Compassion is a wonderful thing. A nation cannot govern or even survive, however, using compassion as its guiding ethical principle. The United States currently seems hell bent on disproving this fact, and is well on the way to confirming it. It is too bad that this is true, and we should all agree that it’s a damn shame that you can’t run a successful democracy without periodically inflicting pain, creating suffering and harming some human beings in order that many more can live in peace and pursue their lawful ambitions and desires. Nonetheless, that is an immutable fact of existence. Government policy that attempts to deny it is not merely incompetent and naive, but ultimately suicidal. A culture that elevates compassion above all other values like responsibility, accountability, prudence, process and proportion is betting everything on the inherent goodness and rationality of humanity. History tells us it’s a losing bet.
When I woke up to the horrible news of the Paris attacks, and after I had finished simultaneous laughing and crying about the fact that President Obama picked yesterday to proclaim that the threat of ISIS had been “contained,” it suddenly occurred to me that the majority of the crises this nation struggles with today are linked by the same cultural and leadership malady. The United States increasingly is unwilling to accept the reality that governance is utilitarian, and that punishment, deterrence, sacrifice, pain, retaliation and accountability are indispensable tools that must be used and used unapologetically. The alternative is chaos, and chaos is what we are facing.
An impressive number of these crises have been in the news this week:
Illegal immigration: The issue of what to do with illegal immigrants, Donald Trump’s wheelhouse, was central to the last Republican candidate’s debate. Trump repeated his fantasy of deporting all 13,000,000 of them, and supported his policy by recounting the Eisenhower era’s “Operation Wetback.” Jeb Bush and John Kasich, alone among the debaters, openly derided Trump’s “solution,” both pronouncing it cruel and lacking compassion. Former Bush 43 speechwriter Michael Gerson, who joins Charles Krauthammer and George Will in the Washington Post’s tiny conservative pundit ghetto, applauded. He then set about deploring Trump’s prescription with a series of irrelevancies and rationalizations:
The operation in question, energetically led by Army Gen. Joseph Swing, probably did move more than 1 million undocumented Mexican immigrants back to Mexico (though the figure may be exaggerated). People were taken with few possessions, in stroke-inducing heat, deep into the Mexican interior and dropped off, at first by bus, then on cargo boats in conditions a congressional investigation later compared to 18th-century slave ships.
A straw man. Trump’s comparison was meant to point out one thing: mass deportation can be done, because it has been done. How it was done 60 years ago is irrelevant. What a congressional investigation (led by Democrats) compared it to for maximum negative impact is irrelevant. How hot it was is irrelevant.
Eventually there was a mutiny aboard the Mercurio after seven passengers drowned jumping from the ship. Dozens of others died after being left in sweltering, remote locations.
Moral luck. The accountability for what happens to illegal immigrants when they force our government to return them and Mexico refuses to cooperate in repatriation must be assigned to 1) the illegal immigrants and 2) the Mexican government. Bad things happened? Bad things tend to happen to people who break laws. Bad things should happen to those who break laws. The irrefutable argument against U.S. immigration reform proposals, including “the Dream Act” is that good things must never happen to to those who break laws, or the government is encouraging its own laws to be broken. (Dream Acts are the perfect embodiment of the compassion over reason trend.) Gerson is arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t enforce laws in order to avoid bad things. That is an emotional, irresponsible argument.
So, a dramatically expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement “deportation force” (Trump’s words) would take people from their homes — where some have lived, worked and worshiped for decades — using a massive fleet of buses to transport millions of frightened men, women and children to hundreds (thousands?) of mass detention centers surrounded by fences and (inevitably) barbed wire.
Compassion, however, is not a reason not to deport illegals and their children. A nation cannot enforce laws at all if enforcement itself is considered a breach of compassion.
War and terrorism: President Obama’s foreign policy has been governed and crippled by a core bias he shares with many nice Americans, but no effective American leaders of the past: he believes avoiding bloodshed, not killing civilians and not sacrificing U.S. soldiers is more important than keeping the world out of the hands of murderous despots, dictators, psychopaths and genocidal maniacs. His paralysis by compassion has led to disastrous delays when rapid U.S. military action was essential; it has led to the implosion of the Mideast, it has allowed some of those murderous despots, dictators, psychopaths and genocidal maniacs to manipulate his fear of being responsible for deaths to their advantage (and to the peril of the rest of the world). Obama’s influence, born of mass media’s ability to make the ugliness of war visible to citizens who do not understand the nature of deterrence, war and U.S. responsibilities abroad, have made compassionate opposition to military engagement a political force that induces irresponsible pandering by too elected officials.
Yesterday’s Paris attacks demonstrate that avoiding serious and total commitment to eradicating terrorist groups by violent force, a compassionate refusal to acknowledge the threat posed by Islamic radicals, and a denial-based policy of not subjecting Islamic immigrants to any special scrutiny at all, can and will lead to a greater threat of terrorism.
Mass incarceration, drug legalization, and law enforcement: A collective shift has occurred focusing more attention on the dire consequences to the law-breaker of a law-breaker’s own actions than on the actions themselves. The shift is based on excessive and often misplaced compassion, allowing the very process of law enforcement to be vilified and discredited. Yes, families, communities and lives are tragically harmed when a citizen commits a felony and is convicted and imprisoned. Still, we must enforce the law, and penalties must be sufficient to deter lawbreakers. That means punishment must hurt, and must disrupt the lives of others sufficiently that there is incentive for potential lawbreakers to avoid it.
Compassion is at best a secondary consideration, not a primary one. During the current police vilification typified by Black Lives Matter, the deaths of law breakers resisting arrest, threatening police, and endangering the community when individual officers over-react, panic, behave unprofessionally or make a questionable judgment are completely subsumed in the debates. Condemnation of the police and law enforcement is the only topic. A human being has died, you see: compassion dictates that no criticism attach to the victim…for breaking laws, for defying lawful police requests and demands, and for setting into motion dangerous event that led to his own death. This blursethical lines, and encourages lawlessness.
“Hate speech,” censorship, trigger warnings, “safe” places, political correctness, etc.: Legitimate and important activities in a democracy, such as political advocacy, dissent, forceful rhetoric, art, creativity, satire, humor, expression and thought can all make others uncomfortable, offend them, upset them , intimidate them, shock them or worse. Focusing exclusively on the unpleasant experiences of unappreciative listeners, watchers or readers and applying compassion—their feelings matter more than the freedom to engage in the activities upsetting them—leads directly and inevitably to the restriction of liberty and restricted liberty. The fact that the nation’s leadership and media, in such trivial matters as the Washington Redskins name, increasingly default to concern about feelings-based harm rather than liberty encourages the same misalignment of priorities in other settings.
Donald Trump: This is a different kind of crisis. The very real threat of him coming to power is due to the backlash against the national, international and cultural carnage resulting from the flaccid “compassionate” policies of the Obama administration. There is phenomenal groundswell of support for a boorish narcissist who appears to have no compassion at all.
The United States of America cannot maintain a cultural consensus or its own ideals if it abandons compassion entirely. It should not be an all or nothing choice.
Compassion, witch joins such values as empathy, sympathy and benevolence under the category of caring, is an important ethical value but far from the most important one. For competent leaders, it is well down the priority list, and in many circumstances should be jettisoned entirely. A long, nice, slippery slope has elevated compassion to dangerous prominence in the ethical balancing process that governing and democracy require. There are ethical values that are fatal in excessive quantity and naive application.
Compassion, unfortunately, is one of them.