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Murderers, Evil & the Absence of Empathy

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Like so many people this week I was stunned, shocked and sickened by the execution style murders of Roanoke Virginia reporters Allison Parker and Adam Ward by former reporter Vester Flanagan. Then later in the week the same type of murder of Houston Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth by a man named Shannon Miles. The first was particularly upsetting as a local news station had a story on it early in the day with a video, which I thought was their coverage, but instead it was the live video which had been broadcast at the moment of the shooting. Then I saw the pictures published by the New York Daily News taken by Flanagan as he shot Allison Parker. Those pictures which showed Flanagan’s view down his gun sight as he aimed, fired and aimed again were chilling. They are so troubling that I will not post them here.

I think it was so because I have been on the other side of the gun barrel. Back in 1979, when I was first starting to date Judy we were out with her parents and help up at gunpoint. I had a .38 caliber revolver to my head, the criminals took our wallets, the women’s purses and as they left the one on the other side of the car ripped Judy’s glasses off of her face and ground them into the pavement. I thought about trying to get the gun from the man on my side of the car but realized that if I failed fired that Judy or her parents might have been killed. If I had my own gun, which I did not I would have probably not been able to get a shot off without getting them killed. Likewise, on a number of occasions in Iraq, serving as an unarmed chaplain, I was under enemy small arms or rocket fire. Thus when I think about what happened to the victims there is a certain amount of kinship I feel.

They reminded me of a picture that I saw of a member of a Nazi Einsatzgruppe individually killing women who had survived a mass execution in Russia during the German invasion. In one picture a woman, appears to be trying to rise up to crawl away from the piles of bodies, and a tall SS man walking up a few feet away with a sub-machinegun aimed at her.

I wondered how people of any sort could be so cold as to look someone in the eye and commit such brutal crimes. It was horrifying. I was up that night thinking about so many others that have happened in this country in just past few years. Dylann Storm Roof going to a Bible Study at the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church and then murdering the people there because they were African-American and he was a White Supremacist. There was Frazier Glenn Cross, a former KKK leader and militant white supremacist that killed three people near a Jewish Community center in Overland Park Kansas on the Eve of Passover, 2014. He claimed, “I had no criminal intent, I had a patriotic intent to stop genocide against my people,” and “I hate Jews…. They are the ones who destroy us.”

Then there was Neo-Nazi Wade Page who walked into a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin and killed six people in cold blood. There was James Holmes who went into a crowded theater in Aurora Colorado and killed twelve and wounded fifty-eight more in a mass killing spree. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Of course there was the Boston Marathon Bombing, and other killings committed by the Tsarnaev brothers, and twenty-year-old Adam Lanza who murdered twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut. Then there is George Zimmerman, a man in a league of his own, who killed an unarmed black teenager  and got away with it, much like so many murderers of so many others, not just in this country, but others as well.

Of course this is nothing new, we can look back that the 9-11 hijackers who killed almost 3000 people; Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols who killed 168 and wounded hundreds more when they bombed the Murrah Federal Building; as well as the terrorists of ISIL who routinely look into the eyes of their victims and then kill them.

The list can go on and on, and the murderers span the spectrum of American. Native born and immigrants, whites, blacks, Latin Americans, Asians, well educated men such as Holmes, children of privilege, Christians, Moslems, Jews, various other religions as well as atheists and agnostics. Some seemed to be motivated by some kind of intense hatred, religion, ideology, race; others apparently with some kind of mental imbalance or sense that they, or their race were the victims of the people that they killed.

Whether people murder others in cold blood, be it in large numbers or by looking them in the eye and pulling the trigger, no matter what their motivation for doing so, there is a common factor. It is not the weapons, though I do think the easy availability of so many lethal weapons is a factor, and that we need to tighten the requirements and even limit the types of weapons and amount of ammunition one can legally have, there were over 11,000 gun related homicides in the United States in 2014, I have left out suicides, which were close to 20,000 and justified defense using a gun which are so few that they don’t hit the chart. That number for one year dwarfs the number of all Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I digress…. I am not against people owning guns, I will probably get myself a carbine for marksmanship practice someday, preferably a bolt action World War II Mauser if I can find one in good shape, but again I digress…. The easy access to guns too, is just a part of the equation.

It is not religion, ideology, or political differences, while that certainly plays a part, they are just contributing factors; the same is true of mental illness.

But there is something else, something that an American Army psychologist assigned to the major war criminals noted at the Nuremburg trials: “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trails 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” 

If you look at the video evidence provided by the killers, their writings, their Internet postings, or the testimony that any of them who survived long enough to go to trial; there is one thing that comes through loud and clear. None of them, not a one have any empathy for their fellow human beings, and as such when they look the people that they are about to kill in the eye do not feel anything.

