Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Fundamental Absence of Empathy

We must also engage, however, in the more difficult task of understanding the sources of such madness. The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others. Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.

--Sen. Barack Hussein Obama (19 Sept. 2001)

It is doubtless clear that Ortho Opinions opposes the election of Sen. Obama to the Presidency (while unwilling to endorse Sen. McCain on account of his evident Slavophobia). Readers may wonder then why this year's anniversary meditation on the occasion of the 9/11 attacks begins with a moderately extended quotation form the most leftward member of the U.S. Senate.

The Senator's remarks have been much derided on the political right. In truth, except for his remarks misattributing this lack of empathy to 'poverty and ignorance', the comments show a psychological perceptiveness that might well guide American policy in dealing with Islamofascism. The Senator ought not be derided for his insight, but for his failure to understand its policy consequences.

Absence of empathy, issuing forth in antisocial behavior--violence, lying and the like--is the chief characteristic of the sociopath. Consider the diagnostic criteria for the Dissocial Personality Disorder (one of the attempts by psychologists and psychiatrists to operationalize sociopathy) as set forth in ICD-10:

  • Callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy.
  • Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
  • Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships.
  • Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.
  • Incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.
  • Marked proneness to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behavior bringing the subject into conflict.
  • Persistent irritability.


A person who behaved as modern politicized Islam has behaved as a movement would readily be diagnosed as suffering from this disorder: Jews and Christians are equated with pigs and moneys; non-Muslims are not to be befriended; the norms of the Geneva convention--carrying weapons openly, not targetting civilians and the like--are wantonly ignored; there are no peace treaties, only hudnas, and even Muslims who sided with them are declared to be infidels the moment they step out of line; cartoons or criticism are sufficient cause for violence; the wretched state of Muslim countries is the West's fault; and everything conceivable is seen as a slight to Islam.

Persons suffering from sociopathy are notoriously difficult to dissuade from criminal behavior. Indeed generally only life-long incarceration or (if they have committed a capital crime) execution offers the public protection from the actions that flow from their "fundamental absence of empathy".

Fortuantely the case of sociopathic mass politico-religious movements seems to be more hopeful. The Imperial cult of Imperial Japan showed the same symptoms of sociopathy as the post-Qutb politicization of Islam, right down to the use of suicide attacks. In that case a cure proved possible, though it involved a prolonged war, two atomic bombs, and the imposition of a pacifist constitution.

The world really must hope and pray that the milder treatment, that of planting parliamentary democracies in the heart of the Muslim world, attempted by the Bush Administration proves successful in the case of Islamofascism, and that a cure on the Japanese model will not needed hereafter.

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