Practically speaking, being able to identify at a deeply human level with people capable of carrying out horrific atrocities does not mean that one need not prepare to defend oneself when it is 1939 and Adolf Hitler is gearing up for war. Nor does it mean in 2015 one does not seek to identify and detain potential ISIS terrorists before they find an opportunity to act. It does, however, mean that on a higher, strategic level one makes a concerted effort to understand what the human motivations are that are operative in the ones one fears. In the moment, it may not be helpful. Over time, it will rewrite the basic script.
Consider the difference between how the victors treated defeated Germany in 1918 and in 1945. In 1918, all that was offered was humiliation and contempt, with no acknowledgement that no particular blame accrued to Germany in 1914 that was not equally shared by the other empires that went to war. In no strict moral sense were Great Britain, France, or Imperial Russia more virtuous actors than the German, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires when the war broke out. All the powers went to war for reasons that are understandable from a deep human perspective, but none with an overwhelming claim to higher virtue. For a variety of very practical reasons – not least the fact the United States entered the conflict and turned the balance against it – Germany lost the war, and was then humiliated by terms dictated at Versailles.
Scroll forward to 1945. Arguably, the moral case is much clearer. Whatever Germany’s legitimate grievances in the 1930’s may have been, the atrocities carried out under Hitler’s command compelled as full a military response as the Allies could muster. Few people, whatever their other differences, would question that it was a good thing the Third Reich was defeated and Germany completely occupied by forces from the countries that defeated it. Most notable, however, is how the country was treated this second time in defeat. Fundamentally, the humanity of the German people was acknowledged and their need to rebuild and to reconnect with their neighbors on an amicable footing was respected.
To be sure, the scripts followed were markedly different in the eastern and western parts of the country as the Cold War took hold between the occupying powers, and the country was divided. Common for both, however, was a willingness to integrate the parts into the respective systems of economic and military alliances. Since, it has taken generations for Germans and their neighbors to work through the traumatic legacy of the two wars. Despite ample grounds for impatience, annoyance, frustration, and anxiety among them for economic, political, legal and other policy reasons over the intervening years, Germany and its neighbors have learned to behave largely as neighbors do, when neighbors are able to see the human beings on the other side of the fence; even when the grass there is growing taller, or the crab apple is dropping more fruit across the fence, or the adolescent child is playing louder music than one likes.
Imagine now one were to look closely at the young people who are drawn to answer the call of ISIS and to see what grievances drive them. Imagine now one were to look closely at the leaders of Iran, with whom their Western peers still find it hard to make a working peace, and to see what human qualities there call for respect and recognition. Imagine the peoples of Palestine and Israel setting aside the differences that largely define their relationships and looking instead for the humans wanting their dignity, worthiness and basic needs for security and prosperity to be acknowledged and honored. Imagine now one were to look within the United States at peoples of European, African, Latin, Asian, and indigenous heritages, Northerners and Southerners, Easterners and Westerners, left-wing progressives and right-wing libertarians, peoples of every ethical and religious tradition, educational background and economic condition, and all were asked to see in the others first the human qualities that are always there, and from there then to get on with the business of doing the business at hand.
Few are the psychopaths and sociopaths completely beyond the reach of human connection. The Adam Lanzas and Anders Breiviks of the world may always be hardest to reach. Even so, there is in every case a desire to send a message, though the message may simply be testimony to unbearable pain, loneliness, despair and attendant rage. Homo sum. Humani nil a me alienum puto. To be human is above all to speak, to signal, to connect, with a drive and a need orders of magnitude greater than that of any other creatures under the sun. Hear me. See me. Embrace me. Honor me. Terence was right. I am a man. Nothing human is strange to me.