Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
I was upset that no one seemed to be talking about it.
Each time I’d check online another couple of hundred would be added to the death toll, but my social media feed instead blabbed on about the Grammys, the latest Reddit AITA stream or popular TED Talk and other completely inconsequential nonsense.
How could people talk about dresses and backdrops when thousands were dead and more dying? Was everyone else just callous? Or was I being over sensitive?
The issue, of course, is that in our super-interconnected news driven world, there is always a catastrophe, a natural disaster or refugee producing war or economic crisis….on top of the usual ‘noise’ we are fed on the news and via social media, it can be hard to be concerned about everything.
So why care about this one? What makes yesterday’s earthquake in Turkey so heartbreaking?
We tell ourselves (and each other) that every human life lost is upsetting... but this isn’t really true, is it?
There are 170,775 people who give up the ghost every day, nearly 34 times the current Kahramanmaras earthquake’s total number; that’s 7,115 deaths per hour, 110 per minute, 2 per second... We aren't constantly mourning, as we aren’t perpetually celebrating the 440,405 births per day either.
Perhaps it is the manner and size of death; the realization that just so many people are suffering. It is unexpected, sudden and terrible. Personally, I still have nightmares of falling buildings from my time living in Taipei and Mexico City. It’s certainly more tragic than naturally passing away along with family and friends at your bedside.
But then again, there’s certainly nothing unnatural about yesterday’s event either.
Earthquakes and natural disasters have always happened, whether it was the toppling of the Colossus of Rhodes, the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the burying of Pompeii or the ending of the Bronze Age in the Theran eruption, the effects have always been devastating and history changing.
Turkey in particular has a long and tragic tale with earth’s tectonic plates, stretching back to ancient times, often with the same disastrous results.
Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, and the Greek historians Strabo and Eusebius all recorded the AD 17 Lydia earthquake, which caused the destruction of at least twelve cities in the Roman province of Lydia. Indeed, Pliny called it "the greatest earthquake in human memory.” Consequently, the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, agreed to waive all taxes due from Sardis and the other cities for a period of five years after the earthquake and sent ten million sesterces and appointed Marcus Ateius, an ex-Praetor, to assess their needs. Certainly a side of Tiberius we rarely see...
The 115 Antioch earthquake was hugely devastating, triggering a local tsunami that badly damaged the harbor at Caesarea Maritima. Cassio Dio describes it in his Roman Histories, telling of the large numbers of people who were killed by falling debris, while many others were trapped. The aftershocks that followed the earthquake for several days killed some of the survivors, while others that were trapped died of hunger. Amazingly, the Roman Emperor Trajan was caught in the earthquake, as was his successor Hadrian, though Trajan managed to get clear of the house he was staying in by leaving through a window and only suffered minor injuries.
So clearly this sort of devastation is nothing new.
A major difference, perhaps, between now and then was that the ancients would have considered an event this size as a sort of apocalypse, the end of days. A catastrophe that affects such a large region, it would have been hard to fully appreciate the magnitude of destruction.
Nowadays, however, when confronted with deaths in the thousands... tens of thousands... hundreds of thousands, we almost react in the opposite manner. The sheer size of the disaster can desensitize even the most ardent of caring individuals. Perhaps our human nature is simply unable to comprehend events of this magnitude?
But there’s more. As heartbreaking as the devastation is… it’s also deeply unfair. Disasters like this - one that you might see as an unthinking equalizer - don’t affect all nations the same. In ancient times emperors and slaves would fear falling buildings alike, but nowadays it’s the poor countries with their insufficient infrastructure and crowded living quarters that crumble when others stand.
Californians don’t live in the same fear as Indonesians, and even the great 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, while absolutely horrific for the subsequent tsunami and nuclear breakdown, was still a testimony to the ingenuity and technology that a developed country can employ against the shaking of the very earth beneath their feet.
In war torn places like Syria or impoverished lands like Haiti, where the situation was already dire, poor construction is just the first problem. The following breakdown and inevitable disease only add to the misery.
So where does that leave us? We spend our days saying we should consider the good, to discuss virtue and live according to ethics and morals. What can we do when tragedy strikes on the other side of the planet?
