Posted on September 14, 2005 in Washington Watch

Watching the outpouring of compassion being displayed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I am reminded of the remarkable era in which we are living. This is not the first such international response to human suffering. Much the same occurred after the tsunami hit South Asia and after 9-11. There have been, as well, continuing international efforts to address problems of AIDS, genocide and famine in Africa. And there was the near universal outrage expressed in the wake of revelations of horrific abuse at Abu Ghraib and the grotesque beheadings that followed.

We live in a period marked by such compassion. It is a more expansive empathy than we have witnessed before, embracing more of humanity, transcending borders and races.

To be sure, this compassion co-exists with evil and insensitivity, but these have always been with us. What is new is not evil, but our awareness of evil, and our rejection of those who excuse it or turn a blind eye to the suffering of its victims.

One of my favorite scientist/theologians, Teilhard de Chardin, foresaw this phenomenon over a half century ago. After tracing the evolution of life from simple to more complex forms, de Chardin noted the pattern that as life forms become more complex, they became more conscious. This process would not end with man, because as humankind, itself, became more complex, de Chardin wrote, it too would become more conscious, i.e., more aware of itself and of its diversity and, therefore, more compassionate.

The process I am describing is uneven and not yet universal. It is the diversity resulting from modernity that creates our awareness of complexity, and it is the power of mass communications that informs us and deepens our empathy. There are, however, vast areas of the planet where change has yet to occur. In these regions the struggle to survive remains the principal concern of daily life, and people suffer in silence, unaware of and unknown by the outside world.

The point is not that those who are more modern are better, but simply that because of modernity they have the opportunity to become more aware. And with this opportunity comes the challenge to empathize and responsibility to respond.

And here, too, we can observe unevenness in the process, because modernity, itself, does not guarantee compassion. It only provides a greater opportunity for compassion. Ideological blinders, greed and personal ambition, and a limited experience beyond the narrow confines of one’s own group, however, can stunt the growth of compassion and result in shocking displays of insensitivity and even cruelty. How else to explain the persistence of racism, war and oppression, on display in Iraq, in Palestine and even in the responses of some here in the US to the suffering in New Orleans.

But, I maintain, it is not this evil or insensitivity that characterizes the era in which we are living. Rather, it is the upsurge in transnational compassion, manifested in a growing movement to address problems facing our globe. Some, for the reasons cited above, may demur, but this movement continues to gain momentum. How else to explain the emergence of transnational human rights organizations; this summer’s mass mobilization to aid Africa and provide debt relief; international conferences to end racism, to eradicate AIDS, to protect the environment and to advance the rights of women; and growing international pressure on the world’s richest nations to provide more assistance to the poorest.

Some of this will be on display next week when the United Nations convenes to celebrate its 60th anniversary and seeks to ratify the Millennium Development Goals. There will also be the convening of the Clinton Global Initiative seeking solutions to poverty, religious conflict, climate change, and governance problems.

There will be those who will resist or who will refuse to participate. But the chapter of this period’s history will not be written by those who spurn the responsibility to demonstrate compassion, it will be written by those who embrace it.

For comments or information, contact James Zogby

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