Terror and Empathy



Whether it was by coincidence or not, the supplement that came with the Ha’aretz newspaper last weekend contained a long article about – and interview with – Professor Telma Handler, a psychiatrist, psychologist and international expert on the brain whose most recentresearch has focused on the mechanism of empathy.

The terrorist attack by two Palestinians the previous evening on Israelis enjoying the evening in the Sarona area of Tel Aviv was too fresh to have triggered the interview, and then the violent attacks, in different parts of the world, came thick and fast.

The killing and wounding by a lone gunman of almost one hundred people enjoying an evening at an LGTB club in Orlando, Florida was the first event of a week of violence, followed by the stabbing murder of a police officer and his partner in France and culminating (if that’s the right term) in the savage assassination of British MP Jo Cox in her Yorkshire constituency of Birstall. Three events, each of which was shocking in its own right, combined to cast a pall of gloom over the lives of many millions of individuals, and certainly over mine.

What causes someone to take a knife and brutally butcher another human being, or fire round after round from an assault rifle at people who are dancing, enjoying a meal or returning home after a day at work? The explanation can’t be as simple as the fact that you don’t agree with their politics, sexual preferences or religion. It is true that violence has always been part of human history, with the male of the species having a greater tendency to engage in violent than women. And yet, it’s a far cry from throwing a punch or two or charging at the enemy in the framework of a military conflict to calmly mowing down people you have never even seen before.

In the article in Ha’aretz we read that the lynching by members of the public in Beersheva of a migrant worker who was mistakenly thought to have been involved in a terrorist attack was what stimulated Professor Handler to study what causes us to feel empathy for one person and animosity towards another. There is, it seems, a specific part of the human brain that responds to situations of stress, anger or trauma and in so doing suppresses our sense of empathy towards the ‘other.’ In addition, the individual on his or her own reacts differently to situations than do groups, and therein lies part of the explanation. Obviously, it is easier – both physically and psychologically – to harm someone if you are in a group than if you are on your own.

But that is not the whole story. The hatred for Jews and revulsion from them as a group was cultivated assiduously by the Nazis from the moment they came to power, ultimately enabling individuals and groups to engage in the wholesale murder of six million of them. By the time that action was required the Jews were no longer regarded as human beings but rather as something sub-human, as vermin that had to be ‘exterminated.’ Killing Jews was defined as ‘cleansing’ (making Germany Judenrein) and not as murder – an action that implies a human object. Demonising and dehumanizing an individual or group tends to precede the capacity to harm them, and it is a regrettable fact that certain groups of people are taught to perceive others in that light.

Evidently education, or indoctrination, plays a key role in human behaviour, and it would be fair to say that in three of the four murderous attacks mentioned above came from Muslims of one kind or another. People say that ‘true Islam’ is a religion of peace, but the facts on the ground don’t seem to bear this out. In fact, as I sit here writing this Muslims who follow one form of that religion are busy killing other Muslims who follow another form of it, not to mention anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that religion at all. The fourth attack, which took place in a rural backwater in England, seems to have been inspired more by rabid right-wing views than religion, though perhaps they can also be regarded as a kind of religion, or at least a creed.

Calling on people to be kind to one another and make love not war isn’t going to solve anything. Nor is the banning of violence in movies and computer games. What is needed is for nations and religions to accept the concept of tolerance of different views and outlooks and incorporate it into their education system, political structure and general tenor of behaviour.

What is most badly needed is more empathy, or just simply the readiness to  ‘live and let live,’ as the English tradition has it. Until this approach is accepted and promoted by every religion, creed and political view it seems we are condemned to live in an ever-more violent world.