Can we care about each and every episode? And how can we maintain our concern and empathy, without burning out?
As always, you can write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reply to this email.
I’ll post your responses next week. In the meantime, read on for a wide diversity of responses regarding the need - and the need to discuss the role of - police, below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Reader Mailbag: Do We Need the Police?
It feels like something is missing when conversations about the modern challenges of policing don't include any mention of race and racial profiling.
Fascinating and thought-provoking, Anya. Thank you.
Susan W in London
Thank you for the factual comments regarding policing in ancient civilizations.
Unfortunately, Paul's prophetic words from Romans, chapter 1 and II Timothy, chapter 3, verses 1-7 revealed that crime and wickedness would proliferate from the age of Rome until now. I don't think that anyone could successfully debate that he was in error. The policing crisis in the US has reached a zenith, from which the status quo may never return. I suggest that many of the issues of violence can be mitigated with improved training and implementation of:
1) hiring requirements for a more incomplete education, a minimum of an AD in criminal justice and/or human psychology, reimbursed in increments over a five-year period; rewarded with a much higher minimum income
2) discovering and mitigating internal anger and frustration gathered in the home, school or community; a properly designed, six-week program covering internalized emotion and internal restoration
3) the strict requirement for more repeated, live, rehearsed, training in suspect resistance and/or flight with professional analysis of proper identification threat level, the level of physical force used, evaluation and instruction of alternative measures used that might have minimized the use of physical force
4) training in the rudiments of logic, as to making a timely analysis of the possible results from allowing a suspect or suspects to flee the scene, including video equipment to ensure future arrest, if deemed appropriate
5) a team of well-staffed, chaplains, available 24-7, compensated outside of the law enforcement apparatus, to care for, understand and minister to stressed, discouraged, tired, frustrated police officers and their families
6) reinstatement of aggressive bail, speedy trial, and minimum sentencing mandates, so police officers can see that their efforts are contributing to the peace and safety in the neighborhoods in which they live
7) a vast increase of emphasis and funding for police athletic leagues, and other activities that allow our youth to see police officers as friends, mentors, role models and contributing members of the community
Fred S, Ph.D.
Yes, we need them but we cannot expect the people who are police to have grown up watching Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. We will not always get police who are tolerant and liberal, though it would be good to be such. Many police are wonderful people and many are the old bullies of high school, but basically, and throughout history, the police are thugs, like the Medieval Knights. They are thugs in our favor as they were for the Feudal Lord and his serfs. The taxpayers, renters, property owners need protection, and this is not happening, especially here in San Francisco. Many of the police leave because they do not want to be put in jail themselves, and, yes, there needs to be surveillance of the police, but we cannot expect them to have grown up on Public Television.
Herman, H --San Francisco
Police have become law enforcement. Just listen and read. Whose law and to whose benefit? Not the citizens, much less the people who are defenseless victims. The local Home Depot had a robbery by three black teens. They left the store with some cash proceeds from one register of less than $1000 dollars. The city police, county Mounties, a neighboring city police, and state police all chased them at high speed until the fugitives' car crashed and killed one of the robbers. Hundreds were put in peril. If this was a local doughnut shop, an obligatory police report would have been filed, the next day. Why this disproportionate response? The answer is sales tax revenue and protecting the Depot’s golden goose laying the sales tax eggs. Police then become enforcement of revenue on behalf of the state and little more.
Citizens become chattel for the government to use as they see fit in this arrangement. The rich and elite do not have any consequences for any laws violated. Armed citizens acting together is a requirement for greater safety. Over time, these aggrieved armed groups become the source of the next revolution. Or the chattel become pure slaves, which I believe will happen globally soon. The government global lockdown is simply the first beta test and law enforcement will be just like the German SS.
Besides the politia there was and is the militia. I don't refer to the popular and erroneous notion of the militia being a standing army, but to the original meaning of militia: us. In ancient Hebrew it was simply the people. The people provide justice for themselves, manage the courts--common law, of course!--arm and maintain an organized militia which is a sort of combination of fire brigade, emergency support and armed protection whenever necessary.
