Our Empathetic President

One night in New York City, a young college student named Seth Barkas was accosted by two teenagers pretending to be panhandlers but actually intent on robbery. Their knives dealt him wounds from which he died a few days later.

The crime and its aftermath hit Seth’s kid sister Janet hard:

If I spoke about my brother’s murder, people recoiled. They didn’t empathize, they didn’t sympathize, they didn’t get angry. They said, “Well, why was he walking down that street?” “What time of night was it?” They acted as if Seth had done something wrong, as if I were doing something wrong to mourn him, to be angry, to be devastated. The relatives or friends who looked for an explanation for my brother’s murder in his behavior victimized our family. The anger that should have been directed at the criminals was mysteriously missing, as though Seth had done something shameful—and, in a way, he had. His murder had proved that crime might touch anyone.

Janet’s experience with the authorities was no better:

I naïvely thought the state would be as concerned about Seth’s murder as I was, and I wondered whether the police would ask for my assistance in the capture and trial of the criminals. But they never called. . . . I called the district attorney’s office, told them I was a sister of the victim, and asked what had happened in his case. . . . I wasn’t given any information or any help, and that baffled me. I also began speaking to those professors who had admired Seth and to his high school and college friends, but no one seemed to care enough about who had stabbed Seth or what had happened to his killers to have pursued the case. . . . What was wrong with all of us that we could let this life be torn from us for no reason?

Janet Barkas, now Jan Yager, worked through her grief by writing a book about it, a study of victims and their survivors that is a classic in its field. The takeaway from the passages quoted here is this: To empathize truly with crime victims, you must be angry, and you must take action.

Don’t be like Karl Menninger, the influential psychiatrist who scoffed at “law and order” like so, just a few months before Seth Barkas died:

“Doesn’t anybody care about the victims?” cry some demagogues, with melodramatic flourishes.  “Why should all this attention be given to the criminals and none to those they have beaten or robbed?” This childish outcry has an appeal for the unthinking.

Don’t be like Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee who refused to show empathy even for his own wife, were she to be raped and murdered as so many American wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters have been raped and murdered.

Don’t be like George H.W. Bush, who let his campaign operatives tie the issue of prison furloughs around Dukakis’s neck—but then, once elected president, did next to nothing about crime, and didn’t even know how to console the victims of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, speaking as if the suffering caused by blind Nature bears any comparison with that caused by human malice:

During one awkward moment Friday—while visiting the hospital bed of a firefighter shot in the face by a rioter—the president tried to commiserate with the firefighter’s wife and wound up talking about his own $3 million storm-wrecked vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“Damn storm knocked down four or five walls,” Bush told Kathi Miller.

Don’t be like Barack Obama, whose effort to console the parents of Americans killed in Benghazi was even more pathetic. Charles Woods, who met Obama when his son Tyrone’s body was being returned to America, described the encounter this way:

When he finally came over to where we were, I could tell that he was rather conflicted, a person who was not at peace with himself. Shaking hands with him, quite frankly, was like shaking hands with a dead fish. His face was pointed towards me but he would not look me in the eye, his eyes were over my shoulder. I could tell that he was not sorry. He had no remorse.

When Obama first ran for president, he was a blank slate on which voters could project whatever they wished. Aspects of his personality soon emerged that many of us would wish we’d noticed more quickly: such as when he called himself a “citizen of the world” and when he told a foreign audience, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In other words, “I believe in American exceptionalism—not!

He was, in short, an International Man of Mystery, but without Austin Powers’ bad teeth and loud clothes. Also, without Austin Powers’ high spirits.

Other than offing Osama bin Laden, perhaps the one good thing Obama did as president was to set the stage for the ineffable and irreplaceable Donald Trump.

Far from being a globalist “citizen of the world,” Trump is an avowed “nationalist.” Anti-Trumpers pounced on that word when he embraced it recently, citing its dark history in Europe and its association with white “identity” politics in America (also known as “white supremacy,” “white separatism,” or “white nationalism”). That critique ignores two things.

First, European nationalism—whether expressed in the consolidation of the several German and Italian principalities into large, imperial-minded nation-states, or in the desire of the older Romanov and Habsburg empires’ subject peoples for some nation-states of their own—has often led to calamitous wars. Not so in America.

Second, in the United States we have succeeded in forging a unified nation out of a population that has always been multiracial and multiethnic. In America, therefore, “white nationalism” is an oxymoron—a diminution, not an expansion, of American greatness. It’s the very reverse of our national motto, e pluribus unum—which, as Al Gore should have understood from the start, does not mean “Out of one, many.” White nationalism in truth has more in common with left-wing multiculturalism than with Donald Trump’s point of view. As he himself put it in his First (heh, heh) Inaugural Address:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

In contrast to Obama’s internationalism, Trump’s nationalism is stubbornly singular. But what about empathy? Obama, the International Man of Mystery, was sorely lacking in that department. Could Trump be fairly called a Uni-National Man of Empathy?

