At this terrible time we all have strong emotions for our country: fear, outrage, grief, astonishment. All our media are portraying this assault as a tragedy that has happened to our nation, and that is how we very naturally see it. We think these things are bad because it is us and our nation. Not just human lives, but American lives. The world has come to a stop — in a way that it never has for Americans, when disaster befalls human beings in other places. The genocide in Rwanda didn't even work up enough emotion in us to prompt humanitarian intervention. Floods, earthquakes, cyclones — and the daily deaths of thousands from preventable malnutrition and disease — none of these makes the American world come to a standstill, none elicits a tremendous outpouring of grief and compassion. Compassion is an emotion rooted, probably, in our biological heritage. But this history does not mean that compassion is devoid of thought. In fact, as Aristotle argued long ago, it standardly requires three thoughts: that a serious bad thing has happened to someone else; that this bad event was not (or not entirely) the person's own fault; and that we ourselves are vulnerable in similar ways. Thus compassion forms a psychological link between our own self-interest and the reality of another person's good or ill. For that reason it is a morally valuable emotion — when it gets things right. Often, however, compassion errs — failing to link people at a distance to one's own current possibilities and vulnerabilities. (Rousseau said that kings don't feel compassion for their subjects because they count on never being human, subject to the vicissitudes of life.) Sometimes, too, compassion goes wrong by getting the seriousness of the bad event wrong: sometimes, for example, we just don't take very seriously the hunger and illness of people who are distant from us. These errors are likely to be built into the nature of compassion as it develops in childhood and then adulthood: we form intense attachments to the local first, and only gradually learn to have compassion for people who are outside our own immediate circle. For many Americans, that expansion of moral concern stops at the national boundary.

Most of us are brought up to believe that all human beings have equal worth. At least the world's major religions and most secular philosophies tell us so. But our emotions don't believe it. We mourn for those we know, not for those we don't know. And most of us feel deep emotions about America, emotions we don't feel about India, or Russia, or Rwanda. In and of itself, this narrowness of our emotional lives is probably acceptable and maybe even good. We need to build outward from meanings we understand, or else our moral life would be empty of urgency. Aristotle long ago said, plausibly, that the citizens in Plato's ideal city, asked to care for all citizens equally, would actually care for none, since care is learned in small groups with their more intense attachments. If we want our life with others to contain strong passions — for justice in a world of injustice, for aid in a world where many go without what they need — we would do well to begin, at least, with our familiar strong emotions toward family, city, and country.

But concern should not stop at the national border. Americans are all too prone to such emotional narrowness. When others were scheming to rescue the Jews during the Holocaust, America's inactivity and (general) lack of concern was culpable. It took Pearl Harbor to get us even to come to the aid of our allies. When genocide was afoot in Rwanda, our own sense of self-sufficiency and invulnerability stopped us from imagining the Rwandans as people who might be us; we were therefore culpably inactive toward them. And even worse: our sense that the 'us' is all that matters can easily flip over into a demonising of an imagined 'them', a group of outsiders who are imagined as enemies of the invulnerability and the pride of the all-important 'us'. Today it is all too easy for Americans, for example, to see the world in terms of a confrontation between good America and bad Islam, and to demonise all Muslims in consequence, whether here or abroad.

Compassion begins with the local. But if our moral natures and our emotional natures are to live in any sort of harmony we must find devices through which to extend our strong emotions to the world of human life as a whole. Since compassion contains thought, it can be educated. We can take this disaster as occasion for narrowing our focus, distrusting the rest of the world and feeling solidarity with Americans alone. Or we can take it as an occasion for expansion of our ethical horizons. Seeing how vulnerable our great country is, we can learn something about the vulnerability all human beings share, about what it is like for distant others to lose those they love to a disaster not of their own making, whether it is hunger or flood or ethnic cleansing. Our media and our systems of education give us far too little information about lives outside our borders, stunting our moral imaginations. On this terrible occasion we can renew our commitment to the equal worth of humanity, demanding media, and schools, that nourish and expand our imaginations by presenting non-American lives as deep, rich and emotion-worthy. "Thus from our weakness," said Rousseau of such an education, "our fragile happiness is born." Or, at least, it might be born.