Chelsea Manning and The Power of Empathy
It is 3 am. Something in me is unsettled and I cannot sleep. Earlier today, the Israeli military intensified its assault on Gaza Strip as a kind of collective punishment of the Palestinians; those vulnerable and marginalized who have been locked up and denied their humanity. After more than 440 air strikes since the beginning of the week, I saw photos of injured and dead men, women and children by the dozens.
I hear a man walking on the street outside my window shouting loudly; “you are a liar, a liar”. In this explosion of anger, I feel his pain. Life does not have to be this way. We can live with dignity and treat each other with respect and kindness. We can do much better.
When we see suffering of others, it upsets and saddens and keeps many of us awake at night. This reminds me of the words of Chelsea Manning and what she said about the scenes of the Collateral Murder video she witnessed; “we’re human . . . and we’re killing ourselves . . . and no-one seems to see that . . . and it bothers me”.
Why did our indifference bother her so much? Because she remembered our inherent ties to one another. She once spoke of this deep connection to all people in the world; “i cant separate myself from others. . . i feel connected to everybody . . . like they were distant family … i care?” This allowed her to empathize with others, even those who have been made into an enemy. She was able to see the usual scenery of modern war, not from the perspective of the U.S. military but from the perspectives of the Iraq people. She was able to put herself into the shoes of those who are made victims of this war of terror.
WikiLeaks editor and journalist Sarah Harrison, who assisted the safe passage of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, pointed to empathy as one reason behind her courageous act. She said, “someone had done something so brave, and they should be supported ....I felt an empathy, a natural human empathy, and wished to support”. Julian Assange, who was also involved in this effort noted empathy as a reason to support his bid for asylum. He described how he personally sympathized with his situation, especially after watching what Manning had gone through.
Empathy is a primary evolutionary force of mankind. It is part of our common universal language. We need to nurture and pass it on to the next generation as a heritage of a human culture. The survival of the species depends on our capacity to feel the pain of others as if it is our own.This ability to empathize with others brings hope because this makes us human. Empathy has been defined as “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own” (Hoffman, 1987, p. 48). It is our deep attachment to one another that binds us together. We learn this through our connection to our mother as a representative of mother earth, that sustains our life unconditionally.
All life began with a mother's vulnerable love, her courage to risk her life for another human being. Our attachment makes us vulnerable. It can at times make one look pathetic, weak and naïve, yet it is what allows one to act selflessly for others, even risking one's own life. This is conscience, the recognition of our inescapable obligation to one another. We are all bound by it. This makes people do extraordinary deeds, which at times are seen as almost crazy in others eyes.
The late activist Aaron Swartz was a child prodigy. At 14, he helped write the RSS specifications and at 16 he helped found Creative Commons, making it easier technically and legally for people to freely share online. In his short life of 26 years, he had accomplished much more than most of us could in a full lifetime. With his rare talents, he could have had a wide choice of careers. Yet, he took a hard path, one that was not for self-gain or status but was in opposition to the corporate culture of ownership and control. He stood up for our inherent right to information and fought to keep the Internet free and open.
Jeremy Hammond also showed exceptional intelligence and talent at a young age. He took a lonely road to follow his idealism. All his life he fought for fellowship, exposing the inner workings of the pervasive surveillance state. He never betrayed himself even after he was wrongly put into prison.
Snowden had a life that many could be envious of, an American dream in Hawaii with his beautiful girlfriend and high paying job. What made him leave all this behind, risking his personal freedom and safety to challenge the U.S. National Security State apparatus? It was because he saw the horrendous level of mass surveillance destroying the fundamental principles of the Constitution and the idea of consent of the governed. He saw our rights being violated. He empathized with humanity as a whole and acted out of his obligation to all people.
Now he is completely at peace and has no regrets about making this hard decision. In an interview with NBC News, Snowden said: “I may have lost my ability to travel, but I’ve gained the ability to go to sleep at night and to put my head on the pillow and feel comfortable that I've done the right thing even when it was the hard thing”. He is not alone. Others who came before Snowden, like Thomas Drake, William Binney, J. Kirk Wiebe and Edward Loomis, acted out of this innate concern for others.
Why did these intelligent people do such things that do not lead to any benefit for themselves? Because they care. When the truth confronted them, something bothered them, made them not able to sleep at night. These acts of conscience are a threat to the dominant power structures.
The corporate state is built on a denial of the intrinsic bond we have to one another. Its pathological logic of profit at any cost rewards callousness and those who pursue self-interests with impunity. We are conditioned to compete against one other, learn bias and hatred and see each other as separate. We are constantly divided by class, religion, politics or ideology and no longer remember our deep connection as a species.
Our society punishes those who empathize and act on feelings that are innately human. This happened to Ethan McCord, the U.S. soldier in the Collateral Murder video who rescued the wounded children. When he spoke with his sergeant about how much the scene of wanton carnage and the wounded children bothered him, he was berated and told that he needed to suck it up.
Manning was put into a cage, given a show trial and made an example with a sentence of 35 years in prison for revealing war crimes. Snowden has become a traitor in the eyes of U.S. government and charged with violating the espionage act, a law that is intrinsically unconstitutional. Assange is treated as an enemy of the state, detained without charge for almost 4 years. U.S. government intimidation and prosecutorial overreach drove Swartz to his death. Hammond has been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ecuador's Consul, Fidel Narvaez who helped Snowden to safe passage lost his job. Harrison, Laura Poitras, Jacob Appelbaum, are now all in effective exile in Berlin and Glenn Greenwald’s lawyer advised him not to return to his home country.
They all did what they thought was right and suffered the consequences. Their actions showed their empathic connection to other human beings, affirming our humanity that there is someone who cares. In describing what led her to release the biggest document leak in human history, Manning expressed how she felt it was important for it to get it out and that she believed that it would change something, hopefully leading to worldwide discussion, debates and reforms. She said if not, then “we’re doomed as a species”. She called for our affective response, for each of us to trust and follow our own feelings that lead us to the other. This is the source of our power that has repeatedly fueled the Ethernet, creating waves of contagious courage.
Manning said, “Apathy is far worse than the active participation.” Our apathy and indifference magnifies the darkness, misery and suffering in the world. Those who can feel are obliged to act, to have courage to meet hatred with love, to meet ugliness with beauty and ignorance with understanding and to solve human conflicts with compassion rather than violence.
Empathy is a primary evolutionary force of mankind. It is part of our common universal language. We need to nurture and pass it on to the next generation as a heritage of a human culture. The survival of the species depends on our capacity to feel the pain of others as if it is our own. For this I say Chelsea Manning did a great service to humanity. She taught us all that it is this vulnerable love for our fellow human beings that can overcome the darkness in the world.
Hoffman, M.L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgment. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (eds.), Empathy and its Development (pp. 47–80). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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