There is an uncomfortable statistic--uncomfortable for wannabe dictators, that is--that clearly shows that wherever a local ordinance is passed obliging every family to have a weapon in the home, crime disappears. Being essentially lazy cowards, bad guys breaking into homes don't want to risk their necks for a couple of bucks when there's a good possibility of leaving the premises in a body bag. They move to the town next door that does not have an armed populace.
The militia also organizes emergency operations like communication chains when telephone service goes down due to inclement weather or natural disasters.
The militia is not a permanent armed presence; it is simply the people who offer mutual assistance in any way they can. Those who don't wish to carry arms or are lousy shots help with administration and coordination--whenever and whatever is necessary.
A good modern example is the Swiss model which is in fact serving as the template for the revived militias taking form all over the United States of America. Why are there no wars in Switzerland? Because every household is armed to the teeth and able-bodied adult males are obliged to offer armed service up to the age of 65. Is it necessary? Not very often. But as the Boy Scouts ever remind us: be prepared.
The 50 states are now fully in session and the American people are organizing their legitimate government and taking care of business, including common law courts and the militia. Not only here but also in Italy, Ireland, Australia, Germany and elsewhere.
When the people base their social organization on the two main precepts of a common law society--do no harm, maintain the peace--there is no need for a permanent police force. And the community protects itself.
Keep up the good work!
Yes Anya, we need police, specifically ones who put the public local interest at the forefront.
Police should be community-minded, preferably locals, well acquainted with the area and demographics they patrol. They must always act according to the public interest, rather than private interests, power or profit, for this distinguishes genuine law enforcers from thugs or mercenaries. The code they enforce must not only be just, but their behavior, reputation and relationship to the citizens they patrol must be one of mutual reciprocity, so that their monopoly on force is perceived as necessary and justified. The only people frightened of the police should be those whose actions are a threat to the safety of the public.
In some areas of America, there is clearly a lack of clear reciprocity and breakdown of trust between police and citizens, leading to animosity, suspicion and extremist ideas. Contrastingly in Sydney where I live, most members of the public feel a sensible, obligatory gratitude to the police whenever they are around- and in turn the police feel no need to make their authority forcefully felt- so the anarchic sentiment that seems to prevail in some American cities is despised and ignored. Being police will always be a dangerous, courageous job, but officers should not have to fear their fellow citizens, nor should citizens fear the law, such relationships are mutually reinforcing. In short, good communities will be those that are better policed, raising moral citizens who have trust in their protectors, who were raised alongside them.
You have phrased the question avoiding the key issues.
No one is deserting their sworn duties and responsibilities. You have failed to provide all the facts concerning the “declining” number of officers in particular localities, and the valid reason for movement away from these areas to seek new police jobs.
You have chosen a narrow and prejudicial phrasing of the issue.
You should have asked “How can we save our law enforcement community from organized, malicious assault designed to undermine the very fabric of society, and the protection of its citizens, from violence and assault?”
Very, very sad to see you pose such a bankrupt, ludicrous proposition.
I need reply with but one name:
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How much can we care? My personal perspective is that my resources - time, money, attention, and even caring - are limited. I live in Ecuador where we are coming up on the 7th anniversary of a 7.8 earthquake along the coast. I remember helping to gather donation of bottled water, food, etc., to send to the affected areas, but more specifically, I recall a family that was living in that area that arrived here in Cuenca with all their possessions and merchandise that they were able to salvage from the rubble that had been their shop. I helped them find a place to live and get established again, and we are still friends.
It seems to me that if we are willing to help, there are always people nearby who are in need, if we are willing. I honor those who go to great lengths to help out in disasters far away, but personally I try to be aware of those around me in need, and what I can do to help them.
"Was everyone else just callous? Or was I being over sensitive?"
Life goes on for those unaffected by tragedy, but emotions can be triggered by a realization and reflection on the scope of a tragedy. The lack of emotion or their lack of a display of caring doesn't make one callous, nor does experiencing an intellectually emotional response mean one is overly sensitive or oversensitive. It is human by nature.
As for "burning out", in essence becoming desensitized, is the by-product of an overload of intellectual and non-intellectual data being played to our emotions. It's how humans take a break from tragic reality.