Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Understanding Everyone: Empathic Reflections about Osama Bin-Laden’s Killing - Part 2

by Miki Kashtan

This is part 2 of a post I started a couple of weeks ago. At that time I was offering my understanding to the people who are celebrating Osama Bin-Laden’s death, as well as to those who judge the celebration.

Today I want to explore in a similar manner other positions that people have within the range of responses to his killing that I am aware of. However, before doing that I want to respond to some comments on the previous post.


First, to an anonymous person who said this:

“I think you missed a vital point while trying to walk in someone else's shoes, and that is that some people seemed to be celebrating because they believe in vengeance. … They are celebrating because it's a video game, because they believe in an eye for an eye, because he's the bad guy and we're the good guys, and because they don't see him as a real human being. … it's much more of a challenge to empathise with someone who believes in the justness of the killing (murder, actually), and think they would be happy to do it themselves, given half a chance.”

I am appreciating the invitation to stretch even further into the experiential gap with those who are different from us. Initially it seems next to impossible. How can I truly enter the experience of believing in vengeance, of wishing I could be the one to kill, or seeing him as not really human? I feel in me the recoiling, the visceral level distance. And so I walk slowly towards it, as far as I can, to make emotional sense of it. I know enough to know that connection is not made at the level of beliefs. If I only put my attention on someone’s beliefs I am unlikely to get anywhere. And so I shift my focus, I try to ask: What is at the heart of the belief that someone is bad, that someone could be less than human? What is at the heart of the belief that it’s OK to get rid of some people because they are bad? I want to remain curious about the answer, open to discovering it, letting it emerge from practice.

Why is it that some of us want vengeance, that some of us think of killing someone as justice, so much so that we can even derive pleasure from doing it? Thinking of someone as less than human is familiar to me. I have done it plenty of times over the course of my life, and can still feel the pull to go there with regards, ironically, to those who might be making someone else less than human. Irony, and no surprise. Beholding such a gap and remaining open-hearted is such intense pain and confusion. I can see wanting to close the heart.

This is not the end. There is more. There is the delight in someone’s death, the belief that it’s the right thing, the just thing, the only way to go. What is the fundamental human need that’s leading someone to believe in “an eye for an eye?” If I truly embrace the core assumption at the very heart of Nonviolent Communication – that every human action is an attempt to meet a need – then I must find a need that could give rise to this belief. I am struggling to connect the dots in full, because I have no emotional reference point. I still find immense value in the effort to understand, even if I never get there in full. It is a human phenomenon, it’s happened since time immemorial, and I want to understand it. My faith tells me it’s a human experience emerging from needs that are no different from my own. I can name them, and have no emotional vibrancy to them. That’s how far I can go. Perhaps I need to role play this person in order to make contact. For now, I imagine that this kind of belief creates an enormous relief with regards to order in the universe. A sense of belonging in a human family now purified. I do, still, believe that deeper down is fear, and the desire to protect what is dear, and that the delight is in the success itself. And the journey is incomplete. I hope to keep learning this one for as long as I live.


I am imagining myself living in Pakistan, being a Moslem, and having the experience of violation of my national sovereignty and social dignity as the army of a foreign and ill-liked country proceeds to do whatever they wish on my soil. I imagine feeling infuriated and helpless, humiliated.

I am curious why I find so much more ease in relating to this experience, even though it’s also not one I have experienced myself? I guess it’s because I do have an emotional reference point. It’s quite completely different, and yet I sense the affinity. I’ve had the experience of non-consensual sex, with someone I knew, to boot, and more than once. That experience provides a window through which the helplessness and anguish are clear as day. I can sense the depth of the wish to be able to protect what is dear, to maintain the integrity and dignity of identity, of body, of borders, to have a say in what happens to me, to us, on our land. It blends easily with my experience. Even though I have never felt the fury and rage that often come in such moments, I can completely see it. It’s not difficult for me to imagine how much of a fertile ground this experience is for future generations of people set on destroying the people who caused such harm.

And now, through this, I can loop back to the celebrators, united across their opposing positions. I imagine this was my missing link: that the vengeance, the eye for an eye, the celebration of the killing in different moments in different groups, points to the assault on the soul that is at the heart of loss of dignity. I can now imagine that the people who wanted Osama dead, who wanted to kill him themselves if they could, experienced previous actions by Osama as an assault on their dignity and humanity, and that the vengeance is a response to that level of humiliation and helplessness, more so than to safety. I still don’t have a way of knowing. It just feels a little more true, a little more humanly rich, and closer to them as fellow humans.

I don’t feel done quite yet, so I may very well come back to this topic one more time. Still open to new perspectives and players to understand, please send my way.


  1. Yes, I feel a deep agreement in the sense that assault on my basic dignity as a human being, a violation of that core value of life for me, could be even more threatening than physical violence alone.

    And that maybe "an eye for an eye" could possibly be a response of the damaged soul and mind, saying: "If someone directly assaults and damages part of another person's core humanity, the only response that can express the horror of that experience might be to give that same experience 'back' to the accused." (Just thinking that's the reason for the choice of 'eye' over 'arm' or other body part.......(perhaps: "If you take my eye from me, you take away part of my ability to connect with ('see') your humanity...."

