Thistlethwaite: Moral callousness toward hurricane survivors |

Thistlethwaite: Moral callousness toward hurricane survivors

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
Valley Voices

I believe the American people are being systematically trained to abandon empathy toward suffering refugees. This is dangerous, not only for those who need our help, but for the very moral fiber of the nation.

We’ve already seen the effects of catastrophic callousness toward refugees at our southern borders. Children in cages, tear-gassed families, and the ghastly overcrowding at detention facilities. Many Jewish activists are calling attention to this practice, and protesting this under the banner of #NeverAgain.

But it just happened again.

Tired, hungry and thirsty, more than 100 Bahamian refugees were forced off a ferry waiting to take them to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and safety.

As is well known, hurricane Dorian has devastated the Bahamas and widespread suffering and death have been reported.

But here’s what happened when a ferry was preparing to take refugees to safety. “Please, all passengers that don’t have a U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crew member said in a video posted on Twitter

Why kick these people off the rescue ferry when they are plainly part of a “humanitarian mission” per acting Customs and Border Patrol head Mark Morgan? “This is a humanitarian mission,” Morgan assured. “If your life is in jeopardy and you’re in the Bahamas … you’re going to be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.” He said the processing would be handled expeditiously.

Well, not according to our president. They might be “very bad people.”

Oh. Bad people. There you have it. This is the invitation to disregard mass human suffering and turn your face away because the world consists of two kinds of people, the “good” and the “bad.”

No. I refuse that simplistic and truly cruel way of dividing up humanity.

I truly believe this most recent incident is another weapon to promote moral callousness among the American people against children and families who are hurting often through no fault of their own. This creates increasing insensitivity to the pain of others and serves to justify the now horrific U.S. immigration policies and allow them to continue unchallenged.

Moral callousness refers to developing a callous on your conscience so you feel justified in turning your face away from suffering people. This is how people can be staggeringly cruel and yet justify it to themselves. It is rooted in the “absence of empathy” so well documented and analyzed by Robert Jay Lifton, the famed psychiatrist who has studied human behavior under extreme circumstances over many years.

In his work based on interviews in “The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide,”  Lifton shows that the vast majority of people are not innately evil and cruel. What happens to create a situation like the Nazi genocide is that a culture develops in which a group or groups of people are portrayed as lacking “ordinary human qualities.”

In other words, certain groups of human beings are robbed of their basic human dignity and made into just things, inanimate things that can be safely discarded, thrown back on to their devastated shores with no worries about how they will survive.

You know. They’re “bad people” so we don’t have to care.

So here’s what happens: your conscience gets skewed. When I was in Berlin, I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Over 2,000 concrete slabs of different sizes and angles, along with a sloping and twisting path create a sense of disorientation. I realized this is what the memorial was teaching. Your perspective can become so skewed you can no longer see clearly up and down or right and left, and then, the message is, right and wrong. That’s how mass atrocities can happen and people don’t protest until it’s too late.

Look, turning away suffering refugees, either putting them in stifling camps with no adequate facilities, or sending them back to devastation and deprivation, is wrong.

It’s just wrong. That is a moral constant, throughout the ages.

Another way to judge here is “would you like to be treated that way?” “No” is the obvious answer.

Instead, let’s revive the “Golden Rule,” shall we?  This is the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” way of guiding your moral choices. This ethic is found in virtually every religion and humanist philosophy around the world and has been, over millennia.

In other words, hold on to your morality.

History has already demonstrated what happens when we stifle our consciences and look the other way.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is President and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary. She and her husband now make their home in the Vail Valley.

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