For many Americans, what takes place out in the world only occurs in the newspapers or online, and never knocks at their door. The 9/11 terrorist attack changed things but only for a short time, and after several years, the fear of another large-scale attack on the home front died down, while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took place far beyond the border. Since then, a noble idea has flourished in certain quarters: the notion that we should do everything we can to avoid causing other people to suffer, even if it means putting our own lives at risk.
So long as the risk was mostly theoretical, given America’s wealth and power, such posturing came without a price. I once asked a professor at a prestigious university if he would be willing to torture someone who knew the whereabouts of ten nuclear bombs about to explode in American cities, so as to disarm them and prevent a catastrophe. With the face of a man who never lived in real life, but who lived in thought, he proudly said no, and declared that he would rather die than inflict pain on another person.
This noble gesture, once expressed easily in repose, has become in today’s reality a suicidal impulse. Serious dangers are now knocking at people’s doors, yet the dread fear of causing suffering in other people stands firmly and immovably in its appointed place. In foreign policy, this dread fear has become the Archimedean lever by which Hamas, Iran, Russia, and China threaten to weaken the West. America may have more money and weapons, but enough influencers in the US aspire to guide policy from the heights of humanitarian idealism, such that even the basic instinct to defend ourselves is encouraged to wither.
The obsession with suffering already runs through much of American daily life, where plenty of domestic threats knock at our doors. Bans on certain Halloween costumes and policing microaggressions originate in the desire to avoid causing hurt, part of the larger anti-democratic movement toward censorship. The obsession infuses the legal system, where felonies are turned into misdemeanors, and criminal behavior (such as homeless tent encampments) is sometimes ignored altogether. It permeates the mental-health system, where de-institutionalization allows dangerously mentally ill people to roam the streets, to avoid making them feel the discomfort of being shut in. It governs the open policy toward the southern border, as cracking down risks making migrants suffer.
This obsession underlies the Biden administration’s foreign policy based on “rules and norms.” The older approach, oriented toward great-power rivalry, accepts that certain powers will be brutal in defense of their interests. Rules and norms, in contrast, assume that countries will pursue their interests until they cause suffering, at which point they will get a lecture and kindly cease hostilities on the threat of being judged in the court of world opinion. A rules and norms-based order works well until rogue state actors refuse to operate within that framework. To continue blindly with the policy without adjustment imagines the world as a kind of federation governed by lawyers, in which chaos and brute force have been made to disappear, and war and persecution are anachronisms.
Hamas’s attack on Israel has exploited the West’s obsession with suffering. The West’s conscience felt no guilt immediately after the attack, as it had no hand in the massacre. Indeed, sympathy lay with the Israelis. But letting Israel—a Western ally—respond militarily has meant endorsing an action that would inevitably cause suffering. This has put the West’s social conscience in harm’s way. Even though Hamas declared it would attack again in the future, and even though Israel said it would try to avoid civilian casualties, some in the West demanded a ceasefire before Israel had even responded. “We did not cause anyone to suffer,” they wanted to be able to say.
Hamas knew they would. Hamas purposely fired rockets from next to schools and built military tunnels underneath hospitals, not simply because it knew Israel would try to follow rules and norms to avoid causing suffering, but because when Israel did attack, the fact that Israel caused suffering would prey on the West’s humanitarian conscience. Some people in the West even found a way to support Hamas as a result, by saying Palestinian suffering was greater than Israeli suffering. In a perverse twisting of Bentham’s utilitarian principle, known as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” Hamas purposely inflates Palestinian casualties so it can boast of having the higher number of sufferers, thereby putting its cause in the right. And indeed, some Westerners, with that well-known Western fetish for numbers, have grown paralyzed in the face of such numbers, worrying whether Israel’s response is “proportionate” or causing more than its proper measure of suffering.
