“How can we bring empathy and forgiveness into the conversation on terror?” I can’t begin to answer this urgently important question without first dissecting it. Dissection will help us see that empathy, while often valuable, is morally slippery. Forgiveness, too, is a double-edged ethical instrument, sometimes helpful but all too often tainted by an unpleasant air of superiority. I’ll conclude that there are some other attitudes we need: Respect for humanity, generosity, and the courage to seek reconciliation.
Empathy first. As usually defined, it is an imaginative exercise in which one sees the world from the other person or group’s viewpoint. Empathy, so defined, is morally neutral. Skilled torturers will cultivate empathy for the people they intend to torture, because empathy shows them how to cause maximum pain and humiliation. Therefore, if empathy is to have moral worth, it must be combined with other attitudes, such as respect and goodwill. Nor is empathy necessary for a morally valuable view of the other. Throughout history, courageous cultural pioneers (for example, the emperor Ashoka) have shown kindness and respect to nonhuman animals, and this decision to show concern need not rest on a prior attempt to understand how these animals see the world (although in Ashoka’s Buddhism, a sense of the shared badness of suffering was surely prominent).
Nonetheless, empathy is often morally helpful as flawed people work their way toward respect and generosity. We have an unfortunate tendency to think of adversaries — whether in a personal divorce litigation or in a political struggle — as monsters or aliens, totally unlike our virtuous striving selves. Seeing the other party’s point of view removes that sense of estrangement and opens the door to understanding. An example will help. In the gay rights movement, in both India and the US, there was long a righteous sense, on the part of dominant straight people, that gays and lesbians were totally monstrous and unlike their own nice acceptable sort of desire. A politics of empathy, in which gay people came out and told their stories, showing that they wanted love, had parents and children, wanted human dignity like everyone else, has had enormous success in doing away with callousness and aggressive domination. Empathy by itself is not enough, but it can often open the door to respect and the willingness to acknowledge dignity.
But what about violent criminals? Isn’t empathy in that case akin to an objectionable complicity? Not in the least. All the great legal traditions urge us to accord criminals justice and to respect their human dignity. This won’t happen if we don’t see them, first, as human, and with empathy, dissolving the hard shell of arrogance with which most of us view violent criminals, often reveals a complex world of pressure and need, leading us to see that even we ourselves might have committed a crime — maybe not terrorism, but something bad — had we had such a bad starting point. The US system of criminal justice holds that criminal defendants have a basic constitutional right to narrate their story at the penalty phase of a trial in order to ask for a merciful penalty, emphasising the “common frailties of humankind” (I’m quoting from a landmark Supreme Court case) that brought them into a criminal life. The general idea is that even a limited empathy can dissipate hatred and lead, not to exoneration, since this is the penalty phase, after conviction, but to a less draconian punishment.
What of forgiveness? As usually defined, forgiveness is the waiving of angry feelings toward someone as the result of a process in which the offender confesses, apologises, and promises not to offend again. The process standardly involves significant abasement and even humiliation. All this is deeply built into the idea of forgiveness as understood in institutionalised Christianity, with its rituals of confession, absolution, and penance, and lay attitudes are often modeled on these rituals. Whatever one may think of the religious ideas involved (does God, in any reasonable conception, really want flawed humans to grovel?), the human variant is often morally unpleasant. We are accustomed to erring politicians groveling before the public and promising not to do again whatever bad act they did, as a condition of being restored to respect and even favour. But is this a mutually respectful way to conduct relationships among flawed people? To me, it is tainted with smugness and a pretence of virtue on the part of the offended.
Far more morally promising is an attitude of unconditional forgiveness that one finds frequently in the Christian gospels and at times in the Jewish tradition: The offended party waives angry feelings unilaterally, without waiting for the offender to grovel. Even here, however, we often see smugness: Look how noble I am in my forgiving attitude. St Paul remarks that we ought to forgive unconditionally because in so doing we will “heap coals of fire” on the heads of our enemies. That’s the problem I have with even forgiveness of the unconditional type. And there’s the further question whether it is so virtuous to give up feelings of anger and hatred: Perhaps one should not have had them in the first place.
What seems a lot better to me is an attitude that combines respect for basic humanity with a generous openness toward the future, acknowledging past wrongs but not defining them as eternal sources of division — looking, instead, toward a future of cooperation and reconciliation. In my nation’s own bitter civil rights struggle there was, and still is, great anger toward white oppressors. But I am with Martin Luther King, Jr: The anger that people bring to a movement to justice needs to be “purified” and “channelised”, keeping the spirit of courageous protest against wrongs, but getting rid of the retributive desire to bring offenders low and make them suffer. Instead of retribution, he urged his followers to proceed into the future with faith and hope, and the hope should include an idea of reconciliation even with those who have committed great wrongs. That attitude was not weak, as some of his critics said, it was strong and courageous. King resisted one of the most powerful human impulses, the retributive impulse, for the sake of a future of cooperation and peace.
The attitude King recommends is often assisted by empathy: Instead of building walls in our imaginations, we need to try to tear them down, and reconciliation is greatly promoted by that difficult spiritual exercise. Sometimes reconciliation with the actual individual criminals proves too much but we can always move into the future without hatred for a group or a people. It helps to think of children. King said, “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words ‘interposition’ and ‘nullification,’ one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” King did not ask his followers to love that governor (although, remarkably, Governor George Wallace later underwent a religious conversion and renounced his racist ideas); he just says, let’s prepare for a future in which children can play together. That generous vision is much larger than forgiveness, which is all about oneself. Building a future requires stepping outside of the self, with imagination and the courage of hope.