The Donald is nothing if not high-spirited. Some would say he resembles Austin Powers in other ways as well, if not in the teeth department, perhaps with the hair, and of course the shagging.

Like Powers, Trump has always cut rather a droll figure. But when he met with the survivors of last month’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, warmth and sincerity are what came across. It was a real contrast to what Woods experienced with Obama. Here’s how Rabbi Jeffrey Myers tells it:

I was privileged to have a private 15 or 20 minutes with the [first] family. The president was very warm, very consoling, put his hand on my shoulder, and the first question he asked me was, “Rabbi, tell me how are you doing.” I must say throughout the time we spent together, I was pleasantly surprised by a warm and personal side to the president that I don’t think America has ever seen.

I once glimpsed that side of Trump myself, when he was just a candidate. It struck me not in a personal meeting but in a televised debate, on January 14, 2016. My guys (George Pataki and Lindsey Graham) had dropped out already, so I was eyeing Ted Cruz as the best conservative alternative to the Orange Wonder.

“Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson had endorsed Cruz just the day before, calling him a “godly” man who “loves us,” can “do the job,” and would “kill a duck and put it in a pot and make ’em a good gumbo.” But when New Yorker Maria Bartiromo challenged Cruz to explain his slam on Trump as an embodiment of “New York values,” Cruz doubled down on disdain.

Perhaps he missed what Robertson said about “loving us.” Perhaps he didn’t get that his job as president would involve loving New York city dwellers as well as Louisiana duck hunters. Cruz could have made his case against the left-wing values that prevail in places like New York without disparaging the place itself and, seemingly, its people. But he did not. A sneering tone overshadowed his pro forma expression of respect for the city’s “working men and women.”

“The concept of New York values is not that complicated to figure out,” Cruz shrugged, adding: “Not a lot of conservatives come out of Manhattan, I’m just saying.”

Having been served that big, fat softball, Trump knocked it into orbit:

Conservatives actually do come out of Manhattan, including William F. Buckley. . . . New York is a great place. It’s got great people, it’s got loving people, wonderful people. When the World Trade Center came down, I saw something that no place on Earth could have handled more beautifully, more humanely than New York. You had two 110-story buildings come crashing down. I saw them come down. Thousands of people killed, and the cleanup started the next day, and it was the most horrific cleanup, probably in the history of doing this, and in construction. I was down there, and I’ve never seen anything like it. And the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death—nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air. And we rebuilt downtown Manhattan, and everybody in the world watched and everybody in the world loved New York and loved New Yorkers. And I have to tell you, that was a very insulting statement that Ted made.

Shortly afterwards, I gave up on Cruz for president. I regretfully told a liberal friend that the only golden moment of the debate belonged to Trump. Unlike Hillary Clinton’s invocation of 9/11 to justify her Wall Street ties, Trump’s impromptu valentine to his hometown didn’t seem contrived or self-serving. It was warm and sincere.

With Trump’s help, Senator Cruz has just survived a Texas re-election contest his awkward personality made a nail-biter. Cruz’s win helped hold the Senate for the GOP, but it was a near run thing. In the House, meanwhile, Republicans were less lucky, as was the country. For the next two years, Trump and his Senate allies will have to “fight and fight and fight” to limit the damage the Democrats who’ve won the House are intent on doing.

But back to empathy. When it comes to crime, empathy requires, as I say, both anger and action. On the day of the Tree of Life massacre, Trump said this to reporters:

It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world. And something has to be done. . . . We should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty. When people do this, they should get the death penalty, and they shouldn’t have to wait years and years.

Later, to an audience of his supporters:

And when you have crimes like this, whether it’s this one or another one on another group, we have to bring back the death penalty. They have to pay the ultimate price. They have to pay the ultimate price. They can’t do this. They can’t do this to our country. We must draw a line in the sand and say very strongly: Never again.

Those words were music to my ears. I hope everyone who is fed up with crime will take note of them. They bespeak anger, and they promise action. Sad to say, they came too late to help much in the midterm election. But if Trump follows through on them, it can have a huge impact in 2020.

The web site FactCheck.org quibbled with the president’s statement, noting that “while Trump says he wants to ‘bring back the death penalty,’ the federal government and 31 states already have the death penalty.” That’s true on paper, but in reality, hardly any of the more than 1 million murders Americans have suffered since 1960 ever resulted in an execution. At least 99.8 percent have not. Moreover, FactCheck admits this: “It takes ‘years and years,’ as Trump said, to carry out executions, and the number of state executions has been trending down in recent years.”

So, yes, we do need to “bring back” the death penalty. FactCheck points out, however, that “it’s not clear what the president has in mind to ‘stiffen up’ death penalty laws.”

Mr. President, if you need some suggestions in that regard, I’m your man.

Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

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About Karl Spence

Karl Spence is a retired journalist living in San Antonio. His work has appeared in National Review, the Chattanooga Free Press, American Thinker and at www.fairamendment.us.