A Call for Universal Empathy: We Are “The Other”

Here’s my latest essay for University World News. Below is an unedited version, including quotes that do not appear in the published version.

Image: iStock

While I was deeply gratified and moved to see the outpouring of support for Ukraine and its people on various social media channels in response to the Russian invasion, I realize how selective it is within the US, knowing that its government has followed the exact same bloodstained path on numerous occasions without the same response.

In a sense, Russia is taking a page out of the US foreign policy playbook, which is replete with acts of subversion, destabilization, invasion, occupation, war, etc., all with the goal of regime change in countries that are perceived to be threats to US “national interests”.

How many institutional statements and memes do you recall seeing after the US launched its invasion of Iraq, a sovereign nation like Ukraine, on March 19, 2003, followed by military occupation, hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries, mental and emotional trauma beyond measure, the displacement of millions, and the destruction of wide swaths of Iraqi society, documented by Brown University’s Watson Institute, among others?

Most US Americans were caught up in a frenzy of nationalism jumpstarted by the 9/11 attacks. While many individuals in academia did speak out, wrote articles, and joined demonstrations, higher education institutions and international education organizations generally held their collective tongue.

Professional Association and Institutional Statements

Not surprisingly, NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Institute of International Education (IIE) were quick to respond, as was the Fulbright Association. I agree wholeheartedly with all of the Stand with Ukraine statements. So, what’s the beef? The fact that I don’t recall seeing many similar statements after the “shock and awe” US invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. This selective outrage and empathy are the height of hypocrisy.

Ironically, this ad appeared below the headline for my article. Once you read the article, you’ll understand the irony.

 On behalf of NAFSA, Esther D. Brimmer, executive director and CEO, wrote in her statement “NAFSA Stands with Ukraine,” We share the world’s outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and feel deeply for all who are caught in the crossfire and those with ties to the region. This is a shameful act of aggression, and our thoughts are with all who will be forced to bear the cost of this war with their lives and livelihoods.

This violence is in direct opposition to what NAFSA stands for: a peaceful, just, and globally connected world, and the improvement of democratic institutions. We will continue to advocate for affected international students and scholars, and we affirm the importance of international education as a force to foster understanding and respect among people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Where was the organization’s outrage at the “shameful act of aggression” that was the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003? That was the year it invited a senior US State Department official, a neocon and former international educator, no less, to speak at its annual conference. In his plenary address he proclaimed, to the disbelief and anger of many in attendance, that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country,” an expression of nationalism in defense of the Iraq war.

In a much leaner Statement on the Crisis in Ukraine IIE shared that, We are saddened to witness the violence occurring across Ukraine and join the world in mourning those affected, and took the opportunity to promote its mission, partnerships, and programs. The likely reason for its muted response in which a war becomes a “crisis” is the fact that IIE has offices in Kyiv and Moscow. (Note: IIE subsequently changed “crisis” to “war”; the original word remains in the URL.)

Why wasn’t IIE “saddened to witness the violence” and why did it not “join the world in mourning those affected” after past US military actions, including Iraq in 2003? One reason can best be summed up by the German idiom, “Whose bread I eat, his song I sing”. IIE receives 73% of its sponsored program revenues from US government agencies, including the State Department for its administration of the Fulbright program.

In the days following the Russian invasion, I also received an email Fulbrighters Standing with Ukraine, sent by the Fulbright Association to US program alumni, noting that We share your dismay with the return of warfare to the European continent, breaking 75 years of peace. These are the same 75 years of the Fulbright Program, launched by Senator Fulbright to be an enduring force for peace through understanding. The tragic and violent attack on Ukraine is a moment of action, and a moment of reflection.

As a community, we condemn the attack on the Ukrainian people, and we deplore the loss of life and wanton destruction. We agree with President Jimmy Carter, another Fulbright Prize Laureate, who said today that the US and its allies “must stand with the people of Ukraine in support of their right to peace, security, and self-determination.”

When did the Fulbright Association “deplore the loss of life and wanton destruction” caused by the US in its many foreign misadventures?

