Progress on these fronts doesn’t always move in a straight line. Understandable outrage over the 9/11 attacks prompted too many Americans to embrace as a counter-weapon the inherently dehumanizing weapon of torture, a moral detour from which we have yet to fully return (see Jacob Sullum’s “Torture As an Absolute Wrong,” page 14). Then again, as Sara Mayeux notes in “Cruel, Unusual, and Crowded” (page 71), we are on the verge of a long-overdue prison-reform movement in this country attributable directly to the growing sentiment that even convicted criminals are individuals worthy of at least some human dignity.
One of the most moving-but ultimately self-defeating-slogans to come out of last summer’s Ferguson mess was “black lives matter.” It was an immediately relatable reminder of the value of human life, and the callousness with which some from less-favored classes are treated. But it sadly morphed into a tool of alienation rather than empathy, as when Smith College President Kathleen McCartney felt compelled to walk back her campus-wide reminder that “all lives matter” (italics added). McCartney was right: Conferring individual dignity on every human category is how we arrive more rapidly at a more just and free world.
There’s a reason why the enlightened world erupted spontaneously with the slogan “Je suis Charlie” after 12 staffers of the satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo were assassinated by Islamic fanatics in January. It wasn’t because the phrase was technically accurate-if we were all Charlie Hebdo, we’d be a lot braver than we have been until now. But it was an expression of pure human empathy in the face of inhuman slaughter, a demonstration of Enlightenment values in the face of seventh-century atavism.