TCS Daily

Over-Humanizing the Enemy

By Helen Smith - February 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Violence breeds violence -- but so can nonviolence. This is often forgotten in the debate over terrorism, as illustrated in some reviews of the new book by David Frum and Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror. Perle and Frum lay out a bold plan to defend America. But more important than their specific proposals, they provide insight into how our leaders are confronting -- or not confronting -- the war on terrorism.

As a forensic psychologist, what I found most worthwhile about the book was this unapologetic attitude toward terrorists and terrorism. I believe the authors are correct when they promote strong tactics in dealing with terrorists. In fact, I believe that the liberal stance of trying too hard to "humanize" our enemies is a mistake that will make the problem worse, and produce more violence rather than less.

Frum and Perle's view is not popular among the media elite. Case in point: a New York Times review by Michiko Kakutani that criticizes the authors as they

"purvey a worldview of us-versus-them, all-or-nothing, either-or, and this outlook results in a refusal to countenance the possibility that people who do not share the authors' views about the war in Iraq or their faith in a pre-emptive, unilateralist foreign policy might have legitimate reasons for doing so."

I suppose it follows from this statement that Kakutani would rather promote understanding and empathy with respect to injuries that Muslims feel they have suffered at the hands of the United States. No surprise here: Frum and Perle state that some commentators even suggested that Islamic anti-Americanism should be regarded as an understandable reaction to the materialism and hedonism of American life, as refracted through MTV, pornography, and the Internet. Apparently, they were anticipating Kakutani's review. In a Clintonian sort of approach, some Americans seem to believe that if we can "feel our enemies' pain," then we will be on the path to enlightenment and peace. This belief could not be further from the truth.

In my private practice, I don't work with terrorists but I do work with violent people. I used to believe (as many of my colleagues still do) that empathizing with my patients and increasing their self-esteem would help them on the path to self-actualization. Of course, for some anxiety-ridden patients who need faith in themselves, the technique of empathy and support works. However, for those patients with serious violent tendencies, just the opposite is true. With those patients, I've found that setting clear boundaries and making judgments about their immoral behavior works like a charm.

Those patients who threatened me backed down only when I got up in their face and told them forcefully to stop -- the slightest hint of fear or intimidation (or sympathy!) on my part was met with increased threats. In the real world of private practice, confronting real murderers, I learned to act in ways that were different from what I had been taught in graduate school.

Unfortunately, there are still those in the ivory tower who have not learned this valuable lesson. They continue to believe that to humanize and to empathize with violent students, professors, and terrorists is the only way to treat those who wish to do them harm. In fact, however, the old saw "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" applies. Without clear boundaries, and a sense of consequences, their behavior will spiral out of control until they injure themselves and others.

This seems to be the case where America's limp response to terrorism in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s is concerned (Osama bin Laden reportedly joked that the worst Americans would do in response to 9/11 was file a lawsuit.) It's also the case with crimes closer to home. As a recent study of mine indicates, university administrators often think that angry, violent students and faculty can be placated if they are understood and given what they ask for -- just like terrorists. But in recent university shootings, just the opposite happened.

Valery Fabrikant was a mechanical engineering professor at Concordia University in Canada who, after being denied tenure, murdered four of his colleagues. Apparently, the professor's rudeness and disruptive behavior had started a good ten years before he opened fire on his colleagues. He even boasted to others that he planned to shoot various professors and take hostages -- but instead of being disciplined or fired for this outrageous behavior, he was promoted and given raises. Many of the faculty were too frightened or impotent to take action against Mr. Fabrikant. One of the senior members of the engineering department even insisted that "giving Fabrikant what he wanted would bring out the best in him." Instead of acting to subdue his anger, giving in to his demands time and time again encouraged him to act in more and more outrageous ways, and eventually sent him on a killing spree.

In a similar case at the Appalachian Law School in 2002, a student by the name of Peter Odighizuwa murdered three and wounded three others before being subdued at gunpoint by his fellow students. Dean L. Anthony Sutin had helped Odighizuwa get into law school and even allowed him back in after he had flunked out the first time. Sutin and the school helped him get a loan, and to buy a car and a computer. Odighizuwa was known for his belligerent manner and threats to harm others. But in the academic world where nonviolence and understanding are believed to work wonders, no one bothered to tell Odighizuwa that his behavior was unacceptable. Once he flunked a second time, he was told he had to go, but instead he took the lives of some of the people who had helped him the most.

As any parent can attest, it's hard to punish those close to you. Social psychologists tell us that people strongly disapprove of punitive actions and rarely excuse them when they are directed at persons depicted in humanized terms. Psychological studies also show it is hard to be harsh toward others when they are humanized or even personalized a bit. This is why defense lawyers have their clients dress up in nice clothes and include personal information about them in trials. It makes their clients seem more human and less likely to receive a severe punishment, despite the fact that they may have murdered someone. Likewise, when the media and academics personalize terrorists to the extent that the American public feels they "know them," it is hard to support acting in ways that are incongruent with our treatment of someone we know. But in trying so hard to humanize the enemy -- who, remember, hates us -- we wind up dehumanizing ourselves, and in the process we do the victims of terrorists and murderers an injustice.

I've seen this in murder cases too, where psychologists and social-services workers are more interested in helping the murderer than in seeking justice. The victim, I'm sometimes told rather callously, is already dead.

Frum and Perle remind us that many would treat international terrorists the same way we treat domestic murderers: as sick people to be cured, without regard to the dignity of those they kill. In our attempt to be overly-tolerant and empathetic, we start to identify too much with the enemy (very much like those suffering from Stockholm syndrome) and start to dehumanize the victims of terror. Surely, the victims of 9/11 deserve more from us than that. As do the potential victims who might be saved by a more realistic, and less "nurturing," approach.

Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is the author of The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill, and the executive producer and writer of Six, a documentary about a mass murder.


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