In NAFSA’s case, the unwillingness to criticize the US government for its international transgressions, which run the gamut from murder, physical and psychological injury, displacement, and the destruction of infrastructure, is the sad yet predictable result of “relationship” in the spirit of “don’t poke the (US State Department) bear”. Apparently, official US is given a pass when it undertakes actions that are anathema to the “peaceful, just, and globally connected world” of which Dr. Brimmer spoke.

In addition to Stand with Ukraine statements issued by organizations, a long list of US colleges and universities followed suit. Passionate, eloquent, and righteous statements from US university and college presidents were released by institutions as varied as Columbia University, Earlham College, Keene State College, the School for International Training (SIT), the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Washington.

Where were US higher education institutions 19 years ago and on other occasions when history repeated itself?

Condemn War Everywhere

The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.

-Thomas Paine

As one international education colleague exclaimed on LinkedIn, “Ukraine isn’t the only country besieged by bombs. I can only hope that international education organizations, etc., make similar condemnations against the other attacks on sovereign nations.” He shared a meme that listed airstrikes in the previous 48 hours, including an Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, and a US airstrike in Somalia. The message was “condemn war everywhere”. You can add your own examples, including the never-ending brutalization of Palestinians at the hands, clubs, and rifles of Israeli soldiers – with indirect US support. 

Another reason for this double standard that is not spoken of in “polite company” – with a nod to George Orwell – is that it is primarily white, Christian folks who are on the receiving end of state-sponsored violence this time. David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, in a BBC interview clip that was widely Tweeted and universally excoriated, said, “I am sorry it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed and children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles.”

Rana Jarhum, a Yemeni human rights activist, offered this perspective: “For a decade now I’ve seen my family displaced, my city bombed, Yemen wrecked, Syria wrecked, Afghanistan wrecked, people who look like me die in the Mediterranian routinely. Whoever made it to safe countries feels unwelcome, as if we came to sit on their stomachs and eat their food. Yemenis who applied for asylum in the US have been waiting for their refugee status for years. They are still waiting…”

Embracing “the Other”

When there is an ‘other,’ there is an Auschwitz, a caste of people we will not touch, a ravaged and raped woman, a clear-cut forest, an abused and abandoned child, a man behind bars medicated out of his mind and heart, a rundown village of old women whose men have all died in war, a young man from Russia with fear and hate in his eyes and a gun in his hand prowling down a street in Kyiv. Joan Halifax

As I wrote in a July 2021 essay Global citizenship is about more than intercultural skills, “Global citizenship is the notion that one’s identity transcends national borders and that national interests must not supersede global interests, especially if the former are damaging to the latter.

While we all carry a national passport out of necessity, ‘the world is our country’. We are all citizens of Planet Earth and members of humanity, regardless of our nationality. Our well-being forms an unbreakable bond with that of our fellow human beings and the natural world. It is the ultimate expression of inclusion that has many positive implications for peace, justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability.”

This way of viewing the world and acting accordingly is equally applicable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US invasion of Iraq, and many other examples, past and present, of state-sponsored violence. Educational institutions that pay lip service to global citizenship should walk the walk in both their statements and actions.

What we truly need, what the world desperately needs, is universal empathy, caring, concern, and compassion based on our shared humanity, not selective outrage and empathy reserved for people who are like “us” to the exclusion of “the other”.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

9 thoughts on “A Call for Universal Empathy: We Are “The Other”

  1. Well, a quick look at Media Lens might assist:

    The American population was bombarded the way the Iraqi population was bombarded. It was a war against us, a war of lies and disinformation and omission of history. That kind of war, overwhelming and devastating, waged here in the US while the Gulf War was waged over there.’ ((Howard Zinn, ‘Power, History and Warfare’, Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, No. 8, 1991, p. 12.))

    What a strange feeling it was to know that the cruise missile shown descending towards an airport and erupting in a ball of flame was not fired by US or British forces.

