Feeling uncomfortably numb about Libya?

Raise your hand if you have mixed feelings about US involvement in Libya.

If you do – you are not alone. According to a Pew Research Center poll released Monday, roughly half of Americans think that air strikes in Libya were ‘the right decision’ but that the Libyan mission lacks a ‘clear goal’, while 60% believe that US involvement will ‘last for some time’. Furthermore,  this article in Sunday’s NY Times notes that the percent of Americans supporting air strikes in Libya (47%) was the ‘weakest level of enthusiasm for any of the 10 US military actions on which the Gallup Organization has sought public opinion in nearly three decades’. President Obama’s speech last night, in which he sought to make the case for US involvement in Libya and clarify our roles, seems so far to have had little impact on these attitudes (those who supported him still do, those who didn’t still don’t).  As House speaker John Boehner put it most succinctly: “what does success in Libya look like?”

Over the past few days I also just happened to be reading Paul Slovic’s article on psychic numbing and genocide.  In this article Slovic describes the results of several psychological experiments which show that we are more likely to take compassionate action to help one suffering individual –especially an individual we know and see – than to help an unknown mass of people.

Slovic and others who have cited his work (see Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape and this piece by Nicholas Kristof) argue that psychic numbing is an irrational aspect of the human psyche – a product of brains that evolved to handle problems on the scale of a small village, not a global village. However, in thinking about the response to Libya, or, for that matter, indifference to human suffering caused by long-term civil wars and genocide in various parts of the world – I think that in fact ‘psychic numbing’ may be based on some fairly rational processes. Human decision-making is based on an ego-centric view of the world, and asks these kinds of questions: what difference will my action make, and what will it cost me to make a real difference?  In situations where it appears that the problem is huge and long-term, it seems that in order for me to make a difference I will have to make a huge and long-term investment. And I only have so much of myself to give. So in those cases, it may seem wiser just to do nothing at all.

This mode of thinking clearly seems at work in the response to US involvement in Libya – and I should note that it is in sharp contrast to the almost universal generosity and charitable response to the disaster in Japan. A natural disaster – especially one that strikes a country where many of us have ties – calls for a clear and relatively short-term response (people need aid to tide them over until they can rebuild their homes). In contrast – protecting civilians against their psychopathic leader has ‘quagmire’ written all over it.

But here’s the thing: as a person of faith – I support Obama’s response to Libya without qualification.  And, as a person of faith writing about why religion still matters in the modern world – I would like to propose that there is a key insight present in all faith traditions that can overcome our ‘psychic numbing’.  This insight is that the path to God- and the Good – lies in denying the ego. 

Karen Armstrong, in her latest book The Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, has this to say about the interaction between the ego, compassion and a spiritual life:

The faith traditions agree that compassion is the most reliable way of putting the self in its proper place, because it requires us ‘all day and every day’ to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there.

 In the Christian faith, this process of ‘dethroning ourselves from the center of the world’ is epitomized in Christ’s own death and resurrection, and in Christ’s words:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it (Luke 9:23-34)

Buddha has a similar statement:

With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging.

Perhaps of special interest to atheists, atheist philosophers such as Derek Parfit have reached similar conclusions about how personal identity is not what matters:

When I believed that my existence was a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others. (pp. 280-281, Reasons and Persons)

So how exactly does such a ‘dethroning of the ego’ actually help when thinking about US involvement in Libya? Because it changes the questions we ask. Instead of asking ‘what difference can I- or our country – afford to make?’ it asks ‘what is the human need in Libya and what is the right and compassionate response to that need’?  I find it interesting that in the negative reactions to Obama’s speech, there is so little mention of the fact that if the US had not acted when it did, Qhadafi’s forces would have overrun the city of Benghazi, with a population of 700,000. By the time Congress could have approved military action, there most likely would have been a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Rwanda. Obama’s words last night made it clear that Rwanda was very much on his mind:

At this point, the United States and the world faced a choice. Gaddafi declared that he would show “no mercy” to his own people. He compared them to rats, and threatened to go door to door to inflict punishment. In the past, we had seen him hang civilians in the streets, and kill over a thousand people in a single day. Now, we saw regime forces on the outskirts of the city. We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.

To put it another way: if you were personally asked to save the lives of 700,000 people – would you do it? 

Now of course, international politics is more complex than I am presenting. And the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. We have Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Somalia or Vietnam) to turn to as examples of how compassionate acts can often cause greater suffering and unintended negative consequences. As Obama put it last night “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.  And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action.  But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. ”

Indeed.  All I can keep thinking is that if FDR had used similar logic during World War II, there might be entire branches of my German Jewish family who would be alive today.

So – in response to Rep Boehner’s question: What does success in Libya look like? I would answer that saving 700,000 lives, and overcoming our own tendencies towards psychic numbing, is the success. By practicing a compassionate faith or worldview that focuses on others rather than the self, I hope that more of you will reach the same conclusion.

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