As President Bush likely realized in his recent speech, the true state of our union is intimately intertwined with the state of our whole world. Our fate as Americans will depend upon our willing identification as citizens on an imperiled planet. Surely we now have the Iraq War to re-evaluate, but even so substantial and overwhelming a problem is just the tip of much larger iceberg. This “iceberg” is the always-universal nature of humankind.
Our species contains deeply within itself the sources of its own disappearance through war, terror and genocide. “The horror, the horror,” mumbles the Marlon Brando character in “Apocalypse Now.” How thin, he reflects correctly, is the veneer of our planetary civilization.
Consider not just Iraq, but also the Sudan and Somalia and Iran and North Korea. Recall Rwanda. Remember Cambodia. Crimes Against Humanity – those crimes that formed a major portion of the post-Holocaust indictment at Nuremberg − are never truly remediable through law, politics or diplomacy. They can be understood and stopped only by a prior awareness of basic individual human needs and expectations.
In the final analysis, Crimes Against Humanity, about which we Jews know all too much, stem from the unbearable loneliness of individual human beings. “Normally” unable to find meaning and security outside of groups, literally billions of individuals will often stop at nothing to acquire membership in a crowd.
It is this frantic search to belong, to overcome individual loneliness that best defines what we smugly call “history.” It is precisely this search for membership that occasions the planetary predicament that must inevitably determine the state of our union.
Real history, the president may have failed to observe, is pretty much the sum total of private souls seeking redemption. Expressions of the desperate human search for redemption in groups can sometimes be found in the ideas of sovereignty and self-determination.
But the “self” in this legal principle refers always to entire peoples, never to individuals. The ironic result is often a measureless orgy of mass killing that we mistakenly describe as international relations or power politics.
Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost 200 of which are now called states, we human beings routinely find it easy to slay “others.” Empathy is reserved almost exclusively for those within our own tribe, within our own union. It would follow that an expansion of empathy to include all outsiders is a basic condition of authentic peace and global union, and that without such expansion our species will remain ruthlessly dedicated to and victimized by mega-violence.
But how shall we proceed? What must be done in our particular union to encourage empathy and to foster deeply caring feelings between as well as within tribes? And how can we improve the state of our world so as to ensure a viable and prosperous state of our own union?
Sadly, the essential expansion of empathy for the many would be dreadful, improving human community but only at the expense of private sanity. We humans are designed with particular boundaries of feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward others would bring about our total emotional collapse.
Humankind must therefore confront a very strange understanding: A widening circle of human compassion is both indispensable to civilizational survival and a potential source of private anguish.
Truth emerges through paradox. According to ancient Jewish tradition, the world rests upon 36 just men – the Lamed-Vav. For them, the spectacle of the world is insufferable.
There are many meanings to this tradition, but one meaning is special. A whole world of just men (and women) is impossible. It is because ordinary individuals cannot bear the torments of others beyond a narrow circle that G-d has created the Lamed-Vav. Empathy on a grand scale, however necessary, is at the same time a prescription for individual despair.
What is to be done? How shall human union now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a precondition of a decent world union, what can create such empathy without producing intolerable emotional pain? How can we deal with the ongoing expressions of war, terrorism and genocide?
The answer cannot be found in ordinary political speeches and programs. It lies only in a resolute detachment of individuals from certain lethally competitive tribes and from certain other collective “selves.”
A more perfect union, both national and international, lies ultimately in a determined replacement of “civilization” with “planetization.” This
in turn, will depend upon prior affirmations of true Self, upon a steadily expanding acceptance of the sacredness of individuals.
Although the speech is past, President Bush should understand that the state of our union could never be better than the state of our world. To act upon this essential understanding, he must now go far beyond all of the usual public inventories of risk and reward to a working acknowledgment of absolutely critical global interdependence. The state of our American union can never be built apart from much broader considerations of planetary survival.
Copyright The Jewish Press, February 9, 2007. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D. Princeton 1971) is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.