copyright © 2009 Betsy L. Angert. BeThink.org
Never for a moment in my life have I been “in love.” I do not believe in the notion. Fireworks have not filled my heart. Flames of a fiery passion do not burn within me. Indeed, my soul has not been ablaze. Thoughts of a hot-blooded devotion seem illogical to me. Such sentiments always have. Fondness too fertile is but torture for me. I admire many, and adore none. For me, the affection I feel for another is born out of sincere and profound appreciation. To like another means more to me than to love or be loved. Excitement, an emotional reaction to another, rises up within me when I experience an empathetic exchange with someone who has glorious gray matter.
Today, it happened. I felt an a twinge that startled me. I stood still as he entered the room. I expected nothing out of the ordinary, or at least nothing other than what has become his recently adopted, more avoidant, routine. Although long ago, I had become accustomed to his face, his voice, and his demeanor, for I have known the man for more than a few years. In the last few weeks, while essentially he is who he always was, some of his stances have changed. Possibly, Barry has felt a need to compromise his positions, but I wonder; what of his principles.
Early on, I knew that he and I differed in some respects. While we each loathe drama, I was never certain if he felt as I do; love need not be a tortuous trauma. Barry spoke of the need to work together. Yet, not necessarily in aspect of life. At times, he advocated aggressive actions I could not consider. This, for me, caused much confusion. Nonetheless, I liked the man I saw before me.
I recall the day we first met, face-to-face. We shook hands. He smiled. Barry was polite, not pushy. Amiable is the way I would describe him. Then, the second time we saw each other, we had a more extensive conversation. He took my hand in his. We each spoke with greater sincerity. As Barry and I chatted, he looked me straight in the eye. He listened to my personal tale. Visibly, he pondered the story I shared. Barry responded so genuinely to my inquiry, albeit an unconventional concern, I was surprised. Indeed, I was impressed, although less than I was when I read what he had written.
His books moved me. The more autobiographical tome endeared him to me. His notes on hope did not lack the spirit to inspire me. As one who “loves” to learn, which differs from the impulsive idea that I might be “in love,” a person that can kindle my earnest thirst for knowledge truly electrifies me. I recall the moment I read the text that, all these years later, still resonates within me. Barry humbly offered, in a discussion of empathy . . .
It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule – not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.
Barry told tales of his mother, his grandfather, and how through his interactions with each he realized there is reason to think “about the struggles and disappointments” others have seen in their lives. Reflection helped the younger Barry understand, every individual is not solely right or wrong. If he were to insist that, his way was the only approach that worked, “without regard to his [or her] feelings or needs, I was in some way diminishing myself.” Such awareness, such a superior soul; Barry showed what I believe to be a human’s greatest strength, vulnerability. Were I to have a heart to win, the words of this gentle-man could have surely swept me off my feet.
Even his calm demeanor is as I desire and live. Those close to me wonder of my own emotional tranquility. From his manner and manuscript, it would seem Barry believes as I do. Empathy elicits equilibrium. Today, he seemed to embrace this notion once again. We can choose to love our neighbors. We need not torture “those who are different from us.”
Near noon, on April 23, 2009, at the Holocaust days of Remembrance Ceremony, Barry, the now President of the United States, Barack Obama spoke of this belief again. Once more, I felt a pang for the person who oft-expressed a profound connection to the feelings of another. The sweet soul who can bring me to tears, did so once again. On this historic occasion, Barry shared a profound realization through a personal story. The subject; the Holocaust and the torture our forebears felt or beheld.
In the face of horrors that defy comprehension, the impulse to silence is understandable. My own great uncle returned from his service in World War II in a state of shock, saying little, alone with painful memories that would not leave his head. He went up into the attic, according to the stories that I’ve heard, and wouldn’t come down for six months. He was one of the liberators — someone who at a very tender age had seen the unimaginable. And so some of the liberators who are here today honor us with their presence — all of whom we honor for their extraordinary service. My great uncle was part of the 89th Infantry Division — the first Americans to reach a Nazi concentration camp. And they liberated Ohrdruf, part of Buchenwald, where tens of thousands had perished.
Stunned, by the saga, and the words that preceded the legend, I began to believe again. Perhaps the Barry I admire had a change of heart. Policies he never fully embraced, might not seem reasonable to him now.
During the campaign, Barry, Senator Barack Obama only promised to investigate, not to prosecute. Many months ago, before the August 2008 declaration, and thereafter, I had thought his stance reflected his vast ability to empathize. Yet, in the light of the ample evidence, most if not all of which affirms the Bush Administration engaged in extreme methods of interrogation, President Obama still supports or chooses to sustain a position that negates empathy for the victims. I shudder to think of how the Seventh Generation might be affected.
