Matt Miller - The Archives
The Empathy Gap
My syndicated column, September 19, 2001
Thoughts on our national soul the week after 9/11

There's a puzzle amidst our desire for a massive government response to today's crisis that bears scrutiny.

The feds will soon spend perhaps $40 billion, much of it designed to help New York City recover, to ease the plight of families affected by the tragedy, and to stop the airlines from going out of business.

This is as it should be: thanks to circumstances beyond their control, thousands of Americans and a vital industry have seen their lives and fortunes shattered. Our hearts and wallets—expressed collectively via our government—swell in response.

Yet I can't help wondering: why do we so unhesitatingly want government to ease the pain in this event, but not in other situations in which larger numbers of Americans suffer through no fault of their own?

Take two examples. First, ten million urban children languish in failing schools that we know will blight their lives. These kids had nothing to do with creating the system in which they're being "educated." Osama Bin Laden couldn't have hatched a more nefarious scheme to assure them bleak futures.

Second, millions of Americans earn poverty-level wages despite working full-time. Long-term macroeconomic trends favoring those with more schooling and skills have turned the labor market against these workers with a vengeance. The union jobs that once gave less skilled Americans a path to the middle class are gone, leaving many citizens unable to support their families even with two jobs.

The reasons for our different responses to these situations may seem obvious to you, but they're not to me. At the very least, I'm convinced its important to try and articulate them.

Start with what's different. New Yorkers and the airline industry paid a huge price simply because they were American, and thus targeted for attack. We have an obligation to aid fellow citizens who are victimized because of our shared nationality. What's more, the airline industry is essential to the economy. The risk to a transport system that benefits all of us cannot be tolerated.

All this is true, I know, but it doesn't seem to me to fully account for why we instinctively urge massive government action in the face of today's misfortune, while remaining basically indifferent to the other misfortunes I've mentioned.

No, the answer has to involve some of the following: (1) most of us think that when it comes to poor children or unskilled workers, the "victims" themselves could and thus should have improved their situation by behaving differently; (2) we're less sure how to "fix" these problems in any event; and (3) the poor child and poor worker dilemmas present no nationally galvanizing event.

Number three is obviously true as a practical matter, but would any of us defend the notion that the quantity of airtime should make a difference in the quality of our moral response?

As for number two, more money—say, to lure talented young teachers and to fund wage subsidies—is as "sure" a part of the answer as it is for today's victims.

In the end, only number one—the feeling that poor kids and unskilled workers are somehow the authors of their own fates—represents a morally defensible difference. Yet I'm convinced that if enough of us were forced to think hard about this premise, we'd conclude that these people are being buffeted similarly by forces beyond their control.

If I'm right, the source of our different response comes down to an empathy gap. In the terror attacks we all have the sense that, "there but for the grace of God go I." With the slow motion plagues that face poor school kids and workers, we can't muster that empathy—or at least not consistently or intensely enough to do anything serious about it.

Somewhere in this chasm—between our rush to use government to repair today's big crisis, and our reluctance to use it to repair large but less visible ones—lies the seed of a new conception and consensus about American ideals.

If this empathy gap can be articulated and harnessed at the right moment by creative politicians, we might yet put today's remarkable esprit in the service of building a more perfect union once the current crisis passes.

What more enduring rebuke to America's foes could be imagined?