This paralysis was predictable, as extreme sensitivity toward suffering has been growing in the West for centuries. Already in 1787, the German philosopher Goethe commented on the new impulse, wondering if the world might become “a vast hospital, where each will be his fellow man’s humane sick-nurse.” A century later, Nietzsche compared the West to a herd of cows; one cow attacks another, but nothing is done about it because it is too painful to punish the attacking cow and make it suffer.
The new thinking gained a foothold in the US during the first quarter of the 20th century in the form of the Social Gospel movement. With deep ties to religion, the movement’s goal was to foster wealth redistribution in this life rather than salvation in the next. Its leaders claimed to be acting on the Bible’s message to love humanity. They called themselves “humanitarians,” which seemed odd, as the Bible says nothing about loving humanity. The Bible tells Christians to “love thy neighbor,” meaning someone they know, or at least the nearest visible human being. “All humanity,” in contrast, is an abstraction—an illusion—and unknowable.
The Social Gospel humanitarians projected their obsession with suffering onto the religious concept of love, turning it into humanitarian love. Love was no longer an inner spiritual movement tied to a person’s love of God, but rather the feeling of suffering that arises in people when they see other people suffer. One need not connect spiritually to others to experience humanitarian love; one need only suffer personally when seeing an outward expression of suffering. A picture of a baby crying from hunger in a foreign land is enough to provoke humanitarian love.
Because humanitarian love was all about reacting to a painful story, usually involving anonymous people, supplementary illusions were encouraged to nourish it. To experience the suffering of others whom one had never met, people were advised to try to put themselves in other people’s place according to the question: “What would you feel if this happened to you?” They were encouraged to recreate in their imaginations the illusion of other people’s misery.
Progressive educators reveal this tendency today when they tell young students to draw pictures of themselves as slaves, or to pretend to be slaves in school plays, to imagine a slave’s misery and thereby to feel that misery themselves, as if by contagion. Indeed, one religious activist declared, “We need to intentionally practice grief.”
Humanitarian Love Run Amok
Today, many religious-based activists in the US preach humanitarian love. Although they may love their neighbor, they love all humanity more emphatically still. One activist minister declared her intention to improve society on a national and even global scale, arguing, “We’re modeling the kind of country and the kind of world that we wanna live in.” Rather than engage in concrete personal acts of love, from person to person, humanitarians engage in abstract impersonal acts of love, from activist to humanity. Rather than make immediate spiritual connections with real people, they support institutions of general welfare. They think on the scale of the human species and focus attention on what every human being shares in: the ability to suffer. This affects policy.
For example, traditional Christians and Jews believe in mercy, but mercy does not mean excusing a criminal’s behavior. Humanitarian love, in contrast, demands that no one suffer, which gives rise to a new attitude toward criminal behavior. Of the criminal who steals from a department store or who pushes someone off the subway, religious humanitarians say, “He is only human” or “We’re all human” or “He, too, suffers.” A man who is nothing and has nothing is “still a human being,” they argue. According to humanitarians, the criminal should not be allowed to suffer because it is too painful to watch anyone suffer. Besides, a negative judgment on the criminal might one day lead to a negative judgment on themselves, making them suffer in turn. Suffering is everywhere! Hence the movement among today’s humanitarians to be more forgiving toward crime, predicated on an insistence that “to err is human.” Criminal behavior arises, they declare, not because the criminal is bad so much as because “there is not enough love in the world.”
To prevent suffering, humanitarian love also attacks the principle of merit. So focused are humanitarians on the lowest common denominator of human existence—suffering—and so worried are they about unsuccessful people feeling embarrassment, that humanitarians try to minimize merit. They get rid of admissions standards in exclusive high schools and colleges. They dumb down tests so that everyone passes and no one has to cope with the shame of failure. They encourage the hiring of people who may have less merit but who have a stronger history of suffering. In the world of humanitarian love, failure is “excused.” To do so is to be “understanding.” This is said to be the “humane” attitude.
