HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 23, 2007
From Liberty Street

Crying -- Or Not

John Turner


Now that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has become emotional in public over the death of soldiers in Iraq, media speculators are wondering whether it's all right for a man to cry. In her New York Times column, Maureen Dowd allowed that it's okay for Gates but that if Hillary Clinton did it, she would be ruined. Ms. Dowd doesn't think there's much danger in that direction though. Hillary, she says, is less likely to be caught crying than her main rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards.

All this comes mainly from the need to find something to write about and doesn't add up to much. But it does raise the questions of whom we cry for and what our motivation for crying is.

Almost every day, I thank whatever gods there may be for not having to respond to the world as politicians do. I don't know whether this will be shocking to anybody but the simple truth is that I haven't experienced any emotional breakdowns over the deaths of people in the news, including the deaths of U.S. military personnel in Iraq. I think about them. I'm concerned about them. But since I don't know them personally their deaths don't affect me emotionally any more than the death of someone who was unlucky enough to run off a dark road into a tree in Arkansas or West Virginia.

I regret all violent deaths and I think we should do all we can to prevent them, but I don't get any more tearful about one category than another. And if I don't know the people involved, I don't get tearful at all.

I'll go farther and admit that I'm fairly well convinced that all tears shed over people not known personally to the crier are manufactured. And, one emotion I will admit to: I'm sick of manufactured tears. This is not to say that Mr. Gates wasn't feeling something real when he choked up at the Marine Association dinner. But what he was regretting was not the loss of life and all that life might have been, and might have experienced, but, rather, the death of a military person. And if you cry more over the death of a soldier than you do for the death of a teenager involved in a foolish automobile wreck, then you are shedding manufactured tears.

Mr. Gates was engaging in a process of deliberate association which demands emotional attachment to some categories of people and relieves one of any feeling at all for others. It's a process of saying some lives are precious and some lives don't count at all. And that's the very process which permits humans to be so very good at taking away the lives of so many members of their own species.

I can't sure of this, but I would be willing to wager that Mr. Gates, sitting in his office in the Pentagon and reading of bombing raids in Iraq which resulted in what we cheerfully designate collateral damage, has shed not a single tear. I even wonder if he has called up in his imagination the mangled bodies that happy little euphemism is designed to mask.

Doubtless, there was a time in history when tribal emotionalism made some sense and, perhaps, did some good. But that time has passed. We don't really have tribes anymore. The United States is not a tribe and, consequently, tribal emotions expended on it or on its supposed representatives are not justified by either morality or logic. We the people of the United States would make up a far greater nation if we would get straight in our heads what a nation is. It is not a thing to get teary about but rather an instrument that might be used -- if it were used intelligently -- to make the lives of actual, individual people more healthy and happy.

I realize I'm arguing against something that's hard to give up -- the lump in the throat as the flag passes by. But when that lump works to produce the deaths of hundreds of thousands of persons who were so misguided as not to be born Americans, I think we would be well rid of it. I might even get a little emotional about that dismissal.


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