The healing power of empathy

What should a Texas community have done when it discovered a 13-year-old fantasising about a rampage killing?
Izzy Kalman | Apr 1 2015
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It is hard to imagine anything worse for a school than a student going on a rampage killing. The worldwide campaign against bullying was ignited by the Columbine massacre, in the hope of preventing such events from ever occurring again.

The Columbine shooters as well as many other rampage killers announced their intentions online in advance, either in writing and/or video. Without fail, they see themselves as the true victims in their narratives and feel totally justified in their vengeance against society.

Almost a year ago, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger posted videos and a lengthy autobiography in which he clearly informed the world of his intention to carry out a campaign of revenge against the world. Unfortunately, he was taken seriously just a tad too late, and by the time his parents sought to stop him, he had killed six people including himself and injured fourteen.

Elliot had been obsessed for years with ridicule and rejection by his peers, and especially with his conviction that no girl would ever want to be his girlfriend. His pain grew into a plan to kill as many people as possible. However, his autobiography and videos were really desperate cries for help. He repeatedly states that he was hoping some girl would finally come along to show him some love and thereby stop him from committing his heinous act.

Like Elliot Rodger, few rampage killers want to carry out their fantasies. They have no illusion that it will bring them a life of happiness, which is why they usually end their rampage with suicide. Most of them hope to be stopped in time.

Fortunately, parents in Roanoke, Texas last week came across an opportunity to prevent a potential school massacre. A 13-year-old boy at Tidwell Middle School posted a novel online, Killing Children, which describes in grisly detail how he murders several students in the school, mentioning some of them by name.

The fact that he wrote such a book is no guarantee that he would actually carry out the acts he describes, but parents and students are right to be terrified that he might. Because he very well might. Kids don’t write such books just to practice composition skills.

The Tidwell parents decided to take action. They kept many of their children out of classes and organized public demonstrations demanding that the school expel the young author. The school hasn’t kicked him out because he wrote the book off school grounds, and it also hasn’t been established that he committed a crime. But his parents did the responsible thing. They placed him under psychiatric observation for two weeks, and the hospital released him as not being a danger to society.

Still, parents and students are not to be blamed for failing to feel comforted. Many rampage killers had been evaluated and treated by therapists and psychiatrists, yet still went on to kill. However, these parents’ attempts to make their children safe are misguided. They think if the boy is expelled from school, their children will have less reason to worry. As I will explain, the opposite is true.

Very little has been publicized about the young man because of his age, so I am taking the liberty of making some assumptions. It is almost certain that he is a tortured soul who feels rejected and ridiculed by his peers. His efforts to improve his social situation have been failing and his anger and hatred towards his perceived tormentors have been growing with the passage of time. He is obsessed with fantasies of the pleasure of revenge.

If he were given a choice of being liked and accepted by his peers or killing them, I am certain he would prefer the former. He just hasn’t figured out how to make that happen. If he has confided to adults about his misery, they probably didn’t know how to guide him to social success, either. In other words, his novel is best seen as a cry for help.

Kids who feel tormented by their peers are far more likely to commit suicide than homicide. Some suicidal kids have posted videos about their misery, and in response, multitudes of people reached out to them with sympathy and support. The public response has undoubtedly saved some of their lives.

Unfortunately, people find it much more difficult to feel sympathy for kids who express homicidal rather than suicidal ideation. They react to them as though are de factomurderers rather than kids who are crying inside, feel victimized, are angry, and hunger for love.

Thus, we see the gut reaction of parents in Texas calling for the expulsion of this pained boy. They assume that kicking him out will make their children safer from him. But is the assumption valid? After all, the boy will not be exterminated or permanently locked up in a prison or psychiatric hospital. He is a free agent.

How will he feel towards his classmates now that they and their parents have demonstrated against him, calling for his expulsion from school? Will he like them better? Will he feel understood? Will he be happier? Will he feel that he is the villain in the story?

No way. He will be even angrier. His feelings of being rejected and victimized will be multiplied. If the school does expel him, he will hate the school, too. Unless he gets some really terrific therapy that convinces him to forgive all who have wronged him and helps him to develop positive relationships, he will feel increasingly justified in wanting revenge. The older he becomes, the more capable he will be of carrying out his violent fantasies. Indeed, some horrific school massacres were committed by people who had been expelled years earlier.

If anything, the Tidwell demonstrators are helping to create a monster.

What then, should the terrified children and their parents be doing? The better alternative should be obvious. The psychological buzzword of recent years is empathy. Virtually all anti-bullying and social skills programs assert that they develop empathy. All types of organizations are promoting empathy. The media is bombarding us with the need for empathy.

People love the message of empathy. It’s because they think, “Finally other people will become empathic towards me and my children.” Few people think, “I am so glad that I will be taught how to be more empathic.” 

If we want to see an increase in empathy, it must begin with ourselves. Instead of bringing their children and their fear-mongering placards to demonstrate outside the school building, the Tidwell parents can be conducting their demonstration outside the feared boy’s house with placards reading, “We love you!” “We care about you!” “We’re sorry. Our kids aren’t perfect. They didn’t understand how they were hurting you!” “We want you to be happy!” “Let’s talk over pizza!” “Let us know how we can help you!”

Can you imagine the boy wanting to kill anyone after experiencing such a massive demonstration of love?

Israel “Izzy” Kalman is Director of Bullies to Buddies, a program that teaches the practical application of the Golden Rule to reduce bullying and aggression and solve relationship problems.

This article is published by Izzy Kalman and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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