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The Problem of Empathy



It feels like that moment when Obi-Wan Kenobi suddenly lowered his head as if he had a bad headache and said he sensed a disturbance in the force.

In that Star Wars episode, Obi-Wan was feeling the explosion of a planet and the dying of all its inhabitants.

Its hard to stay in denial when a whole planet is exploding.

Which those of us on earth should realize right about now.

I don’t mean it’s the end of civilization or anything apocalyptic.

It’s more the end of a youthful phase. Every generation has its own passage when it loses innocence. We tried to tell our kids what it was like during Viet Nam, when the cities burned after the assassinations, when Watergate threatened to bring down the government, but everybody has to hear the screams for themselves. There’s no mistaking them, once you hear them. No forgetting them either.

You have to compartmentalize what you’re doing, a veteran told me candidly. You’re killing people, sometimes innocent people. You have to understand that in a way that makes it OK.

Now, I confess to being radically impractical. It has plagued me my whole life long. So take what I say with a grain of salt. This reflection won’t help you make more money, get a promotion, or manipulate some demographic into buying what you’re selling. But I feel the headache coming on that says there’s a disturbance in the force and maybe this will help.

It’s about feeling, not thinking. Too much thinking results in software that mistakes our planes for supersonic enemy missiles and shoots them down. Too much thinking gives machines the responsibility for too much of the fighting. We need to listen to feelings once in a while and remember that the enemy is human too.

Years ago, when I was a clergyman doing counseling, I had to learn how not to open myself completely to others’ feelings. I had to set boundaries so I wouldn’t mistake myself for others. Frequently in the evening when I expressed anxiety about something, my wife would say, That’s not you. It’s someone else. You’re mistaking yourself for someone else.

So empathy can be a problem. Appropriate distance is necessary. But too much distance can make us deaf to what others are trying to tell us. Too little empathy and policy and planning can go awry.

I wonder how I would feel if here in the Midwest we had been bombarded for months with leaflets or heard on our radios whenever we turned them on the French-accented English of Quebecois explaining how the Bush Regime so threatened them that self-preservation required that they liberate us from its tyranny before it could strike first. They would warn us not to resist when they came across the border and rolled toward Chicago. They were doing this, they said, not for the complex reasons that usually lead people to start a war but for our own good and the good of the world. They expect us, therefore, to line the interstate waving Quebec flags gleefully as their armor thunders past.

I mean, are these people in touch with reality AT ALL?

Ten days ago in Washington DC, some of the smartest people I know in information security repeatedly said things like, Bush has gone about this the wrong way. He believes he’s right so deeply that nothing can stop him. Now we’ve got to try to salvage the situation.

These are not knee-jerk responses, mind you, these are people who understand the threats. They listen to intercepts and hear terrorists plan our demise. What we hear, one told me, scares us shitless.

They know the world is messy and complex and motives always mixed. They are patriots, working long hours out of the spotlight on behalf of a country they love. Yet so many were deeply concerned about how this thing was done.

Despite the rhetoric of post 9/11, little has changed in our nation’s capital. People still talk primarily to themselves. Outside the beltway its hard to understand the smallness of the vision that results. It’s difficult to overstate how bureaucracies kill the human spirit, filter out people who take risks or respond to challenges not by hiding but by rising to the occasion. It sounds like a caricature so say that the agency across the river is more often the primary competitor while real evildoers are secondary targets but its not. Trying to suggest that they’re forgetting something is like little people tugging at the cuffs of big people lost in conversation in the clouds high above.

Forgetting, for example, that empathy is critical to policy and planning because troops can take Baghdad and all Iraq and still lose the real war, the one that begins when the shooting stops. Forgetting that the mind of society is the enclosed battlespace of the 21st century, all war is theater, and audiences super-saturated with media images are the main players. Forgetting that the real shock and awe is ours, when we realized they were surprised by how the world responded, how natives fought on their own territory, and by the growing concern of Americans who bought a war against terrorism but somehow were delivered a land war in Iraq.

Empathy is required for winning the peace if not for winning the war. Understanding the feelings of human beings and the consequences of our actions seems like a minimal requirement for policy and planning but apparently its not. The capacity to get outside ourselves and feel what others feel does not mean surrendering our self-interest in some naive belief that others are better than ourselves because they’re not–there is no moral high ground when the shooting starts–but it does mean understanding who others are because then we remember who we are too and then we might remember that mutual self- interest is best served by a vision that sees further than the middle of next week.

RICHARD THIEME speaks, writes and consults on the human dimensions of life and work, the impact of technology, and “life on the edge.” He is a contributing editor for Information Security Magazine. Articles in Wired, Salon, Information Security, CISO, Forbes, Secure Business Quarterly, Village Voice, others. He can be reached at:


Today’s Features

March 26, 2003

Pablo Mukherjee
Watch Their Lips

David Krieger
Shock But Not Awe

Linda Heard
Winning Hearts and Minds Bush-Style

Imad Jadaa
The Beautiful Face of America

Adam Engel
Buckets of Blood

Patrick Cockburn
Kurds Unimpressed

David Lindorff
POWs, Torture and Hypocrisy

Robert Fisk
The Coup That Didn’t Happen

April Hurley, MD
A Doctor’s Outrage in Baghdad

Gloria Bergen
Chretien’s Shame

Reema Abu Hamdieh
The Smell of Death Surrounds Me

Website of the War
Iraq Body Count

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