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Empathy and Horror
Reflections on a Handshake
David S. Western

It is hard not to admire Alistair Little. In many ways he represents the personification of Northern Ireland’s heroic journey toward peace. Born and raised twenty miles from Belfast during the fiercest decades of the Northern Irish conflict, swept from birth into a swirling sea of anger, despair, and bloodshed, Alistair has lived through a hard-won triumph of personal transformation. He has been the phoenix, utterly destroyed to rise again a better man. In his youth, he was a force for violence. Like many a Northern Irishman, Alistair was fully engaged with war before his body was fully grown; he joined the neighborhood paramilitary at age fourteen. Today Alistair is a counselor and healer, devoted to the regeneration of peace in Northern Ireland. Individual by individual, heart by broken heart, he works to re-sow the violently torn social fabric of his country and to reconcile Northern Ireland’s essentially two-sided soul. 

So I was shocked to discover on the day I met Alistair that my insides recoiled at shaking his hand. My mind had no qualms. Slow, polite, and well socialized, the conscious part of me was as compliant as ever. But as our hands drew together, something deeper than conscious thought—some feeling of revulsion—rose up in my guts, yanking on my spine, demanding that I pull back from his palm.

Of course I didn’t pull back. I bit through the feeling, and to the eyes of the world we had an ordinary handshake, unremarkable and, for Alistair, immediately forgettable. But to me it was a lightning bolt. I was baffled by my own reaction. Why the sudden reluctance to give Alistair this simplest of courtesies? Why the profoundly uncomfortable feeling of aversion to a fellow human being?

The answer, of course, had everything to do with the fact that those hands once killed a man.

In meeting Alistair Little I was torn. At once there was my admiration for his peace work and, of course, basic human respect. But there was also sheer, rising horror for the reality of killing. Decades ago, as a mere seventeen year old, in the last crescendo of a three-year run of teenage paramilitary violence, Alistair murdered Catholic James Griffin with five shots through the Griffin family window—an act that, as Alistair puts it, created “a legacy of darkness… from which I think I will never be free” (Little, 71).

I was surprised by my internal conflict, but shouldn’t have been. The human condition, after all, is one of Gordian knots, of irony, tragedy, and competing goods. As Immanuel Kant put it in a moment of uncharacteristic poetry, “Out of the crooked timbers of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Even among people committed to unity and peace, we find ourselves conflicted.

In response to acts of terrible violence and humans killing humans, we are caught between two ethical imperatives, which seem to carry equal weight but can pull us in different directions.

On one hand, there is the profoundly difficult ethic of reconciliation that we find particularly in the New Testament. Here we are told to love our enemies, forgo judgment, do not repay evil for evil (Matthew 5; Romans 12:17). Of murderers in particular, the Book of Matthew tells us, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be liable to judgment… and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire… [So] be reconciled to your brother or sister…” (Matthew 5: 21–24). Jesus in Matthew refuses to distinguish between the sin of murder and the sin of resisting murderers or being angry with them. We are reminded that we are all sinners, and there seems to be no gradation of wickedness when it comes to human sin. Some sin may do more damage, but sin is sin is sin. The only ethical response here is to show grace and reconciliation to each other, even those who have taken other lives.

On the other hand, we have, as a deontological imperative, the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Genesis ties this commandment to the Imago Dei: “For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning… Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Genesis 9:56). Moving past the suggestion here of lex talionis justice (eye for an eye), there is also the suggestion that the imperative not to kill each other, in contrast to the lack of imperative not to kill animals, is tied to human beings having something special about us: something sacred or, in post-Enlightenment terms, dignified. We are made in the image of God. That makes each human life precious and the act of humans killing humans intolerable.

In the perfect Law of Love—that level of ethical living at which Jesus could comfortably walk—I have no doubt these two ethical imperatives cohere together seamlessly. But for the rest of humanity, incapable of reaching ethical perfection, these two imperatives may be branches from the same trunk, but branches that tend to point us in different directions. To the mortal eye, they can seem to be asking us to choose, one direction or the other.

But we cannot choose if choosing means denying one for the other. They both seem to be profoundly important ethical imperatives. We must feel the horror of humans killing humans and resist such deeds with every moral fiber of our souls. We must also show grace and reconcile with killers without hesitation.

We are left conflicted. Such is the human condition. And perhaps, imperfect creatures that we are, simply sitting in that conflict, uncomfortable and torn, is the best response we can muster to the act of humans killing humans.


As a scholar, my deep interest is in the power of human empathy, particularly as it works in processes of peacemaking. In this, Northern Ireland has been my nursery. Much of what I know about the reality of peacemaking has developed over three trips to this country. In Northern Ireland, I have learned the importance of empathy by witnessing the peace work of people like Alistair Little, and the ensuing shifts in society, the friendships growing where once there was only fury.

Yet I’ve also felt, as anyone must feel if they travel through Northern Ireland with any kind of awareness, an underlying ocean of resentment and despair. Walk the land long enough and your shoes get wet with the blood that still bubbles up from the saturated earth.

By the time I met Alistair, I was empathizing with more than just the people with whom I wanted to empathize: the peacemakers. I was empathizing with victims as well: the quietly nonviolent, whose contribution to the Northern Irish “Troubles” was the unwilling sacrifice of a daughter or son, those who have a hard time swallowing that the very men and women of violence that held their country ransom for decades have emerged the nation’s heroes, peacemakers, and political leaders.