It does not matter if they are men who perpetrated genocide or killed, or enslaved hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in the name of their religion, ideology, or political-economic systems; or if they are mass murderers or terrorists not connected with a state; who kill in the name of God, race, or ideology; or simply those who hate others and kill to avenge a real or perceived wrong against them. or even those who can look their victim in the eye and then murder them, they all lack the ability to feel for their victims.

The lack empathy, the totality of narcissism, the inability to see others as valued human beings; that it the definition of evil; and there is so much of it in our world. When I saw those pictures that the New York Daily News posted I was reminded of that; and I have had a hard time sleeping since.

I realize all too well that Gustave Gilbert was right; evil is the absence of empathy. The fact is that almost anything else is solvable, but the absence of empathy is the one characteristic that cannot be solved by humanity, and it may be the instrument of our demise as a species.

I say that because there are men and women who would not hesitate to unleash the hell of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons of mass destruction on their enemies and the world. Despite their differences of their belief systems, religion or ideology, these people all display a certain absence of empathy; and that my friends makes them dangerous. Those who can look a single person, or a number of people in the eye and kill them are no different than those who have the ability, or desire the ability to kill millions; for none of them truly believe that their victims are worthy of life. Life unworthy of life, that is how the Nazis referred to their victims, and how those without empathy see their victims.

I’m hoping that his will not be the case and I’m hoping that I will be able to sleep,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under crime, History, Political Commentary, terrorism

Security and Freedom the Precarious Balance: Looking at the NSA Leaks and Terrorist Threats in Light of Star Trek Deep Space Nine

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Odo: Am I the only one who’s worried that there are still Changelings here on Earth?

Joseph Sisko: Worried? I’m scared to death. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let them change the way I live my life.

Captain Sisko: If the Changelings want to destroy what we’ve built here, they’re going to have to do it themselves. We will not do it for them.

The current leaks of FISA documents regarding NSA data phone and internet collection programs including the PRISM program by ex Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden have provoked a long needed debate. That debate is less about Snowden then it is about the broader issues that have been shunted to the side in the wake of the 9-11-2001 attacks and the passage of the Patriot Act.

Of course much of the debate right now is about Snowden himself, his actions, his loyalties, his motives and institutional questions regarding how he was given such broad access to Top Secret documents not directly related to his job. As important as the later is, the more critical issue is how we as a republic governed in a democratic manner balance legitimate security needs and individual liberty.

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I wrestle with these issues all the time as a Priest, historian, theologian, ethicist and Naval Officer. I am a civil libertarian who also happens to know a thing or two about National Security policy. The fact is that as much some pundits and politicians are ready to jump off the edge entirely on one side of the divide or the other, their previous political differences notwithstanding we see men and women lining up to praise or condemn Edward Snowden with little regard to the deeper issues involved.

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The real question is how we balance the legitimate need for security with freedom and regard for Constitutional liberties. The fact is there are terrorists in our midst. The Tsaraev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing are a case in point. There are others who I am sure are interested in or capable of much more devastating attacks. Somehow we have to attempt to protect our people and way of life without destroying the Constitution and our liberties in the process.

In the Star Trek Deep Space Nine Episodes Homefront and Paradise Lost four Changelings from the Dominion reach Earth and in a series of relatively minor terrorist attacks create a chaotic situation. In response Starfleet officers take drastic action to convince the Federation President and Council to declare what amounts to Martial Law and the suspension of civil liberties on Earth.

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One of the Changelings takes the form of Chief O’Brien and contacts Captain Sisko, who due to his experience in the Dominion War and with Shape Shifters was recalled to Earth to assist Starfleet Command. The Changeling engages Sisko in a conversation near Starfleet Headquarters.

Changeling: Let me ask you a question. How many Changelings do you think are here on Earth right at this moment?

Captain Sisko: I’m not going to play any guessing games with you.

Changeling: Ah. What if I were to tell you that there are only four on this entire planet? Huh? Not counting Constable Odo, of course. Think of it – just four of us. And look at the havoc we’ve wrought.

The thing it it doesn’t take many terrorists to disrupt a society but at the same time the society’s response can dictate how deep the impact of the terrorists are on it. Terrorists create suspicion and tend to make people distrust others, in fact anyone that might be different than them. The response to terrorist attacks or threats is frequently disproportionately felt by regular citizens, anyone who has flown on a commercial airline in the United States since 9-11, the passage of the Patriot Act and formation of the TSA can testify.

While security at airports may be an inconvenience the fact is that the Patriot Act also gives Law Enforcement, Intelligence and Military agencies tremendous powers to collect human and electronic data on almost any citizen. Likewise the act increased the powers of these agencies under existing counter-intelligence laws. Some say that they have actually gutted the protections 4th Amendment and that may actually be a valid point.