Hence, I am left to question what I thought was truth. Was the empathy I envisioned not as sincere as I hoped it to be? Perchance that is why, for me, love is as torture. I have faith no one has the power to disappoint me. Only my choices can be a source of much concern. For as long as I can recall, I have observed, once infatuation fades, we learn as I had before Barry entered the Oval Office. He is but another human. He embraces and then forgets, the power of empathy and the force of our past?
When, in homage to Holocaust victims, and survivors of a heinous hostility that forever stains world history, I sensed he knew. As I looked on, I forgot the setting. Intent on the torrent of news on torture techniques I read and heard throughout the day, I made an erroneous connection. As Barry, President Obama spoke of the deeds done in decades past, and those crimes committed by the previous Administration, I imagined the man I thought I knew meant to express empathy for those who suffered at the hands of Americans. The Chief Executive, on behalf of the United States avowed.
Their legacy is our inheritance. And the question is, how do we honor and preserve it? How do we ensure that “never again” isn’t an empty slogan, or merely an aspiration, but also a call to action?
I believe we start by doing what we are doing today — by bearing witness, by fighting the silence that is evil’s greatest co-conspirator.
In the face of horrors that defy comprehension, the impulse to silence is understandable.
I cried. Tremendously thankful for the oratory, indeed, I must say, for a second, I was elated. I wondered. Had the person many think beloved, the individual I at least treasure, decided to rescind his prior position?
Might he have rejected the thought offered recently; “nothing will be gained by our time and energy laying blame for the past,”
Could it be the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony helped the President to renew his faith in his earlier expression; “(H)istory returns “with a vengeance . . . “(A)s Faulkner reminds us, the past is never dead and buried — it isn’t even past.” I hoped.
Perchance, he had worked through a struggle I too experience. As one who has no desire to hurt others, even those who have physically and psychologically harmed individuals, and our country’s image, how might I think prosecution is just?
I truly embrace such an honorable ability to seek no retribution. Indeed, I may not fall “in love”; nonetheless, I would hope to live love.
I feel harsh reprisals are never wise. I also accept the enduring wisdom of a finer balance. I have experienced the need to empathize and the conflict of what I might do if one I treasure intentionally injures another. I have come to discover, if deleterious deeds are allowed to stand, sooner or later the other, I, and perchance, society will be subjected to adulterations that individuals or a culture cannot endure.
Awful actions we accept, avoid, or merely do not acknowledge become a foundation for the future. Humans inure. Lest we forget the Milgram shock experiment of decades ago, or the knowledge that when repeated in the present, proves again, as a Psychologist, Thomas Blass, espoused in “The Man Who Shocked the World.” Milgram extrapolated, to larger events like the Holocaust, or Abu Ghraib. “people can act destructively without coercion.” “In things like interrogations, we don’t know the complexities involved. People are under enormous pressure to produce results.”
I wonder how many Americans came to accept violence as a necessity on September 11, 2001. On that dreadful day, a date that now lives in infamy, all Americans were placed in a precarious position. With the threat of terror etched into our every cell, each of us had to ask, what were we to do. In the 2004 edition of Dreams From My Father, the Barry, who I trusted to be so thoughtful whispered his woe for what might occur once the “world fractured.” He penned . . .
This collective history, this past, directly touches my own . . .
I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammeled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair. I know that the response of the powerful to this disorder — alternating as it does between a dull complacency and, when the disorder spills out of its proscribed confines, a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware — is inadequate to the task. I know that the hardening of lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all.
Those are the words of the Barry I was inspired to meet, the person I was reminded of when he stood with an audience of individuals who never forget the agony of torture. Today, as that empathetic soul, the President referred to the future, the generations to come, he stated, “We find cause for hope” when “people of every age and faith and background and race (are) united in common cause with suffering brothers and sisters halfway around the world.” I thought of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison, and the prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the need to empathize with victims of “extreme duress.”
Oblivious to the purpose of this particular speech, in my moment of stupor, I surmised Mister Obama had not only accepted the association, but perhaps had realized what could occur if the transgressions of the previous Administration were allowed to stand as if all was in the past.
“Barry,” Barack, the Commander-In-Chief, further elucidated; “Those [persons] can be our future . . . (D)uring this season when we celebrate liberation, resurrection, and the possibility of redemption, may each of us renew our resolve to do what must be done. And may we strive each day, both individually and as a nation, to be among the righteous.
