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Expanding empathy in the wake of Sandy Hook

Posted Dec. 29, 2012, at 1:10 p.m.

Out of the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the debate over gun control has awakened once more. Although arguments over gun control legislation are worthy of our time, we should not limit the dialogue in the wake of these shootings. While they are always horrible and bring about so much suffering, they also bring out what is best in us as human beings, which is empathy and compassion. Knowing that children, some as young as 6 years old, were murdered, evokes not only disbelief and sadness but also solidarity and tenderness. Bearing witness to the suffering of others causes us to expand our sense of self to include others.

What the Newtown shooting offers us, then, besides just a quarrel over gun control, is an opportunity to further develop and expand our empathy and our compassion. The fact that so many of the victims of this shooting were children has clearly awakened these feelings, but why should they be limited to these children and their families and friends? We must take our awareness of the injustice of the senseless murders of children to offer our solidarity to the people of Gaza, Pakistan, Iraq, and to the people the world over who have lost children as a result of U.S. foreign policy.

Many children died last month in the Israeli assault on Gaza, with the Obama administration and many members of Congress offering their full support to the Israeli government, who would not be able to carry out such violence were it not for continuous military, economic and political aid from the U.S. government. The drone strikes, as part of the U.S. global war on terror, have killed at least 176 children in Pakistan since 2004, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. More than half a million children died in Iraq as a result of the U.S.-led economic sanctions, and countless more died as a direct result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These are just a minute fraction of the atrocities that have been carried out by our government, the unnecessary deaths of innocent children the price to pay for the political and economic interests of those in power — or, if you believe their rhetoric, it is the price to pay for “our freedom.”

The point is not to trivialize the Newtown community and to insist that their grief is not important when in comparison to the many other tragic deaths that have happened. The point is to grow from suffering, from the unity we feel in loss, and recognize that this feeling of loss is shared with people beyond our borders. They are not some “others” unworthy of our affection and our solidarity. The people of Pakistan, Iraq, Gaza and elsewhere are human beings who do not deserve the indignity of a life plagued by terror from our military and government.

I think we are often at a loss of what to do when we hear of these deaths abroad, unable to see how we could prevent them. But since so many of these deaths have been caused by our own government, we do have the power to prevent them. Too often we feel powerless in the face of the powerful military and political establishment. But when we unite across borders, across races and classes, when we do not let those in power divide us among these superficial barriers, then we can make change and make this world a safer and happier place in which to live.

Working to create a society based more upon the principles of empathy and compassion, on love and trust, on sharing and generosity — this is what will provide us with real security and the prevention of future violence, both within and outside our borders.

In Karachi, Pakistan, children recently gathered to hold a candlelight vigil in support of the victims of Sandy Hook. A sign they held read: “Connecticut School Killing: We feel your pain as you would feel our pain.” For a more peaceful and just world, let us feel their pain and make their words ring true.

Eric Collins, of Orono, has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Maine and will attend graduate school there to study secondary education. He is a member of the Maine Peace Action Committee, a student organization at the university, and Voices for Peace, a community chorus that sings about peace and justice.

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