A lot has been written about empathy as the cornerstone of emotional intelligence. I want to write about empathy as the cornerstone of successful counterterrorism.
When many of us think of homeland security, we think in terms of being tough, assertive, defensive, or/and offensive; we think in terms of countering terrorism with force designed to bring the “bad guys” to their knees. Conversely, when we think of empathy, we think “bleeding heart liberals,” humanism, “softies,” accepting the deplorable and the unacceptable.
It turns out that empathy can be a fantastically powerful tool in understanding complex issues and in making crucial decisions in a variety of situations—including in the fight against terrorists.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
As we can clearly see, the definition of empathy does not mention “identifying with,” “agreeing with,” or “supporting” anyone. Yet, somehow, in the horrific climate of merciless linguistic subversion, fear of free expression, and the recruitment of every weapon possible—suitable or not—to the battle to discredit the curious, the open-minded, and the conscientious, empathy became a term meaning exactly what it is not. This denies curious, open-minded counterterrorists, as well as many others, of one of the best weapons in the fight against elusive adversaries.
While still pursuing the Republican Presidential nomination, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush provided a good demonstration of the knee-jerk rejection of anything even hinting at empathy when it comes to counterterrorism. In a response to a television interviewer’s question, he said: “We should have no empathy for radical Islamic terrorists. We should destroy them – plain and simple.”
While sounding very John Wayne-like, Mr. Bush perhaps missed an opportunity to ask himself, some professional counterterrorists and possibly even some of his constituency whether good statesmanship mean sounding tough or maybe using every tool available to gain a better understanding of your enemy, is a choice that will end up rendering the American people a better service.
One of the most telling examples of using empathy in the service of successful decision making comes from the world of venture capital. Michael Moritz, one of the founders of Sequoia, who funded companies such as Yahoo!, Pay Pal, YouTube and Google early on, resulting in super-huge returns, describes empathy as one of his most important tools. In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo tells us: “Moritz cultivated a skill few engineers cared about: the ability to empathize with company founders. It was crucial to see their dreams exactly as they did, he believed. Even if they were deluded, you had to know how and where to adjust their imagination.”
The ability to use empathy was so central to Moritz that he told Ramo: “The thing I am terrified of is losing that empathy.”
Imagine, if empathy is so crucial to enable a real, deep understanding of a commercial or technology entrepreneur’s mind, how crucial could it be to understanding the mind of a terror entrepreneur? And make no mistake, the really successful terrorists are nothing short of successful entrepreneurs. Their chosen area of expertise is horrific, but their ability to imagine a future and craft the present and the various competing actors and realities around them to reach their goal is nothing short of an entrepreneurial genius.
Gaining a deep understanding of what makes terrorists “tick” by studying them through an empathic prism may improve our understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, their vulnerabilities, their perspective on the West, and its vulnerabilities and strengths. Such knowledge can help shape operational decisions regarding actions, reactions, deterrence, potential target selection, and distribution of counterterrorism resources. For example: if we knew that a certain past event traumatized a certain terrorist and created in them an abiding commitment to avenge, we may choose to increase our readiness against this terrorist along what we may deem to be a most likely target (either people or infrastructure).
It’s time empathy got the break it deserves. All of us, particularly those entrusted with our safety and security, ought to be able to empathize with the world around us—good, bad and of every possible slant—without fear of censure. It’s a freedom that will serve us well, and I can empathize with that.