    Millions of Westerners raised to admire the ultimate spectacle of high-tech, robotic power, must have quickly suppressed their awe at the shock – this was Russia’s war of aggression, not ‘ours’. This was not an approved orgy of destruction and emphatically not to be celebrated.

    Rewind to April 2017: over video footage of Trump’s cruise missiles launching at targets in Syria in response to completely unproven claims that Syria had just used chemical weapons, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams felt a song coming on:

    ‘We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean – I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons” – and they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight…’

    TV and newspaper editors feel the same way. Every time US-UK-NATO launches a war of aggression on Iraq, Libya, Syria – whoever, wherever – our TV screens and front pages fill with ‘beautiful pictures’ of missiles blazing in pure white light from ships. This is ‘Shock And Awe’ – we even imagine our victims ‘awed’ by our power.

    In 1991, the ‘white heat’ of our robotic weaponry was ‘beautiful’ because it meant that ‘we’ were so sophisticated, so civilised, so compassionate, that only Saddam’s palaces and government buildings were being ‘surgically’ removed, not human beings. This was keyhole killing. The BBC’s national treasure, David Dimbleby, basked in the glory on live TV:

    ‘Isn’t it in fact true that America, by dint of the very accuracy of the weapons we’ve seen, is the only potential world policeman?’1

    Might makes right! This seemed real to Dimbleby, as it did to many people. In fact, it was fake news. Under the 88,500 tons of bombs that followed the launch of the air campaign on January 17, 1991, and the ground attack that followed, 150,000 Iraqi troops and 50,000 civilians were killed. Just 7 per cent of the ordnance consisted of so called ‘smart bombs’.

    By contrast, the morning after Russia launched its war of aggression on Ukraine, front pages were covered, not in tech, but in the blood of wounded civilians and the rubble of wrecked civilian buildings. A BBC media review explained:

    ‘A number of front pages feature a picture of a Ukrainian woman – a teacher named Helena – with blood on her face and bandages around her head after a block of flats was hit in a Russian airstrike.

    ‘“Her blood on his hands” says the Daily Mirror; the Sun chooses the same headline.’

    ‘Our’ wars are not greeted by such headlines, nor by BBC headlines of this kind:

    ‘In pictures: Destruction and fear as war hits Ukraine’

    The fear and destruction ‘we’ cause are not ‘our’ focus.

    Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook noted:

    ‘Wow! Radical change of policy at BBC News at Ten. It excitedly reports young women – the resistance – making improvised bombs against Russia’s advance. Presumably Palestinians resisting Israel can now expect similar celebratory coverage from BBC reporters’.


  2. Very nice article, Mark.

    One might go a bit further and say that if we are all global citizens, there should be no borders between countries and that people should be free to travel and live wherever they wish.

  3. It was inevitable that when brown-skinned Afghan refugees fleeing war were turned away from European borders over the past few years, the callous actions of these governments would come back to haunt them. A whopping 1 million people have fled Ukraine from Russia’s violent invasion in the span of only a week. They are being welcomed—as refugees should be—into neighboring nations, inviting accusations of racist double standards. https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/03/08/why-dont-we-treat-all-refugees-as-though-they-were-ukrainian/

  4. Some people who are normally peaceniks have come out of the woodwork and are suddenly pro-war. They say there is no comparison between the US invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Implicit is the notion that the latter is justified. To use one of my favorite US Southern expressions, “That dog don’t hunt.” Sorry, guys (and it is all guys), no justification for an elective war and the death, injury, and displacement of millions of innocents, plus the destruction of physical infrastructure.

    It goes to show you how few people are consistent in their thinking and actions. The German term “konsequent” comes to mind.


  5. Mentioned by Pouneh Eftekhari in her 9 April 2022 article, “Is boycotting Russian universities the right thing to do?”

    The West is in shock, and for good reason. It is not often that we witness such events in the Global North. On 5 March 2022, Mark A Ashwill addressed the initial reaction to the invasion when he wrote about the need for empathy during these complex times. He also highlighted the hypocrisy of the West given we did not see a similar response to other invasions, including the decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel and the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s