Is Anyone Beyond Compassion?


Photo by Tyler Nix

A religiously radicalized young man detonates bombs at city event killing three and injuring 280. A disgruntled middle-aged man walks into a bar and fires a gun at two Indian men, mistaking them for “Iranians”, killing one, wounding the other, and seriously injuring someone else who tried to intervene. A white supremacist drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors killing one and wounding 19 more.

Are these people beyond our compassion? There are things we feel compelled to do and say when we hear about, witness, or experience threats or acts of hatred directed at ourselves or others we care about. We have an urge to:

  • call out the perpetrator(s), shaming and condemning them as evil, seeking punishment, retribution, or revenge
  • passionately declare sides on the issue, wishing to make our allegiances clearly known and alienating those we perceive as “the other”
  • protest immediately, angrily, and publicly, before all the details are known, lest any period of silent reflection be seen as causing or condoning further harmful acts
  • make a pre-emptive strike or defend through aggression

Its human to think about doing these things when we feel that we, or those we love, are being threatened or attacked. A fierce, protective instinct takes hold. We may fear being seen as part of the problem if we fail to react quickly and decisively. We may even believe these types of retributive reactions are necessary to prevent further harm. However, there is little hard evidence to show these types of reactions are truly helpful in the long term.

An example of this is the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I have relatives that live in the neighboring towns, so I got to hear first hand accounts. Although the intention behind the protests were admirable (protecting sacred land and the water supply from “big oil”), there was much collateral damage to the environment and the livelihood of people who live there. At least one person died from drowning in the river and many were injured. Businesses lost money, including the Standing Rock Sioux’s casino which employed over 300 people and funded essential programs within the reservation’s eight districts, such as heating assistance, food distribution, fire and ambulance services, waste management, and education. Nearby farmers and ranchers lost equipment and livestock. Tons of human waste, debris and trash had to be removed at great public expense. Ironically, the waste from the protesters threatened to pollute the river if it wasn’t cleaned up before the thaw. The cost of policing the protest and cleaning up the site surpassed $30 million… and the pipeline began flowing in June.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence that a more reasoned and compassionate response leads to better long term outcomes. But, we rarely hear about examples that show us this to be true. Fundamental changes in belief and perspective do not happen quickly – they take patience, devotion and courage – a thousand year view. Stories of radical compassion are not dramatic or considered headlines-worthy, but they teach us important lessons. Here are a few such stories:

  • The Nonviolent & Violent Campaigns & Outcomes (NAVCO) data project catalogues major nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns around the globe from 1900 onward. It shows that nonviolent resistance is more than twice as successful as violent resistance, both in the short-term and the longer-term, even in the face of brutal regime repression. But, in order to be successful these nonviolent campaigns need to be multifaceted and not just include marches, protests or occupations.
  • Norway’s incarceration rate in 2014 was just 75 per 100,000 people compared to 707 per 100,000 people in the US and it had one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world (20%. there vs. 76.6% in the US). This is because Norway prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment – prisoners are well-treated, they are given medical and mental health treatment, taught job and social skills, and helped to reintegrate back into society.
  • Derek Black, the son of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, renounced the tenants of the white nationalist movement (a “rebranding” of white supremacy) largely due to the patience, kindness and friendship of his Jewish and “non-white” college peers. He wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center explaining his awakening in 2013 and now speaks out against racism and works toward positive change.
  • Saudia Arabia, Singapore and Yemen have programs for rehabilitating terrorists. They treat them well while they are detained, use religious education and psychological counseling to de-radicalize them, and help them reintegrate into society. In Saudi Arabia the program is said to be quite successful – of the thousands of people they have released, their program reports a 12% recidivism rate.
  • Daryl Davis is an African-American pianist who wrote a book called Klan-Destine Relationships about his experiences making friends with members of the KKK. As a result of his efforts, several key members left the Klan and denounced the group’s beliefs. Davis’ advice is, “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.”
  • When Professor Loretta Ross was executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, she worked compassionately with men who had been convicted of raping and murdering women. These men went on to found the first antiviolence program run by men to end violence against women, called Prisoners Against Rape. In rural Tennessee, she taught antiracism to women whose families were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Ross accompanied Floyd Cochran, once the national spokesman for the Aryan Nations, on a national atonement tour, saying “Here’s a guy who had never done anything but be a Nazi since he was 14 years old, and now he was 35 with no job, no education, no hope. And we helped people like them.”
  • Research summarized in the Juvenile Justice bulletin published in 2010 by the U.S. Dept. of Justice states that youth are at higher risk of joining a gang if they, among other things, experience negative life events, have mental health problems, have been victimized, experience multiple caretaker transitions, have many problems at school, or live in communities where they feel unsafe. They note that the most successful programs for reducing gang violence are comprehensive and focus on prevention by strengthening families and schools, improving community supervision, training teachers and parents to manage disruptive youth, and teaching students interpersonal skills.
  • Several major cities view gun violence as a public health problem and treat it like any other contagious disease. Programs like Cure Violence and CeaseFire use “violence interrupters”, often ex felons and gang members, who help those involved in violent situations to sort out disagreements, change attitudes, and prevent further violence. These programs have reduced the incidence of retaliatory shootings in many cities, but they struggle for funding in tight budgets. There was a documentary made about these programs called “The Interrupters”.
  • After being repeatedly threatened by the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Nebraska, Rabbi Michael Weisser decided the best thing to do was to reach out to him personally. Over time he befriended the man and even invited him to live in his home with his family when he became ill. Eventually this man left the Klan, renouncing his earlier beliefs, and converted to Judaism.
  • Richmond, CA used to be one of the most violent cities in the US until they adopted an unconventional program called Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. They convince many of the city’s most lethal offenders to become fellows in the program by offering them payments to stay out of trouble. Fellows are provided opportunities for personal, social, educational, and vocational development and the community helps them build skills, credentials, experience, and networks to ensure a viable economic future. In 2014, the city experienced a 31% reduction in firearm related homicides and a 21% reduction in firearm assaults from the previous year. The program has now been adopted in a number of other cities.
  • Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program replaced police officers with social workers and paramedics in nonviolent situations. In six months on a budget of $200,000 they responded to almost 750 calls with no resulting arrests. Breaking the cycle of incarceration is important, not only to those in crisis, but to law enforcement and emergency responders who are freed up to respond to calls better suited to their training. Many of the STAR responses resulted in connecting people with services like shelter, food aid, counseling, and medication. Almost 70% of the people they assisted didn’t have a place to live, so shifting some of the money spent on arrest and incarceration could be spent on housing people, which may in turn create more stability and less need for law enforcement and STAR teams.
  • In Oregon, the 30+ year old CAHOOTS program sends teams consisting of a mental health professional and a medic to respond to more than 20% of calls to 911 in Eugene and Springfield. In 2019, out of a total of about 24,000 calls, they called for police backup only 150 times (about 6% of the time) and they’ve never experienced a serious injury or a death. In addition, it’s estimated they saved the county over $15 million a year on ER, EMS and law enforcement costs. The CAHOOTS program costs about 2% of the total law enforcement budget in the county.
  • Similarly, in Austin, TX the Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (EMCOT) has served almost 7,000 people since 2013. It is dispatched through 911 calls an average of 9 times per day and has helped keep people from being inappropriately funneled into emergency rooms and jails, instead linking them to community services.

