We all know we’re going to die. We understand that fact intellectually, but few of us have what Heidegger called an “authentic being towards death.” For most of us that only comes, if at all, when we come face to face with it – when our death is imminent. Sometimes we get a momentary sense of it when someone close to us dies, especially if that death is unexpected, or if we witness a death.
Yet, despite our own “inauthentic being towards death,” we still understand and respect the experience of those who are dying (or have died). Similarly, most of us have never been captured and tortured, but we can respect the experience of those who have.
Unless you work in the White House.
We all know about Trump’s multiple financial bankruptcies. Moreover, we’ve grown so familiar with his moral and ethical bankruptcy, which dominates the news cycle daily, that it’s become mundane.
But it’s Trump's (and perhaps much of his administration's) utter empathic bankruptcy that has been on full display this week.
Earlier this week, John McCain expressed his opposition to Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA director after hearing her answers to Senate questions on torture – leading Kelly Sadler, a senior Trump aide, to quip “it doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”
Sadler, whose focus is messaging on "illegal immigration" (of course it is), remains on staff. Recall that Rex Tillerson was, if we’re being honest, fired in large part for calling Trump “a fucking moron,” a far less reprehensible remark than Sadler’s.
As of the time of this writing, there has been no public apology from Sarah Sanders, John Kelly, or anyone else at the White House, let alone Trump himself. Nor have there been any denials.
Later, Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a FOX News military analyst, claimed that McCain caved under torture and gave the enemy information during his five years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. “Songbird John,” he called him. This was intended partly to defame McCain and partly to serve as false proof that “torture works.” FOX condemned the long-debunked story and parted ways with McInerney.
In fact, not only did McCain not cave, he refused to be released before his fellow-prisoners, leading to years of confinement and torture – but his code of honor superseded his self-interest.
We all remember Trump’s remarks about McCain during the Presidential primary campaign: “Heroes don’t get captured… I like people who weren’t captured.” That’s because Trump has no honor, only self-interest.
And speaking of hostages, three men who had been held in captivity in North Korea for one to three years were greeted by Trump at Andrews and had to stand next to him at 3 a.m. on Thursday while the President talked about TV ratings.
During a refuel in Alaska, one of the men had asked if he could step off the plane for a moment because he had not seen the sun in so long – but, yeah, ratings – that’s what matters.
Trump's total lack of empathy (we could call this “apathy” in the technical sense of lacking a capacity for pathos…) may not be his most dangerous deficit, but it is the most vile and disturbing. It’s the only one of his many bankruptcies that is still a shock to the system when we see it. We have become inured to his constant lies, his farcical corruption, and his blatant incompetence. But we can’t seem to harden ourselves to his utter inability to understand that other people exist, that they are real and not just avatars in his virtual reality. The reason we can’t get used to it is because we’re human.
My grandpa, a construction worker and Pentecostal preacher, had a particular soft spot for the rabbits in our yard. I never knew why he was so protective of them. Years after his death, I finally heard the story: when my mom and aunt were still young, my grandpa went out hunting with his brothers and shot a rabbit. It didn’t die quickly, but rather stumbled toward him, finally landing on his shoe. At that moment, the story goes, God caused him to feel everything the rabbit was feeling as it died – not just the pain, but the fear, the confusion, the dread. He sold his guns and never went hunting again.
Most of us are never granted such a dramatic epiphany. Nevertheless, we have some sense of the gravity of suffering and death.
But Trump… well, I'll give Joe Biden the last word on this one:
“People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration. It happened yesterday.”