David Grossman is an Isreali novelist. Just 2 days after he and fellow novelists called for a ceasefire to halt his country's offensive in Lebanon, his son Uri, a tank commander in the Isreali army, died in the fighting. On Sunday the Observer printed his article Uri, my dear son. It is a beautiful piece of writing.
Uri was known as the lefty of his batallion. Grossman praises his son for sticking to his values even in the heart of the Isreali army. He writes:
'In our crazy, cruel and cynical world, it's not 'cool' to have values, or to be a humanist, or to be truly sensitive to the suffering of the other, even if that other is your enemy on the battlefield.'
The first casualty of war is not the truth: the first casualty of war is empathy for people who are defined as being on the other side of the conflict.
This asymmetry of empathy is encouraged by the way many media outlets report incidents of killing. The reporting gives out strong signals to us as to whether our basic emotional responses such as sympathy, fear and anger should be engaged.
Look out for the following signals in any report of deaths , on either side of any conflict:
- Do we get to hear about the lives of the people who died and the impact on the relatives and friends left behind?
- Do we get the impression that the victims are people like us, or different from us?
- Is the incident reported in a 'matter of fact' manner, or are expressions of shock and outrage added to the report?
- Is the action described as a 'military' action or a 'terrorist' action?
- Do we get the impression that a similar incident could put our lives under threat, or is this the type of thing that only happens to people unlike us?