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February 23, 2018

Whatever happened to empathy?

You know things are bad when a draft-dodging president has the gall to call someone else a coward

I've been thinking a lot about the notion of empathy this week.

Specifically, I've been trying to figure out when much of society cast it aside in favor of a mob mentality that seeks to belittle, and dismiss, the challenges facing its targets.

That social media enable users to feel part of a greater community – for good (see the #MeToo movement) and for ill (see a litany of examples) – is nothing new. Countless victims have found themselves judged by strangers before, and will continue to do so for the rest of humanity's time on Earth.

It's not a healthy thing, but it's a real thing.

After writing a story about Meagan Regina and Matthew Iannone's battle with their homeowners' association about a noisy Queen Village gate earlier this week, it didn't take long for the mockery mob to take notice.

Taking notice meant writing off their struggle as being less important than others' struggles in life, mocking the fact that they had to move out of the house and put off their plans to start a family, and Photoshopping a photo of the young couple outside their Front Street home.

Listen, I'm not playing holier-than-thou here. I, too, find myself swept up in Internet Justice more often than I care to admit.

But one thing I noticed while watching Noisegate enter into the vortex of derision was very few people taking the time to empathize with the couple – to the point of hating them and, in the words of one commenter on the story, me for writing it in the first place.

I'm a big boy who can take a trollish comment on a story with the ability to laugh in its face. For people to mock Regina and Iannone without taking a second to consider the Chinese water-torture nature of their predicament – an incessant sound degrading their quality of life – became proof of social-media users' need to judge without a moment's hesitation.

In the big picture, that experience is but a raindrop falling into the Atlantic Ocean. We're all free to voice our opinions, after all. But being free to voice opinions also means people are free to voice opinions about others' opinions.

Which brings us to the impetus for this column: Broward County (Fla.) Sheriff's Deputy Scot Peterson, aka the armed protector-and-server who failed to enter Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and try to save lives when a heavily-armed maniac opened fire.

It is a sickening story, and some of the reactions have been similarly nauseating.

Yes, it's true that he failed to muster the courage to do the job he took an oath to perform.

Yes, it's true that his boss – Sheriff Scott Israel – justifiably felt "devastated, sick to my stomach" after seeing video of his underling cowering in fear for four minutes as the shootings continued.

And yes, it's true that had Peterson gone into the building, he likely would have been carried out in a body bag – as a hero.

Whether his presence there would've lowered the body count is something we will never know.

Something that we do know is that Peterson failed to live up to the basic requirement of his job, and he will, and should, carry the burden of 17 dead teens and adults for the rest of his days. Survivors of those lost have every right to be enraged about this.

That is a heavy weight to carry, one that even the worst of us wouldn't wish upon a mortal enemy.

As with the eminently less important Noisegate story, empathy for Peterson was a rare commodity.

Luckily, in Israel saying he wouldn't publicly release video of the deputy staying outside while people were mowed down inside, people won't be able to edit up that clip to maximize its depiction of cowardice.


As with most things in America these days, it's now time to draw the president into the conversation. He willingly made it an impossibility not to on Friday morning.

I was born in 1973. That was also the year that conscription ended in the United States, which is to say that I never faced the prospect of being drafted – with or against my will – into the military.

That also means I don't know how I would've reacted had my number come up. I'd like to think I'd have taken the news like a man and performed the duties foisted upon me.

What I know is the fact that my father – who served in the U.S. Marines during Vietnam – wouldn't have looked favorably upon me trying to find a questionable-at-best medical exemption to serving. Because of that, I wouldn't have been allowed to hide while others died, even if I wanted to, which I'm rather certain I wouldn't have.

Why do I mention that? I think you already know.

Trump, who ducked the draft five times between 1964 and 1972 when more than 58,000 died in Vietnam, decided to weigh in on Peterson's shame on Friday.

The president said Peterson was either a "coward" or just didn't rise to the moment. To wit:

"When it came time to get in there and do something, he didn't have the courage or something happened. But he certainly did a poor job. There's no question about that. That's a case where somebody was outside, they're trained, they didn't act properly or under pressure or they were a coward."

Some people like that kind of straight talk.

Other people – like me – are disgusted that a draft dodger has the gall to use his presidential platform to publicly ridicule a member of a law-enforcement community.

Which brings us back to empathy.

Even if you think that Peterson is the biggest coward in world history because of his inaction, what do you gain by publicly branding him as such?

Absolutely nothing.

Want to solidify your standing as a better human being than a loose-tongued draft dodger? 

Take even a minute to empathize with Peterson. Despite being alive, it's natural to think he wishes he were dead thanks to the emotional burden he now carries.

Yes, it's all of his doing. 

Yes, he should have done more. 

Yes, he should be ashamed of himself for not performing the job he swore he'd do.

You know what else? The guy already knows all of that. 

A world without empathy may not be as bad for society as the reality that Peterson now faces for himself, but it's damn near close.