THE BLOG
05/13/2013 01:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2013

Empathy for Whom?

The range of opinions about what to do with (or to) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the "little brother" in the Boston Marathon bombing, says a lot about the exceptionally perverse character of American culture right now, our addled confusion about violence. Sitting at a table with people who know each other very well, New Yorkers, one quickly jumps across the spectrum from the therapeutic to the vindictive, with little in between.

The therapeutic impulse is almost Pavlovian at this point among those who think of themselves as progressive or enlightened. In the case of a mass killer, it leads towards an aesthetic pacifism. The first stage is the assignment of incapacity, in this case the juvenile defense: "He's only nineteen, and he was obviously under his brother's control, he didn't understand what he was doing." "But he committed a terrible crime, he must know that." "I don't think we should punish him, he must be severely traumatized, his brother was killed in front of him." "So what should we do with him?" "He should go somewhere for intensive therapy, to understand what happened."

To which someone else responds with ferocious outrage. "What is wrong with you? Don't you care about all those people he hurt? He needs to be punished." "Well, what would you do with him?" "I would like to see him tortured. I want him to suffer the way his victims and all of their families are suffering." "But torture is wrong, it makes us torturers, prison would be bad enough." Now, as memories and evocations of 9/11 boil over -- "I would like to see him burned up, actually."

What we have here are competing, equally useless, and essentially false versions of empathy. One response is focused entirely on the bomber, his trauma, as if what he did was a kind of accident, a frenzy, for which he can't be held accountable. The other collapses the self and the nation, as if the speaker had been personally attacked, or the dead and maimed in Boston were his own family.

At some point, the first person, without looking, dismisses the second, muttering "You're such an American," but that's getting it all wrong. A reflexive turning-away from what violence actually does to people and their bodies, the desire to avoid assigning responsibility, to holding anyone accountable ("shit happens... everyone's guilty") is at least as American as a scattershot bloodlust among those who have never encountered any serious mayhem except on YouTube, which has the same relationship to bloody legs all around the finish line in Boston as random bits of pornography have to sweaty sex.

But there's something contradictory here. Surely, H. Rap Brown, the Black Panther leader, got it right back in 1967 when he famously proclaimed that "violence is as American as cherry pie." For more then two centuries, we have been a notably unregulated, happily vicious place in ways that stupefied the rest of the world. Throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, thousands of black people and more than a few whites and Latinos too were hoisted with a rope and then burnt or shot to pieces as they wriggled -- and not just in Alabama or Mississippi, either. Two white kidnappers were stripped naked and strung up in front of thousands in downtown San Jose, California, in 1933, for instance, as the state's governor refused to call out the National Guard, and promised to pardon the lynchers. Nor is this kind of violence anachronistic; today, it's just more individual and privatized (we've lost the carnival aspect, or moved it to team sports). Public murder-suicides are now epidemic: the obvious point of reference for the Tsarnaev brothers isn't Al-Queda or Anders Breivik, but the arc of teenage killers that began with Columbine and continues through dozens of massacres to Newtown last December.

In that sense, the worst thing that ever happened to Tamerlan and his bro were becoming Americans. It seems to have driven them both literally mad and then vicious, for we are a truly violent people, and despite all the crocodile tearing up by politicians who've never met a gun they didn't like, we celebrate the remorseless shoot-'em-up. For his great trilogy chronicling our settler mythos, always waiting for savages to come across the wire, the historian Richard Slotkin chose titles that reverberate through the present: Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation, the last coming out in 1992, well before we elected (sort of) a feckless preppy who wore cowboy boots and walked as if he thought he was Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars.

The problem is that, because of our history or maybe our geography, we are long-inured to a lack of consequences. If this is "luck," however, it's more perverse than providential. We are shocked, shocked when anyone of us actually dies. Since 1865, our wars have cost almost nothing compared to the scale of destruction others did to each other, and suffered from us. The English commemorate the Somme, with sixty thousand casualties on the first day; the French Verdun; the Russians Stalingrad, and so on. We get very serious about the carnage at Antietam in Maryland in September 1862, but that slaughter (about 3,650 dead, often referred to as "the bloodiest single-day battle day battle in American history") is chickenshit compared to world-historical carnage. We are burdened, therefore, by a kind of infantile innocence, and it makes us angry -- or at least those among us who fancy themselves dead-or-alive types.

One would have thought (I used to think) that Vietnam had kicked it out us, this gross naivete, and for a while in the 1980s, it seemed that way, as the call for "no more Vietnams" in El Salvador and Nicaragua was highly effective. But then came what was in retrospect the Era of Great Forgetting, so that now, forty years after one of the most abject withdrawals by a great power -- pure whimper, no bang -- we appear committed to learning and forgetting nothing.

Frozen as we are, the collective response to the Boston massacre is a choked or formulaic simulacrum of empathy, as reductive and personalized as the two New Yorkers described above. The problem with the American inability to empathize is that we hate the very idea of history, and we have no shame, and those are two of the key ingredients in any kind of personal, let alone national, empathy. If we had either, there would be a general turning-away, at least a silent acknowledgement, of what has been done in our name. We would not honor genocidaires. Instead, on May 23, aboard the dry-docked aircraft carrier Intrepid piled with old warplanes along the Hudson, Henry Kissinger will receive the "Intrepid Freedom Award for his distinguished career defending the values of freedom and democracy." As I said, we have no shame.