As we approach the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, our compassion for the victims of this tragedy and their families remains strong. It is right to mourn the death of innocent people who perished at the hands of fanatic assailants.
However, this terrible event has made clear our selective compassion when confronting pointless suffering and death. There are approximately 925 million undernourished people in the world today - one in seven individuals does not get enough to eat. Malnutrition plays a role in almost half of the 10.9 million child deaths annually and chronic hunger magnifies the severity of virtually every disease. Why do the deaths of 2,819 terrorist victims evoke such a visceral response from us while the malnutrition related fatalities of almost 14,000 children DAILY elicit relative indifference?
To begin, the terrorist strikes were sudden, graphically violent acts that occurred in our homeland, killed our fellow citizens and interrupted our way of life. A starvation-related death is a slow, silent executioner whose victims' short lives end in locales that we have never heard of, reside in cities and towns we can't pronounce. Their deaths do not affect the stock market, the unemployment rate, the price of gasoline or our travel plans.
The perpetrators of the Sept. 11 killings were a band of identifiable evildoers whose tactics lend themselves to a straightforward military response. Victims of terrorist attacks are especially sympathetic because the cause of their suffering is undisputedly wicked. But who is to blame for the malnutrition-related deaths of millions of children every year? Underdeveloped economies? Backward social systems? Prolonged droughts and/or floods? Corrupt governments? Awareness of the suffering and death of millions of people in developing nations typically raises questions we would rather not ask, much less answer. For example, what obligation do rich nations have toward poor countries? Should there be a more equitable distribution of income and wealth in the world? At the individual level, what, if anything, should I be doing to alleviate this suffering? Organize friends and neighbors to help those who have so little? Forgo the next "must have" purchase and donate that money to an international charity?
Confronting the reality of thousands of children dying every day because they lack nutritious food forces us to deal with a central aspect of American culture - that of indulgent consumerism. One way to avoid the emotional discomfort triggered by comparing our well-being with the wretched existence of others is to give little, if any, thought to the latter.
In a 1759 book, "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," Adam Smith (author of the "Wealth of Nations," often referred to as the "capitalist manifesto) posed a moral dilemma for the typical "man of humanity." Suppose, asked Smith, this individual learned of a devastating earthquake that destroyed much of China. How would he react? The renowned Scottish economist and philosopher surmised this individual might reflect deeply on the precariousness of the human condition, but in the end, the death of even millions of people would have little impact on his life. He would "pursue his business with pleasure ... with the same tranquility as if no such accident happened."
But let us suppose, Smith continued, this man were to learn that he would lose his little finger the next day. He will spend a restless night filled with anxiety and dread, whereas, "provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren" in a far-off land. This incomparable calamity would generate far less concern than his own "paltry little misfortune."
Since, according to Smith, we are creatures of self-interest, what if anything compels us to give precedence to the needs of others over those of our ego? His answer rests on the more sublime aspects of human nature: "reason, principle, conscience," these "inhabitants of the breast" capable of "counteracting the strongest impulse of self-love." For Smith, it is not the love of humanity that on occasion leads us to perform selfless acts, but "the love of what is honorable and noble, of the grandeur and dignity and superiority of our own characters."
It is not easy to mute the Herculean drive of self-interest in a consumer-oriented society where success is typically measured by possessions and money. But the egoistic component of ourselves must be consciously, doggedly held in check if the more noble aspects of our humanity are to be heard. Only then will we be able to look beyond our personal and national troubles and identify with the suffering of humankind, to fully understand that each one of us is, according to Smith, "but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it." As long as we consider ourselves different or removed from (perhaps superior to) those mired in poverty worldwide, we will not, cannot truly empathize with their suffering to a degree necessary to take action.
Along with helping the less fortunate in some way on a personal level, Sept. 11, 2011, should be an occasion of national resolve to use a measure of our economic power to vanquish poverty-borne diseases as deliberately as we have used our military might to combat our enemies. If we allocated just 10 percent of the 2011 defense budget of $691 billion to fighting poverty-related diseases, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives could be saved. Imagine what 10 percent of our defense budget since 2001 (roughly $500 billion) could have accomplished in reducing debilitating, killing diseases in the world's poorest countries, how much human misery and suffering would have been eliminated.
Nothing would be a greater tribute to those who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks than for the United States to exercise its collective altruism by way of leading an international effort to improve and preserve the lives of destitute people in world's poorest nations.
P.S.: God's name will be invoked countless times this 9/11 weekend in services and prayer vigils across the country. I wonder what the Almighty thinks of our selective compassion.
George Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology as a professor at the University of San Diego.
"2011 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics" (2011) World Hunger, www.worldhunger.org
Smith, A. (2010, original 1759) "The Theory of Moral Sentiments," Penguin Classics: New York
"United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2112 Budget Request" (2011) Department of Defense, comptroller.defense.gov