The conversation between Sisko and the Changeling ends when the O’Brien Changeling comments “We do not fear you the way you fear us. In the end, it’s your fear that will destroy you.”

I think that really is what we have to watch out for in this War on Terrorism. It is far too easy to in our quest for security to destroy the very foundations of our governmental system. The sad thing is that history shows us how this can happen, wars without end and suspicions of enemies within and without have destroyed civilizations and transformed republics like Athens and Rome into tyrannies.

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Fear is an amazing thing. It triggers responses that are almost predictable. In the Homefront episode were civilian family members of Starfleet personnel are forced to give blood samples to prove that they are not Changelings masquerading as them Captain Sisko’s elderly father Joseph objects and eventually is able to avoid being tested, over the objections of his son who in in charge of the program.

Joseph Sisko: Benjamin Lafayette Sisko, what the hell has gotten into your head? You actually thought I was one of them, didn’t you?

Captain Sisko: I don’t know. I wasn’t sure.

Joseph Sisko: This business has got you so twisted around, you… you can’t think straight. You’re seeing shapeshifters everywhere! Maybe you ought to think about something for a minute. If I was a smart shapeshifter, a really good one, the first thing I would do would be to grab some poor soul off the street, absorb every ounce of his blood and let it out on cue whenever someone like you tried to test me. Don’t you see? There isn’t a test that’s been created a smart man can’t find his way around.

The truth of the matter is that regardless of what happens with Edward Snowden that we really need to look at and have a real discussion of what in the name of security we are willing to give up and what we are not. Technology has increased in ways that most people never imagined that it would be able to do, and that we could not imagine non-state terrorist enemies using against us.

Those are hard questions and they require a serious discussion. If we don’t have that discussion we will be the ones that destroy our way of life and republic and not any terrorist.

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As the Paradise Lost episode comes to its climax Captain Sisko confronts the Starfleet Admiral who has implemented the martial law degree on earth.

Admiral Leyton: You’ve always had a strong sense of duty.

Captain Sisko: My duty is to protect the Federation.

Admiral Leyton: That’s what we’re trying to do.

Captain Sisko: What you’re trying to do is to seize control of Earth and place it under military rule.

Admiral Leyton: If that’s what it takes to stop the Dominion.

Captain Sisko: So you’re willing to destroy Paradise in order to save it?

I think that Sisko’s final question is something that we need to ask those that would use the law, even bad laws to gain security but which ultimately could destroy us.

Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under national security, News and current events, Political Commentary, star trek

The Tsaraev Brothers and the Danger of Faith Without Love

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“The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion.”  Paul Tillich 

There are many who claim faith of every type, be it religious, political, economic or scientific who have nothing but hatred in their hearts for others.

This was again made manifest this past week in the actions of the brothers Tsaraev in their orgy of violence inflicted on the people of Boston. Their crimes were committed in the name of Islam, as are many like them. However, such actions be they in the name of Allah, Yahweh, Jesus or any other deity show the intrinsic falseness and evil of such “faith” no matter how orthodox it may be.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Faith can be a powerful thing, for good or for evil. However when that faith is separated from love it is no longer of God, or even human. I do think that the apostle was absolutely right when he noted that if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

Love is actually the key and love of God is always connected to love of neighbor, practical, observable and tangible love, not mere words. G.K. Chesterton said it well in this. “To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”

However to the “true believers” of so many religions, political, social and scientific orthodoxies, the two sometimes seem inexorably linked by the often fanatical actions of their most devout adherents being more concerned with power than love. The sad thing is that I don’t think that any of us are completely immune to such behavior and attitudes and probably all of us have a at least a little potential to be terrorists given the right circumstances.

When I read some blogs and websites written by some people that can be best described as “true believers” I am amazed at the violence of the words as well as the hatred and derision for others that do not believe like them that are contained. The fact that those are not occasional slips, errors of judgement on bad days like all of us are capable of making and do make all the time.

If that was the case it would not be that much of an issue. However, the authors of the majority many of these site are consumed with hatred toward others as a means of “defending” their beliefs. Some advocate violence in doing that, unencumbered by any doubts in their beliefs no matter what “orthodoxy” they believe in. Eric Hoffer wrote “Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance.”

I think this is exactly what motivates men like the Tsaraev brothers to kill the innocent and which lurks in those that preach hatred in the name of their god or whatever belief system is the functional equivalent of a god for them. The only difference is that most have not crossed the physical boundary from “nursing a fanatical grievance” and advocating violence to actually killing. Somehow I think that once that seed is planted, and cultivated that it sometimes takes on a life of its own.

The apostle was right: “If I have not love….” 

Peace

 

Padre Steve+

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