The man who commanded the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, died today. He had "no regrets". The BBC link below claims there were 140,000 instantaneous deaths, with more that came in the days, weeks, months, and years afterwards. "In a 1975 interview he said: "I sleep clearly every night."" http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7073441.stm
Now look at this related but not related story:
Much has been said lately about the US's use of waterboarding as a method of torture of prisoners held at Guantanamo and other places.
"Malcolm Nance, an advisor on terrorism to the US departments of Homeland Security, Special Operations and Intelligence, publicly denounced the practice . . "Most people cannot stand to watch a high-intensity, kinetic interrogation. One has to overcome basic human decency to endure watching or causing the effects. The brutality would force you into a personal moral dilemma between humanity and hatred. It would leave you to question the meaning of what it is to be an American." http://news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article3115549.ece
I hold up these two situations together because I believe they shed light on a very important aspect of human nature. In one situation, a man feels little regret and loses no sleep over the deaths of tens of thousands. In another, people become morally undone at the sight of a single human being tortured. Now, we can argue whether or not any of this is justifiable. I'd say its not, but that's not the point I want to argue here. I would imagine in both cases there are people who feel they can justify their actions--the deaths of some in order to save the lives of many more. Yet, in one case the pilot loses no sleep and in another case the witnesses and perpetrators have to wrestle to their core of their being with what they are seeing and doing.
This--I believe--is one of the most critical issues of our time. We live in a world where technology can make us far removed from the consequences of our actions. If we see suffering and bloodshed, often it strikes our very humanity and we empathaize. But if tens of thousands of people are simply erased off a map, its a mere cognitive exercise. We can't comprehend the deaths of tens of thousands. We can comprehend the deaths of individuals. As humans, we have a difficult time putting our minds and our hearts together.
Out of sight, out of mind. Watch the torture of a single human being? Lifetime of moral regret. Blow up 140,000 people? No problem if you don't see them. We can still hurt a hell of a lot of people. Just because we can't see them doesn't mean its not happening, but somewhere in the depths of our spirits I don't know if we really believe without seeing, like its not real. We need to put our hands in the nail holes and the pierced side to really know that it is real, just like the doubting Apostle Thomas. Without that, maybe it tugs on us, maybe it doesn't. But watch it up close and it haunts us forever.
I've heard it said that this is a vital function of the news media--to bring the actions abroad home. A single photograph make a war real that would otherwise just be numbers and lines on a map.