I imagined the reference was to empathy, to the paradigms I too embrace. Punishment offers no benefits for people. Yet, there is a need to prosecute the culpable, to ensure that people are answerable for the most atrocious aggressions. It is vital, if we wish to prevent the numbness that humans so easily adopt, we must bring torture to the full light of day. Torment executed in our names, I think Barry would agree, hurts us. Surely, General and President Eisenhower did. Mister Obama acknowledged this only hours ago .
Eisenhower understood the danger of silence. He understood that if no one knew what had happened, that would be yet another atrocity — and it would be the perpetrators’ ultimate triumph.
What Eisenhower did to record these crimes for history is what we are doing here today. That’s what Elie Wiesel and the survivors we honor here do by fighting to make their memories part of our collective memory. That’s what the Holocaust Museum does every day on our National Mall, the place where we display for the world our triumphs and failures and the lessons we’ve learned from our history. It’s the very opposite of silence.
But we must also remember that bearing witness is not the end of our obligation — it’s just the beginning. We know that evil has yet to run its course on Earth. We’ve seen it in this century in the mass graves and the ashes of villages burned to the ground, and children used as soldiers and rape used as a weapon of war.
Barry knows what President Obama. spoke of in his address at the Holocaust Day of Remembrance Ceremony Love needed not be tortured. Expressions of fondness are found in empathy, not extreme duress.
President Eisenhower understood as I had hoped, on this day, Barry Obama had. What occurs far from view is never truly unseen. Nor can avoidance erase the scars left on a heart. While as a country, or as individuals we may prefer to retreat to the attic as President Obama’s great uncle did, in truth, it is impossible to forget.
People who participated know this to be so. A belatedly brave Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, Ali Soufan, tell his tales of sorrowful love in My Tortured Decision. The mediator recalls how for seven years he has remained silent about the false claims magnifying the effectiveness of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding. Mister Soufan, as General Eisenhower did before him saw the need to “shed light on the story, and on some of the lessons to be learned.”
I inquire; what will Barry do, and what of President Obama. Will the man who once held my hand and professed a need to be empathetic do as he declares his commitment? “(W)e have an opportunity, as well as an obligation, to confront these scourges.” Might he instead do as he hopes we will not, “wrap ourselves in the false comfort that others’ sufferings are not our own,”
I can only hope Barry will encourage the President to heed his own call. “(W)e have the opportunity to make a habit of empathy; to recognize ourselves in each other; to commit ourselves to resisting injustice and intolerance and indifference in whatever forms they may take — whether confronting those who tell lies about history, or doing everything we can to prevent and end atrocities like those that took place . . .”
Let us never forget Guantanamo Bay prison, Abu Ghraib, or any America penitentiary camp, need not be our holocaust. Tales of tortured love need not be an American truth.
References for tortured love . . .
- Remarks by the President at the Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. United States Capitol. April 23, 2009
- Our New Sort of War, It might be the most dangerous of all. By Victor Davis Hanson. National Review. April 16, 2009
- Obama calls situation in Afghanistan ‘urgent’. Cable News Network. July 21, 2008
- Obama Challenges Grads to Cultivate Empathy, by Barack Obama. Northwestern University. June 19, 2006
- How Obama Did It, By Karen Tumulty. Time. June 5, 2008
- Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, By Barack Obama. 2004
- Statement of President Barack Obama on Release of OLC Memos. Office of the Press Secretary. White House. April 16, 2009
- On Interrogation Policies, Another Delicate Compromise From Obama, By Ben Pershing. Washington Post. April 17, 2009
- he Audacity of Hope, By Barack Obama
- Would Obama prosecute the Bush administration for torture? By Mark Benjamin. Salon. August 4, 2008
- Science Chief Discusses Climate Strategy, Obama Adviser Hints at Compromise on Cap-and-Trade Emission Allowances. By Juliet Eilperin. Washington Post. Thursday, April 9, 2009; A02
- A Guide to the Memos on Torture. The New York Times.
- Decades Later, Still Asking: Would I Pull That Switch?, By Benedict Carey. The New York Times. July 1, 2008
- William Faulkner.
- My Tortured Decision. By Ali Soufan. The New York Times. April 23, 2009
- In 2002, Military Agency Warned Against ‘Torture, Extreme Duress Could Yield Unreliable Information, It Said. By Peter Finn and Joby Warrick. Washington Post. Saturday, April 25, 2009