient. So what if the costs usually had to be paid by people other than themselves: immigrants, minorities, the economically challenged? So what if those few "great" men bastardized every ideal and principle upon which our country is supposed to be based, and so what if they did it for rapacious personal gain? They raised the standard of living for us all. They built modern-day pyramids and sphinxes. Few people give much thought to the terrible exploitation it must've taken to construct the latter, and it's fair to say today's peons have it much better. The Pharaoh's minions didn't have the luxury of a Lazy-Boy recliner and American Idol when they got home from their hard day at the office.

To expand on this idea, Chicago's beautiful skyline owes much to the iron-fisted Daley political "machine." The elder Daley exploited the poor, minority, and immigrant population like a televangelists exploits the faithful. The end result was not just a skyline and prosperity for the city, but also prosperity for many of those same aforementioned peons. They were able to assimilate, send their kids to college, and eventually ensconce themselves in nice suburban neighborhoods named after forests and brooks. After all, there is a trickle-down effect with the kind of exploitation we do in America. People can and often do benefit from being exploited. The prostitute, for example, has an awful job. Few situations are more exploitive than hers. But she can profit from it. If she's especially shrewd, she can save a great deal of money and create a different life for herself.

Unfortunately, and more likely, the prostitute may also end up strung out on drugs and beaten up by her pimp: an old, ugly woman with five messed up kids in foster homes and misery as her only prospect. This is a state emblematic of many inner-city poor people today, as evidenced by the recent spate of deadly mob beatings in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Which brings me back to the original train of thought...

Sixth, why, in the lofty futuristic year of 2002, are US citizens—members of the most ideologically, economically, and technologically advanced country in the history of the world—still forming mobs and beating people to death? Why do our children take guns to school and execute their classmates? Why do mothers beat their children savagely in parking lots? Why does a couple in Florida starve their son to death? Why do ten year-olds bludgeon someone with shovels and baseball bats on his porch? In short, why is this country such a terrible, brutal place? I still ascribe to the theory I've harped upon in previous editorials: as a culture we've promoted self-centeredness before all else. Too many children are raised with the simultaneous evils of neglect and indulgence. They're neglected by parents who place no priority on parenting. They're spoiled. They're insulated from any concept of accountability. Is it any wonder a significant portion of our population today has absolutely no empathy? And without empathy, how can we expect a child or adult to be anything but ruthless?

Seventh, in spite of all of the above, I don't understand why we in America are such bastards in the eyes of so much of the rest of the world. A friend in Quebec reported that when the Twin Towers came down, people in his Montreal workplace actually cheered. And Canada is our closest ally! Does this make sense? Even if America as a governmental entity is exploiting and underhanded, why doesn't the rest of the world, or at least the Canadian assholes who cheered on September 11, recognize that when the Towers were destroyed, the people who died weren't just Americans? The list of victims reads like a roster of Olympic athletes. For every Western-European name, there are African, Hispanic, Arab, and Asian names. When it comes down to it, when one attacks America, the land of the immigrant, one invariably attacks oneself. In this light, how can anyone really hate "us" when "we" are "them"? This, too, strikes me as a lack of empathy. Realizing we're all in the same proverbial boat is the first step toward becoming empathetic.

Eighth, speaking of a lack of empathy for one's fellow human beings, how will we ever catch the sniper, the latest media darling? If he (or she, or they) is even slightly intelligent, we won't. Last week, when he left an inscribed Tarot card near one of his victims, the sniper consciously imbued his actions with a philosophical flavor directly related to Jean Rostand's famous observation: "Kill all and you are a god." If God exists, and if He exists in the generally accepted form three of the four major religions on the planet think He does, then He bears responsibility for every death, just as He deserves credit for every life. He can take life at any moment, impassively—whether he does it one at a time by gunshot wounds in the greater DC area, or ten at a time in a car-crash in Sheboygan, or tens of thousands at a time in a US-led invasion of Iraq. If the sniper maintains his god-like qualities of untouchable detachment from his work and apparently random opportunism, he won't be caught. He will continue to remind a nation replete with self-indulgence and apathy of how fragile and precious life is, and how awful the human existence can be when people no longer feel empathy for one another. He will provide a constant, irrefutable reminder: we really are all interchangeable in our helplessness, because there's nothing to stop him from driving to our neighborhood and shooting any one of us.

I hope the sniper isn't a god, and that he makes a mistake and is caught soon, but until then, I hope our collective actions in this country, from George W. Bush's to Milwaukee teenagers', will be informed a little more by empathy and a little less by selfishness.