When you ask people to give up hate, you have to be there for them when they do. – Rev CT Vivian

All of the “monsters” in these stories were real people with complex histories and circumstances. In many cases, there were deeply rooted societal factors, like poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and racism that contributed to the growth of fear and hatred in these individuals. Longstanding social problems and deeply held cultural beliefs are hard to change – and we fear change. So, it can seem easier to put out fires as they flare up, blaming and punishing the individual. But, these stories show a different possible path – one that has the power to create enduring change or at least prevent further escalation. Like most human beings, these “monsters” responded to wise compassion and benefited from it.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

These programs were all important experiments, proving that a punitive and aggressive approach isn’t the most effective. It’s crucial that we witness this possibility. But, it’s only a start. Crisis management is a downstream approach. It’s a temporary and ineffective strategy to rely on individuals or to shuffle problems between agencies like a shell game, thinking they will somehow simply disappear. When I worked in college counseling centers, we were often asked to help with campus problems that weren’t being resolved through traditional responses. While these programs varied a lot in their symptomatic effectiveness, none solved the underlying problems.

For example, I’ve been involved in responding to behavioral health crisis calls to the campus safety department, a team that addressed disruptive behavior complaints to student affairs, and departments that respond to sexual assault on and off campus involving students. The more successful long-term efforts were ones that were well resourced, collaborative on a systems-wide level, and focused on getting to the root of the problem rather than mere punishment. The ones that fizzled out tended to have high expectations with very little commitment from those in power:

  • few viable resources were available in the community to refer people to once the immediate crisis had passed
  • team members were treated like volunteers, adding additional duties with no additional compensation, often outside of regular business hours
  • there was little to no financial investment in the program and little to no coordination with other campus contingents

During several of my graduate training practica, I worked in a social service capacity with various agencies. A batterer’s treatment program had some success in reducing domestic violence offender recidivism, but only after a year or more of intensive multi-pronged treatment coordinated with the criminal justice system and services for survivors. A church-based intermediary program for children at risk of entering the criminal justice system seemed to me to be simply a warehouse for keeping youth from causing problems in the community. Neither of these programs exist today.

The most lasting and profound change work is often slow and patient, below the radar of public attention. Like Jadav Payeng of India who, over the course of four decades, single-handedly changed the landscape in his state of Assam by planting one tree at a time, it takes dedication, devotion, and faith in one’s deepest values. Fortunately, our diligent efforts can take on a momentum of their own. As Paveng said, “You plant one or two trees, and they have to seed.” However, we need many Jadav Payengs working in harmony and supported by those in power if we’re to see the kind of change in the world that is needed to solve our most pressing problems.

Fortunately, practicing compassion is good for us, creating feelings of pleasure, improving physical and mental health, and lengthening our lifespans. An angry and punishing approach to misbehavior has deleterious effects on us all. For example, correctional officers in the US “suffer health detriments due to high stress and potentially traumatic occupational experiences“. Resentful and mistreated criminals are released into our communities to flounder and revert to more crime, of which we may become victims.

While it is easy to love the lovable, it may be the unlovable who need our love more. – Thich Nhat Hanh

What can each of us do on an individual level? Consider pausing before reacting impulsively out of anger or fear to threats or acts of hatred, taking a moment to examine your own thoughts, emotions, body sensations and urges to action. Remind yourself that there are many causes and conditions that come together to create a situation and there is no simple solution. Remind yourself also that there are many, many choices for wise responding. This may prevent you from letting someone else’s harmful behavior plant the destructive seeds of hatred inside you. In this small but powerful way, you can step out of the cycle of suffering.

…guard against extremes, and do not let the zeal with which you advocate certain means obscure the object sought to be obtained by them. – Alexis de Tocqueville & Gustave de Baumont

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