A twenty-six-year-old American hostage, Nick Berg, was beheaded on a video by a man calling himself Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants in Iraq. The men in the video said the decapitation was revenge for torture being carried out by Americans in the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad. We might say a terrorist who kills someone because they feel their land is under occupation is acting for very different reasons from those of a psychopath. Can we judge the same act (murder) as arising from the same switching off of the empathy circuit?
Our inclination might be to condemn a suicide bomber who comes over the border from Gaza into Jerusalem and blows up a café full of innocent teenagers, but if we applied the same logic, we would have to condemn Nelson Mandela when he was leader of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. He coordinated the bombing of military and government buildings, hoping that no one would get hurt but all the while recognizing that innocent people might get caught up in the blast. Equally, we would have to condemn Menachem Begin when he was leader of Irgun, a militant offshoot of the Haganah, who blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, killing ninety-one people and injuring forty-six others, in an attempt to persuade the British to leave Palestine as part of the Zionist cause to create a Jewish homeland. Just as Mandela later became president of South Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, so Begin later became prime minister of Israel and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat.
The target of the terrorist’s unempathic act is often selected because of the terrorist’s belief (e.g., a belief that freedom and identity are being threatened), so the act is not directly the result of an empathy deficit. The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior. Nevertheless, at the moment of the act one has to recognize that the terrorist’s empathy is switched off. In flying a plane into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, an individual (driven by a belief) no longer cares about the welfare and feelings of his victims. Tony Blair famously said when he gave the order to invade Iraq that “history will forgive us,” but we cannot judge an act only by its distant outcomes while ignoring its immediate outcomes. The act itself may be unempathic irrespective of whether the ends justify the means.
The Science of Evil
Simon Baron-Cohen 2011