In the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” Carl Lee Hailey’s defense lawyer Jake Brigance, in his summation, asks the jury members to close their eyes while he tells a horrid tale of a little girl being attacked, raped, beaten, tortured and left to die by two grown men. The jury squirms as they hear the story and at the end Brigance says “now…imagine that she’s white.” As it turns out, Hailey’s daughter, a young African-American girl, was violated in exactly the way Brigance describes, prompting her father to shoot the men who attacked her thus. Brigance understood that the jury would rightly be horrified if they considered this happening to a young white girl but had to put humanity before race affiliation to extend that empathy to an African-American child. Whatever one might think about the movie, this particularly scene is brilliant, moving, and telling. The jury members open their eyes in surprise and anguish as they consider this mutilation happening to a white child and in an incandescent moment, realize that they must be equally horrified at the mutilation of Hailey’s daughter.
This brings us to the fundamental contradiction of human existence- our inability to apply the same standards, rules of just conduct, and empathy to all humans despite being 99.999% the same. What is fair for us is not fair for others. This double-standard applies to nation-states as well, with determinations of morality and righteousness on the one hand and immorality on the other being made on the basis not of any agreed upon standard but instead on political expediency and self-loving bias.
When we “close our eyes” we imagine the pain of untold sufferings being heaped upon us but, unfortunately, never get jarred into opening them as we realize that we heap suffering on others.
Noam Chomsky has written extensively- and for decades- on these double standards. To illustrate them, he looks at paired, contemporaneous events, and analyzes the language we use to describe them, and the intent behind our changing and self-serving standards. We invade countries to liberate them, others invade them to destroy democracy. Our allies, if they murder and plunder, are simply responding to the violence of others while our foes, if they murder and plunder, are, well, murderers and plunderers and deserve violence visited upon them. The historical examples are countless and need not bear repetition. The exercise of power and use of violence create a language, even an ontology, of their own- and the use of double-speak and propaganda normalize them.
As regards this Orwellian state, the United States serves as the lead example of employing the power of language coupled with sanctimony to simultaneously justify its use of power to maintain its position of privilege and to rally its people to support its crimes. No citizen of the world’s most powerful country- a country incidentally founded on the twin crimes of genocide and slavery, can wish these crimes away; they happened and they happen.
The question is whether we are willing to decode the doublespeak and understand- in real-time- what the intentions and implications of our own foreign policy are. Only if we can build this muscle- and exercise it- can we stop crimes from occurring in the future.
So let’s reprise Jake Brigance’s elegant experiment.
Close your eyes. Imagine a senior, decorated and respected military officer visiting a neighboring country. He’s in a car near a bustling airport. He’s conferring with a foreign colleague, perhaps perfecting a strategy to protect the borders of his country and to serve his nation. A husband, a father, a man who has been at the head of his military for over 20 years.
Suddenly, a drone fires a missile at his car, hitting it dead-on and blowing him, his colleagues, and his driver to smithereens. At once, his life is snuffed out.
Now, imagine he’s an American General on a state visit to Canada.
Does your blood boil? Do you want revenge? Do you double down on your love for America, feel more patriotic than ever?
Now imagine the feelings of an Iranian, in the aftermath of the extra-judicial murder of Qassim Soleimani in Iraq, whatever his crimes, his sins. Do we suppose an ordinary Iranian feels the same way we do? Can we imagine how we’d be braying for revenge if this happened to one of our Generals, no less the head of one of our armed forces? Can we imagine how we’d refer to the killing as an act of war, of terror, as a brazen violation of our sovereignty’s and Canada’s? Before we opened our eyes, we’d consider the act described as “savage.” Do we believe Soleimani’s murder was, indeed, savage?
If we think of these as different then we come across, no matter how unwittingly, why the world is in conflict and why we’ve retreated into nativism and tribalism. We also understand, once again unwittingly, why “others” harbor what we believe to be at best “curious” and at worst “bestial” views. If we see our crimes as acts of nobility and others’ lives as crimes then we slouch towards the same tendencies that, in the extreme, made the Nazis so horrid.
This is not to say that ordinary people are Nazis. What is indeed is meant to say is that the ambient narrative, the default settings in our thought are double-threaded, one thread for me and us and another thread for you and them. Forcing a convergence of those two threads is the job of education but instead “big E” education, the doctrinal variety, keeps these threads disharmonized, implacably separate.
“A Time to Kill” ends on an upbeat note. Carl Lee Hailey is exonerated. The racists are shown for what they are and we proceed to healing our wounds. Would that the Hollywood ending were the template for the real world.
For it to be, we have to develop one rule set, one thread of empathy that applies to humanity universally
As the US President threatens to bomb cultural and civilian sites in Iran, it’s high time we apply this test and say—loudly–“not in our name will you do this.” We have to open our eyes. Imagine an Iranian threat to blow up the cultural and civic centers in the United States.
Well, it’s the same thing, with the exception that the United States, with its might, can make good on its threats while for most countries they would be rhetorical at best.
Let’s open our eyes. Now.
Romi Mahajan in an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist