Empathy and Survival in a Time of Plague


Louis Rene Beres

JBN Guest Columnist Louis René Beres, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Purdue, advises America to adopt empathy and openness to the world community in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic and the halt on funding for the WHO. . .

The earth from which the first man was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.” –The Talmud

Amid growing horrors of the Coronavirus, it is easy to forget a very basic human lesson: We are all creatures of biology. By extrapolation, we are all stunningly fragile, closely interrelated and irremediably interdependent. Among other concerns, it will be vital for us to understand that human survival is literally incompatible with the traditional norms of belligerent nationalism.

Significantly, however, US President Donald Trump derived his hugely destructive “America First” posture directly from such time-discredited norms.

Now, what we require most urgently and desperately – both America and the wider world – is a conspicuously broad expansion of human empathy. Though such a commendable ambition to supplant “everyone for himself” national strategies with more durable policies of human compassion will at first appear silly, idealistic or utopian, nothing would be further from the truth. To recall the unlikely but still-illuminating wisdom of Italian film director Federico Fellini, “The visionary is the only realist.”

None of this is really bewildering. To survive as a species, especially at this fearful time of worldwide plague and economic dislocation, all nations should immediately reject the defiling notion that human beings can somehow coexist or progress amid endless competitive struggles. The evidence is incontestable. Historically, policies of “all against all” have never succeeded.


In world politics and law, all this signifies a now overriding obligation to replace the destabilizing ethos of perpetual conflict with one of a more genuine human cooperation. More specifically, in the United States, it means a very tangible responsibility to discard “America First” in absolutely any and all of its pernicious and “realism-based” implications.

Such evident truths notwithstanding, the American president continues to move precariously in opposite directions. Donald Trump’s recent announcement of US funding withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) – a deeply injurious assault on global health cooperation at the worst possible time – expressed de facto derivation from “America First.” In this latest manifestation of US belligerent nationalism, Trump did nothing less than undermine already-diminishing global prospects for overcoming Covid-19. That he was not especially bothered by creating such significant harms is hardly out-of-character. Unleashing on a beleaguered WHO was fully consistent with Trump’s wittingly codified anti-health stance in US domestic politics.

To wit, on April 16, 2020 this “everyone for himself” president urged a weakening of formerly-binding federal regulations regarding mercury and other toxic metals released from oil and coal-fired plants. How could it get much worse?

There is more. Antecedent to any much-needed US policy transformations, the American president himself should seek to display certain recognizable gestures of human empathy and caring. For the moment, however, this remains a tall and implausible order, one that could appear by its very nature to be inconceivable.

Considering Donald Trump’s far-reaching and steadfast expressions of manifest unconcern for human life and dignity generally, America will likely continue with its own markedly dramatic declensions at almost every observable level. With this president’s breathtaking venality (for blatant example, consider Trump’s incessant and contrived references to the Coronavirus as the “China Virus”), expecting any expanded empathy from the White House would seem to be an utterly vain hope. For Americans led by such a crude and unfeeling president, an accelerating downward trajectory seems all but assured.

Yet, even in Trump’s badly beaten-down America, reason and rationality should warrant at least some residual pride of place. Understood in pertinent legal, intellectual or analytic terms, the gratuitous rancor of belligerent US nationalism makes no calculable sense. Indeed, on its face, this corrosive sentiment continuously undermines the most elementary and indispensable wisdom concerning reciprocal human interests and welfare.

Rather than further stiffen its misconceived resolve for scapegoating failed policies of “America First” – together with deliberate falsifications, deflection has already become a key hallmark of the Trump presidency – the United States must change direction.


In essence, America must retreat from President Trump’s refractory postures of blaming others for its multiple ills, preparing instead for incrementally expanding patterns of some more genuine international cooperation. As humans, we remain, after all, virtually identical manifestations of a common organismic inheritance. In the end, we are all creatures of biology.

It’s not complicated. Before we can look forward realistically to some reassuringly long-term national survival, we will first have to acknowledge that we all inhabit a single and indissoluble global habitat. Unmistakably, the alternative Trump vision of securing progress via policies of protracted belligerence can only lead the United States toward cumulative and irreversible catastrophe. Among other things, this would mean an endlessly Darwinian global struggle for existence, a zero-sum world in which tens of millions of Americans would inevitably suffer one form or another of violent death.

Even more palpably, this Trump vision would sustain a consuming and utterly retrograde pattern of conflict, one in which the inherently embittering principles of “America First” would produce additional increments of chaos and, as corollary, a near-perpetual pattern of suffering.

It’s not bewildering. Until now, in virtually every sector of human relations, both national and international, the term “against” has become the operative policy word descending from the White House. In all such fearfully ubiquitous matters, microcosm nurtures the macrocosm. Accordingly, for US President Donald Trump, world politics is conveniently reducible to endless bitter struggles against one prominently despised enemy or another.

In historical context, this reduction reveals a uniquely Trump-version of Mein Kampf, or “My Struggle,” an image that is ipso facto dark and worrisome. Moreover, such grotesquely portentous thinking is not “merely” crude and unjust; it is also analytically/intellectually misconceived and inexcusably foolish.

In coherent summation, such thinking is contrary to all elementary and essential codes of civilized human interactions.

To be sure, there are available much better paths to human coexistence on this fragile and interdependent planet. In order to help rescue America from an expanding configuration of truly mortal dangers – including the dreaded onset of new or additional disease “plagues” – Trump will first need to envision our imperiled planet as a whole. Above all, this insistently defiling American president will somehow need to avoid having to deal piecemeal or ad hoc with the next inevitable eruptions of pandemic, and also of genocide, nuclear war and/or terror. For all such intersecting perils, he should already have in place a suitable theory or science-based plan, one with corresponding law-enforcing components.

Theory is a “net.” Only those who cast, can catch.

There is more. Intellect can inform empathy. By embracing “high-thinking” instead of incoherent rally slogans and vacant banalities, Trump could finally have to acknowledge that American well-being and security are inextricably linked with the much wider “human condition.” In the best of all possible worlds, this expectedly reluctant recognition will take him some additional time; plausibly, far more than is still available. Trump will also need to embrace another even more subtle kind of survival understanding.

This expectation is that desired social and governmental linkages need not necessarily present themselves in readily decipherable terms, whether legal, historical or economic.

Though plausibly fanciful, now is the only suitable moment for Donald Trump and his deluded acolytes to recall the wisdom of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’,’” explains the Jesuit philosopher in The Phenomenon of Man, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

The “high-thinking” Teilhard was right on the mark. At their very deepest levels, genocide, war, and terror are not just the avoidable product of balance-of-power world politics gone awry. Instead, they stem from the usually unbearable apprehensions and persistent loneliness of individual human beings.

There is more. Normally unable to find either meaning or safety outside of certain available group memberships, billions of individuals across the globe still stop at nothing in order to acquire comforting measures of acceptance within a warmly protective “crowd.”

All such crowds, whether encountered at Trump rallies or certain 1930s European mass gatherings, love to chant in unthinking chorus. Viscerally. What is injurious and most notably grotesque about such politically orchestrated mutterings is not just the dissembling content being chanted (this is “normally” incoherent and also often insidious), but the accompanying disappearance of personal empathy and private responsibility.

In one manifestation or another, the dissembling crowd is pretty much ubiquitous in human affairs. Whether constituted as a nation, a social organization, a terrorist band, or some energized political movement, it systematically tempts the “all-too-many” (a favored Nietzschean term in his Zarathustra) with the deceptively false succor of reliable group communion. Always, this ultimately sordid temptation lies at the heart of a mob’s ritually compelling and seemingly incomparable attractions. Typically, though rarely identified or understood, it is the generally frantic human search to belong that most assiduously shapes both national and international affairs.

With “America First,” US President Donald Trump exploits and degrades this ill-fated search.

Unsurprisingly, as the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes concluded about “state of nature” crowds in his Leviathan, mob fears portend a sorely lamentable life, one that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In the eighteenth century, the Founding Fathers of the United States were well-versed in Hobbes, and also with philosophers Locke, Vattel, Grotius, Rousseau and Montesquieu. Now, in 2020, in starkly abysmal contrast, an American president takes abundantly great pride in reading nothing, literally nothing at all.

For the sake of America and the wider world, it is time to situate at least a scintilla of “high thinking” in the White House. The irrepressible human search to belong, to expand a useful term central to Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung’s The Undiscovered Self, represents “the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption.” Jurisprudentially and diplomatically, the most tangible expressions of our incessant human search for rescue in groups can be found in the core legal principles of sovereignty and self-determination.

To be sure, an American president who presently declares that he “alone” has “final authority” over the United States has not an inkling of either history or law. Not only has Trump never read any of the philosophic and legal foundations of the United States, he has never read the US Constitution – not even a cursory glance. How could this once-unimaginable failure be acceptable to millions of American citizens? In part, it is because these many millions place absolutely no value upon learning themselves.

Divided into thousands of hostile tribes, almost two hundred of which are called “nation-states,” too many human beings still find it easy and pleasing to slay “others.” As for any prospectively remediating considerations of empathy, these are reserved largely for those who happen to live within one’s own expressly delineated “tribe.” It follows, and crucially, that some American expansion of empathy to include “outsiders” must be antecedent to any meaningful enhancements of world peace and biological safety.

However unwitting, without such indispensable expansion, the American nation would remain stubbornly and suicidally dedicated to its own incremental debasement and eventual disappearance.

As quickly as possible, understanding this particular wisdom should become a palpable corrective to “America First.” But what must Americans (and also others) actually do to encourage a wider and reciprocal empathy, thereby to foster aptly caring feelings between as well as within “tribes”? These are not easy questions. Still, they are the ones that need to be faced by Americans and (ultimately) by all others.

Already, soberly and ironically, we must concede that the essential expansion of empathy for the many could become dreadful, improving human community, but only at the intolerable cost of private sanity. This imperative concession would stem from the way we humans are “designed” or “hard-wired,” that is, with very particular and largely impermeable boundaries of feeling. Were it otherwise, an extended range of compassion toward all others could bring about each cooperating individual’s own emotional collapse.

A paradox arises. Planning seriously for national and international survival, Americans in particular must first learn to accept an unorthodox sort of understanding. It is that an ever-widening circle of human compassion is indispensable to civilizational survival, but is also a potential source of insufferable private anguish.

How, then, shall international law, human union and American politics now deal with a requirement for global civilization that is both essential and unbearable? Newly informed that empathy for the many is a precondition of a decent world union, what could actually create such an obligatory caring without simultaneously producing intolerable emotional pain? In essence, high-thinkers must duly inquire: How can such a stunningly anti-intellectual and rancorous US president deal correctly with ongoing and still-multiplying expressions of pandemic, war, terrorism, and genocide?

By building walls, or by solidifying wide-ranging and always-needed bonds of human interrelatedness and connectedness?

It’s not a trick question. The answer is perfectly obvious. Correct answers can never be found in banal political speeches and propagandistic programs, especially in the cravenly shallow rhetoric and embarrassingly empty witticisms of Donald Trump. They are discoverable only in a consciously resolute detachment of individuals from lethally competitive “tribes” and from certain other corrosively collective “selves.”

In the final analysis, a more perfect union, both national and international, must lie in some fully determined replacement of “civilization” with what Teilhard de Chardin calls “planetization.”

The whole world, Mr. Trump should promptly acknowledge and without any fear of intelligent contradiction, is a system. Among other things, he must finally understand that the true state of America’s national union can never be any better than the state of the much wider world. In an added measure of reciprocity, he will also need to finally realize that the condition of this wider world must sometimes depend upon what happens inside the United States.

Ideally, in fully acknowledging this plainly misunderstood mutuality, indeed, such a vital human reciprocity, the overarching US presidential objective should seek to enhance the sacred dignity of each and every individual human being. It is precisely this high-minded and peremptory goal that should now give specific policy direction to President Donald Trump.

It will be easy to dismiss any such seemingly lofty recommendation for human dignity as silly, ethereal or fanciful, especially in the bitterly demeaning ambit of Donald Trump. Still, in world politics and diplomacy, there could never be any more harmful American presidential naiveté than continuing to champion the darkly false extremity of “everyone for himself.” Interestingly enough, Trump has already replicated this harmful dynamic in various critical matters of US domestic politics, cheerfully fostering the very same catastrophic war of “all against all” between American states and their increasingly desperate governors.

More than anything else, “America First” is a grievously misconceived presidential mantra, one that makes it exceedingly difficult to combat not only war, terrorism and genocide, but also terrifying disease epidemics. Devoid of empathy, intellect and human understanding, this Trump mantra can only lead the United States toward distressingly new depths of strife, disharmony and collective despair. Individually, Trump’s belligerent nationalism, left unrevised, would point everyone to an insufferable and potentially irreversible vita minima, that is, toward a corrupted personal and global life, one entirely emptied of itself.

By definition, such a shabby life would be meaningless, shattered, patently unfeeling and radically unstable.

There is more. The core inaccessibility of others’ suffering, the relentless privacy of immobilizing human torment, has manifestly wide social and political consequences. For Americans, as for all others, the unique pain experienced by any one human body can never be shared with another. This is the true even if these bodies are closely related by blood, and even if they are tied together by other tangibly specific measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.

Always, psychologically, the distance between one’s own body and the body of another is indeterminably great. In consequence, this distance is impossible to traverse. Always. Whatever else we may have been taught about empathy and compassion, the vital “membranes” separating our individual bodies, one from the other, will always outweigh every conceivably detailed protocol of formal ethical instruction.

It’s not complicated. Only by placing “Humanity First” can US President Donald Trump ever make “America First.” The latter is simply not possible without the former. “The earth from which the first man was made,” instructs the Talmud, “was gathered in all the four corners of the world.” Whatever the difficulties involved, without expanding American empathy in this time of plague, there can be no meaningful long-term survival, for the United States or for the wider and interrelated world.

As the current Covid-19 plague amply reveals, we are all fundamentally creatures of biology.

Louis René Beres was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971), and is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth book, Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy, was published in 2016. His other writings have been published in Harvard National Security Journal; Yale Global Online; World Politics (Princeton); Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Israel Defense; Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College; Special Warfare; Oxford University Press; The Jerusalem Post; Infinity Journal; BESA Perspectives; US News & World Report; The Hill; and The Atlantic.

His Terrorism and Global Security: The Nuclear Threat (Westview, first edition, 1979) was one of the first scholarly books to deal specifically with nuclear

This article was published first in JURIST 

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