Empathy is the essence of what it means to be human. It’s what Stephen Paddock lacked when he sprayed bullets into a music festival crowd. And empathy is also what’s making it hard for me to stop thinking about the 58 lives he took and the nearly 500 injured, many of whom will never be the same.
What was it about the sound of automatic gunfire that chills my blood every time I’ve head it? To me, human lives are precious. Each rapid-fire bullet was a potential death sentence.
One minute, people were laughing and dancing, celebrating the life that would soon be cut short. And Stephen Paddock couldn’t have cared less.
How do I know that, when investigators still don’t have a clue to his motives? Because Paddock couldn’t have plotted to kill as many people as possible if he had a shred of human empathy. At least for strangers.This is what the Vegas shooter’s brother Eric had to say about Stephen Paddock’s steps to protect and provide for his long-time girlfriend, Marilou Danley:
He manipulated her to be as far away from here and safe when he committed this. The people he loved he took care of, and as he was descending into hell he took care of her.
After hurricane Irma, he called his mom in Florida to check up on her safety after and also provided her a walker.
So, was Paddock an extreme case of compartmentalization? He cared about his girlfriend and family, but the lives of strangers held no value to him. Indeed, the bump stocks and bipods he used — and his chosen target of a crowd of 22,000 — showed that he took great pains to make sure he could take as many lives as possible before his hidden cameras alerted him to the approach of police officers.
Of the couple’s relationship, Eric said:
She was probably one of the only people I’ve ever seen that he’d go out of his way to do a little thing for. He went out of his way to be nice to her. This is not something Steve does — go out of his way.
Steve expected people to wait on him for the most part. But he waited on her sometimes. He would do what she wanted to do. He would defer to her in the way that he wouldn’t to the rest of humanity. Even me.
This is the same phenomenon that allowed Nazi concentration camp guards to slaughter other people’s children, then go home and play ball with his own.
Tribalism: An Off Switch for Empathy?
Tribalism tends to neutralize the ordinary expression of empathy. Those other people aren’t fully human and don’t deserve my compassion.
Indeed, Hayley Geftman-Gold, a CBS Vice President, was fired for declaring on Facebook that she had no sympathy for the Vegas shooting victims, saying:
If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered I have no hope that Repugs will ever do the right thing. I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.
There was a similar rush to the gutter of humanity after a politically motivated gunman nearly fatally wounded Rep. Steve Scalise and injured six others. Though Democratic congresspeople were quick to offer their sympathy, a torrent of callous venom was unleashed on Twitter.
Yes, I know that Scalise, who still relies on a mobility scooter, has just reaffirmed his opposition to gun control. But basic compassion requires us to recognize the common humanity of those whose politics we despise.
While lack of empathy is at the heart of the GOP’s repeated efforts to gut Medicaid, I certainly don’t wish death to those who would cripple this vital program.
Has tribalism cauterized our humanity?
Stephen Pollock’s father was a con man and a bank robber who was described in his police report as “diagnosed psychopathic.” Psychopathy is a disorder marked by the absence of empathy and a lack of conscience.
Stephen Pollock may therefore have inherited a dysfunctional moral center. So, does that mean that I feel empathetic toward him?
No, of course not. Psychopaths may not feel bound by society’s moral strictures, but they do understand what they are. They simply don’t care.
But you do.
It’s incumbent upon those with functioning moral centers to refrain from turning them off for those they disagree with.
Empathy is the essence of humanity. Use it or lose it.
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