DANIEL VAUGHAN: Post-pandemic life reveals a lack of empathy in the world

Sometimes you read a news article, and you hope that you’re reading a sick parody and not something real.

Australia is in the middle of one of the most draconian lockdowns in a country with western values. The military is patrolling the streets, hundreds are being arrested in protests, with fines and jail time prevalent. But the story that sums up how broken this policy line is: One city purposely shot and killed rescue dogs to prevent employees from going to a shelter, the Washington Examiner reported. 

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 is a global pandemic. I’ve worried at various points whether or not the pandemic was fundamentally reshaping human character and relationships. Up until now, I’ve been uncertain about that, and now, I’m less so. We’re no longer as empathetic as we once were.

It should go without saying that if you’re gunning down innocent pets who pose no medical or public policy risks in a society, you’ve lost a grasp of what the point of pandemic controls are supposed to do. The aim is to protect human life and preserve humanity.

Pandemics can pose systemic risks to governments and culture, but the response can become equally as dangerous. That’s where we are now.

I’ve been struck the last few weeks watching the disastrous troop pullout in Afghanistan, stories like the one referenced about dogs in Australia, and then debates in the United States over childhood development and masking mandates.

At what point do new ideologies start overrunning traditional notions of caring for human beings?

Take Afghanistan. So far, the Biden administration has hammered its talking points of leaving Afghanistan relentlessly. They do this because they cannot face questions about how they’ve left Americans and Afghans trapped there and scared for their lives. The political stance of leaving Afghanistan, which is one debate, has led to a disaster in which tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans are in danger.

For the first two weeks of this crisis, it was hard to tell if President Biden was aware of or even cared for the people who were left behind. Indeed, this has been something happening on the left at large. Caitlin Flanagan, a staff writer at The Atlantic, penned a piece titled, “The Week the Left Stopped Caring About Human Rights.”

Peter Wehner, also at The Atlantic, accused Biden more specifically, saying, “Biden’s foreign-policy record has one other through line: the betrayal of people who have sided with the United States against its enemies and who, in the aftermath of American withdrawal, face a future of oppression, brutality, and death. And these betrayals of people in foreign lands seem to leave Biden unmoved.”

But while that may be true with Biden, it certainly doesn’t explain things like shooting dogs. It’s not just Biden. There’s a lack of empathy everywhere, whether it’s a person dying from COVID-19 or someone being brutally beaten by a Taliban terrorist.

Psychologist Steven Taylor told a story about being at a party with friends. Naturally, the talk turned to Afghanistan, and “Someone mentioned the sickening footage of desperate Afghans clinging to American military aircraft as they departed. Then one man made a remark that caught Taylor off guard: The videos, he said, were funny. Others agreed.” Taylor went on:

Taylor was appalled. It was one of the most disturbing things he’d heard all week. Worse, he doesn’t think it was an isolated instance of casual sadism. Taylor studies disaster psychology at the University of British Columbia, and he knows how intense, sustained stress can desensitize the mind. What most concerned him about the incident was what it suggested about the pandemic’s effects on our experience of other disasters and, more broadly, our ability—or inability—to empathize.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we’ve lost a lot of empathy at the moment. And we’ve lost it because we’ve spent five years under an ever-increasing volatile mix of pandemics and political disasters.

For five years, and it may continue soon, the news has focused on the Trump administration, racial flair-ups over police shootings, more than 600,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, and the weekly fear-mongering over new variants.

Now with Afghanistan, when people are being brutalized, everyone, from the President on down, is showing a shocking lack of empathy when it matters most.

And that lack of empathy leads to people thinking that shooting dogs is a rational decision to protect the world from COVID-19. That lack of empathy could also explain why the United States government doesn’t seem to care that US citizens could be taken as hostages at any moment by the Taliban or other terrorist groups.

We’ve lost something in the last few years. The pandemic has heightened what we’ve lost by amplifying that pressure. And in a moment when having empathy and understanding that lives are at stake matters the most, we’re curiously unaware and uncaring.

That’s something we need to reverse.