    For that reason, I have much pain over the bible's going only that far and not to the point we are groping toward: the full humanity even of the one who assaulted and removed part of his brother's humanity!!

    .....maybe also, the belief in true healing of the 'lost part' of both party's humanity and 'divine spark'......hard and long as that may take....


  2. I encourage you to find people in-person who actually hold these perspectives that you are wanting to understand and engage in a dialogue with them. I imagine that true understanding is far more likely to emerge from direct conversation with real people as opposed to through speculation from a distance.

  3. Ian, I agree that such dialogues are tremendously important and worth pursuing. But I see Miki as doing something complementary: exploring the geography of her (and our) essential humanity to find a reference point for empathy. My guess is that this work can prepare us for the dialogues you suggest--or it can be a way to process the dialogues after they take place. Either way, I'm seeing a both-and here.

    Miki, I have never seen anyone express this particular journey in such accessible detail, and I think it's very important work. Your attempt to find common frames of reference, as in your section on violation, is something I do a lot, and I always worry whether the other person might see it as trivializing her experience. Your expression of it makes me see that it is not trivializing at all, but rather an honest attempt to connect with the other's need. Very nice thinking.

  4. i am appreciating john's comment - it helps me understand that there is inner work and outer work, and they are both distinct and complementary.

    being in dialogue would be for the purpose of forging connection between another and myself.

    being in dialogue would ALSO deepen my understanding. in that sense it would, indeed, contribute to my inner work.

    and, as john said, doing what i am doing inside would also contribute to the possibility of true dialogue.

    i know i have more confidence in anyone's work for change if we are able to go at it with a truly open heart. that's why i am doing this. as well as to show the possibility when i write about it.

  5. I'm really interested to hear you work through this. Something in your words is confusing to me though. Maybe that is me, but it feels like we are working through unpicking all of this stuff with you and that there is a lot of unpicking to be done.

    You are very brave in any event to be saying all this I think and I think that there is a need for people exploring and reflecting on this stuff as you do.

    I was very struck by your comment "I’ve had the experience of non-consensual sex, with someone I knew, to boot, and more than once."

    I appreciate that you may not have written that to share that piece of specific information but rather to share why you have understanding of, and can relate to, the sense of violation some Pakistanti Moslems may feel. However, framed as they are in careful language, those words still struck me.

    So I would like to say I am sorry to hear this (though you may not be asking anyone to do this and it may be out of place) and to just hear it.

    I am working through those same experiences and trying to use NVC, meditation & other spiritual and other techniques to do so. I am looking forward to practising being in the place where I can not be so totally identified with the feelings arising from the story of violation.

    Thanks for what you are trying to do here and I am excited to have discovered this site and your work.

  6. I also really appreciate being allowed to witness Miki’s honest, self-searching process. And I relate to all of the feelings and sentiments as if they were mine.

    One idea which arises in me is one I learned during my apprenticeship as a mediator in small claims court. We mediated a mother who was suing her son just so she could see him, because he found her communications so violent he chose the strategy of staying away from her for years. They were so angry with each other that we chose to see each of them separately. She told a story about her compassion and subsequent victimization when she went to his house when he was ill, and he threw her out.

    When we interviewed him, we didn’t mention this incident, but he did. His version included the information that she had insulted him and his wife, and that was why she had been asked to leave.

    I started to notice that in many of my mediations, when asked to tell their story, people choose to start the story at the place where the other person’s action (inexplicably) is violent and victimizing towards them. But if you back the story up, you often find that the violence was in response to their own unnoticed violence towards the “perpetrator.”

    I came to call this “Where They Start the Story.”

    The need for “justice” that many westerners’ feel, I believe, comes from this phenomenon. We have so little sense of history; we know so little about the story of the actions of our countries and our economic system on the “third world” it seems to most westerners that the attacks, like the son’s attack on his mom, were unprovoked, and so unjust.

    That’s the problem with “an eye for an eye.” Each attack is seen as the first, and so it must be “balanced” to “teach” the other party what it feels like to be the recipient of violence. But if each party starts the story with the last act of violence towards them, and ignores their own acts towards the other party (because they were focused on their own needs at the time, and not the others’) the “lesson” never is learned, it just starts the next round blind “justice”.

  7. dear max,

    i was deeply nourished reading your comment. i appreciated the clear understanding, the simplicity of your insight, and the compassion i felt for all sides, including the many westerners's ignorance of the effect of their actions.

    i want to encourage you, if you haven't already done so, to find a way to flesh this out into a full article and get it out somewhere.

  8. I don't know if this is fully related but when I heard the news, my first thought was about Obama's quote on "empathy deficit" ( How could a person proning empathy could then engage in such actions explaining it was the 'right' thing to do. This leaves me angry and discouraged about the state of affairs in this country and worried about the potential negative consequences going forward.

  9. Thanks for your encouragement. I am actually "fleshing out" this and a lot of other ideas I have learned using NVC in my Marriage Mediation practice over the last ten years into a book I'm calling "Tired of Having the Same Old Argument." (You can see more of my ideas on my blog of that same name at )