Are we required to have empathy for those who are evil?

I recently watched the movie Hotel Rwanda. This is, of course, a very disturbing movie about true evil that was committed on a massive scale, as well as being a hopeful movie about courage and respect for the humanity of others in the face of such evil.

So, should we try to feel empathy for those who slaughtered their neighbors, including small children, so brutally?

Yes, because feeling empathy does not mean condoning or excusing what the recipient of one’s empathy does. Empathy may help us understand why humans can commit evil, either on an individual scale (as in the case of an abused child who grows up to become an abuser) or on a larger scale, as in Rwanda. But that doesn’t mean that harming other people is ever okay.

Instead, we recognize and admit that we share a common humanity with those who commit evil, rather than distancing ourselves from them and consoling ourselves with the notion that we could never do what they did. Certainly, we all hope that we would be the brave ones to resist the Nazis, to shelter those being persecuted, to speak up when we see someone abusing their child in public. But until we can admit that all of us contain within our human souls the capacity to do wrong as well as right, we can make no progress in dealing with evil.

Who joined the Crusades? Who slaughtered whole families of Native Americans in their villages? Who enslaved Africans? Who lynched them when they were freed? Who participated in the killing fields of Cambodia? Who watched their Jewish neighbors being taken away to death camps and said nothing? Who kidnaps boys in Africa today and brutalizes them until they turn into killers? People not unlike us, that’s who.

I am reminded of the famous Stanford experiment from 1971, wherein students were randomly divided into 2 groups–prisoners and guards. The experiment was supposed to last 2 weeks, but they had to stop it after 6 days because the students who were the guards became so cruel (although they were not allowed to physically hurt the prisoners) and the prisoners became so traumatized. These were normal, typical college students, no different, really, from our own friends, our own children.

And in all cases of mass evil, the common denominator that allowed it to happen (besides that of power) was that the people who were slaughtered or raped or mutilated were made out to be “others”, less than human. In other words, those who committed the evil acts had absolutely no empathy for those whom they hurt.