The news of the bombings in Brussels brought me back to a morning in 1992. I was driving to work and listening to the news. A reporter in Bosnia was giving an update on the siege of Sarajevo. The confusing ethic–religious war had been dominating the news for months. This morning the reporter told listeners that the roaring of the lions at the Sarajevo Zoo, which had been heard for days amid the gunfire, had stopped. Although no one—I guess he meant no reporter—had gone to check, it was assumed that all the animals had starved. That morning I turned the radio off, and for a long time I closed out news of the Bosnian War.
It was not that I cared more about the suffering of animals than that of people. It was the spillover of human violence—humanity’s violence—to captured, caged animals, so-called amoral beasts, that I could not abide. It was the utter, senseless cruelty about which I didn’t want to hear. It was the pain and suffering I could not bring myself to share.
I once heard about a study of Dutch individuals who had helped Jews escape Nazi Germany. The researchers found that what these people shared was not some moral or social–political conviction but a high degree of empathy. Conversely, when empathy is lacking, we see others as not like us, and with that view can begin to suspend the moral rules by which we regard ourselves and those like us. One cannot enforce empathy, but one can arouse distrust and fear to negate it.
Since Brussels there have been bombings in Lahore and Baghdad. I know these bombings will not stop in my lifetime. Again and still, here we are, humanity dividing itself into us versus them, committing atrocities in some perverse suspension of moral conduct. Over and over again we prove our inhumanity. Sons and daughters suffer for it, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and relations, good people and not-so-good people, and wildlife and animals in zoos.