Paradoxically, such extreme sensitivity toward suffering goes hand in hand with radical and even violent protest movements. For many radical humanitarians, suffering is the only reality. They demand that all social conventions be overturned, ranging from traditional family organization to the existence of police departments. They declare that society itself is nothing but a fabric of spells and charms. They say people wrongly listen to their parents, wrongly try to be masculine or feminine, wrongly want to win, and wrongly pay for things. Each of these illusions causes people to suffer, they say, yet they are woven into people’s lives with bonds so numerous that no one any longer knows their origins. “What is more empty than a convention? Why respect it?” they cry.
Their protest against conventions soon turns into a protest against every organized society, for every organized society has conventions. To end all suffering, radicalized humanitarians take it upon themselves to imagine life outside the current of society, and to protest until the last harmful convention has been destroyed.
To cite just one example, Fatima Mousa Mohammed, a newly minted humanitarian and speaker at her City University of New York’s law-school class graduation, recently called for a “revolution.” She recommended using her fellow students’ rage at other people’s suffering “as the fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world.” In her speech she expressed hatred for the conventions, which, to her, are illusions that cause suffering. Law, she declared, is a “manifestation of white supremacy”—thus, even law is a convention.
In their demand to eliminate all suffering by overthrowing all conventions, radical humanitarians exhibit a kind of utopian foolishness once found mostly among hostile, defiant, and unrepentant adolescents. Even the most civic-minded adult recognizes that conventions are not transcendent truths. Some conventions are silly. One can be certain that over time certain conventions will be surpassed or replaced. The era of shaking hands, for instance, seems to be passing. So is the era of a man opening a door for a woman. But for a time, conventions enable people to live.
Conventions are part and parcel of the everlasting plan of human societies, adults understand. To overturn all conventions because they might cause someone, somewhere, mental discomfort—because a firm hand shake might seem aggressive to someone, or because opening a door for a woman might cause her to feel devalued—leads not to utopia but to barbarism. The “state of fiction” composed of agreed-upon conventions simply passes into the much harsher “state of fact,” where fear alone reigns in society (and where everyone suffers).
Ironically, the radical humanitarian obsession with suffering leads to hatred for the very religion that nurtured the obsession early on. Suffering, some radical humanitarians say, proves that God doesn’t exist. Suffering ceases to be an invitation for more love and becomes a trump card against a hated thing: God and religion.
A Test of Wills
What are the leaders of Hamas, Iran, China, and Russia? Sad to say, these are people palpitating with life, full of vitality and the grosser lusts that such vitality entails, such as killing indiscriminately to get whatever they want. These swaggering, almost bursting pieces of matter, embody the fierceness, brutality, and momentum of entire peoples assembled into a few individual personalities. When fury and hatred leap volcanically from their mouths, they exhale power.
What are our radical humanitarians? More often than not, they are people of moderation who play the role of mediators, who act as reconcilers—in a word, humane people. When the time comes for them to defend society against barbarism, doubt comes only too easily to ruffle their clear surfaces. They lift their eyes serenely upward; they gaze beyond the tumultuous passions of the day and think they alone are capable of making humanity pain-free. Everybody will be happier, they think, for blindly clinging to their crusade to prevent suffering. In the face of mad rage, so evident during the Hamas attack on Israel, they declare that the elemental impulses in humanity can be conjured out of existence by gentle and elevating words. They say barbarism is not an incontrovertible fact, but something that can be expunged through reason and goodwill.
As always with armchair goodness, there is a tincture of the ludicrous in these well-meaning efforts. Radical humanitarians strive for an ultimate and universal understanding, in which everyone everywhere lives without fear of suffering. In the meantime, mass-hatred and the passionate psychoses of humanity continue to unfold in reality, threatening the radical humanitarian’s very existence with untamable strength, whether in the form of a terrorist attack, a carjacking, or a deranged person taking a swipe at them on the street. Although earnest and honest, the radical humanitarian view of life was always ridiculously simple. But now it has grown dangerous, as it aspires to put blinkers on us all.