I met Alistair Little as a participant in the 2012 Lilly Summer Seminar, a wild but brilliantly led three-week ride through the complexities of Northern Irish life. In previous trips to Northern Ireland, I was focused on a relatively pleasant investigation into how increasing levels of empathy facilitated burgeoning Irish peace. I set myself up to focus on the cheerful.

But the Lilly Summer Seminar was designed to spin our heads: a twirling rollercoaster journey through all the different communities and perspectives in the country. One day we spent with Protestant paramilitaries, the next day with conflict resolution workers, the next with journalists, the next with Republicans walking us through the events of Bloody Sunday, the next with a playwright recounting personal experiences and ending with the question, “Is our talk of peace just the lullaby we sing as we drift off into an unending darkness?”

The expanded, fast-paced view of the seminar lay bare how conflicted and troubled Northern Ireland remains.

There’s a sickening dissonance to Northern Ireland—a mix of beauty and barbarity—that leaves you disoriented. Hosted by the Corrymeela Community on the dazzling northern Irish coast, our seminar group woke daily to all the majesty of creation. The Northern Irish are friendly and funny, living lives that, on the surface, hardly hint of a violent past. The paramilitaries we met were charming and charismatic. One entertained us with stories of his conflict-era day job as an urban sniper. I thought of the “Washington Snipers” of 2002, deemed monsters by Americans, the eldest sentenced to death. As we parted we offered hugs and cheers like old friends sad to leave each other. On the day we met Alistair, we mingled over tiny triangle sandwiches prepared by the caterer.

There is an eerie normalcy to Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish often speak of the conflict with matter-of-factness and a dark joviality. It’s a survivor’s tactic. Visitors like me eventually fly back home. This is their home. They can’t dwell in the grief every minute, every hour. Yet that normalcy, that charm, masks (to us, not the Northern Irish) that this country has known barbaric atrocities.

This is a country where many urban, working class teenagers grew up feeling that violence is an immutable fact of life, and that “killing Catholics” or “killing Protestants” is a heroic and moral job description. This is a land where Alex Reid was captured, dragged to an abandoned building and beaten with a concrete block until his skull was smashed in by a seventeen-year-old Protestant simply because Alex was Catholic. This is a land where Stephen Magill, a policeman, was called to investigate a domestic disturbance that wound up being an IRA ambush. Gunned down, he was left to die in the road. This is a land where Robert McCartney, father of two and a Catholic Republican, was stabbed to death by IRA members after defending his friend in a pub brawl instigated by those IRA members.

To contemplate the thousands of killings—to read David McKittrick’s harrowing Lost Lives, an accounting of every soul murdered during three decades of conflict, and find in those pages factory workers shot dead as they punched out for the evening and old ladies riddled with bullets while watching television in their armchairs—it is hard not to feel indignant against the ungodly arrogance of those who imagine themselves justified in wielding such power, such decision making over the lives and deaths of others.

The feeling that rose up in me the day I met Alistair Little was a message, a protest. Feeling is a language. It speaks to us in somatic tones, beneath words and all the more intensely for it. On this day, the message, ancient and powerful, reverberated out from some deep place: some basic center of morality written into our DNA. Or someplace older than humanity itself: a moral spiritus mundi, reflecting the very mind of the Creator.

That feeling was nothing less than raw, elementary horror for the act of humans killing humans: a horror that is the very fundament of our understanding that murder and war are wrong. It is through this feeling that we receive that moral message primarily and most powerfully. It is this feeling that we land upon when there is nothing left to debate. Why do we have the initial inclination that killing and violence are things we should avoid? This feeling, this horror, lies at its root.

That horror built up inside me for weeks, prodded on by the ever-present hum of a choir of restless ghosts, unjustly dead. When it finally came forth, crying “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” it announced itself like an Old Testament prophet returning from the wilderness, discovering in his absence the tribe has grown lax with the commandments of God.


On the other hand, peacemakers in Northern Ireland like Alistair Little have worked to tamp down, even dissolve, that raw feeling of horror because, moral or otherwise, it tends to create obstacles to building peace in this country. So when we look at peacemaking in Northern Ireland, something at the root of it has been more like the reconciliatory ethic we see in Matthew 5.

The New Testament presents us with a hard ethic. When we are called to “repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), it seems to mean not only that we forgo “eye for an eye” justice but that we do not meet those who sin against us even with resentment and judgment. Instead, we are to show them understanding, grace, and be reconciled to one another. There is no reason to believe murder is exceptional in this regard.

Prerequisite to this ethic, as Nigel Biggar put it in 2009, is “the Christian belief in the universality of sin, and more specifically the belief that… all human beings are finite and somewhat fated creatures, weighed down by historical and social baggage.” That is, we are all imperfect creatures who, to some crucial degree, are products of our histories and environments.

In recognizing our equal status in finitude and sin, and a certain lack of control over the conditions that shape us, what we wind up with is a sense of our common humanity, which transcends in-group/out-group psychology of a sort that has so damaged divided societies like Northern Ireland.

With this notion of a common humanity in our minds, empathetic understanding is the best ethical response. Biggar continued, “If we really regard all human beings as fellow creatures and sinners, then we will learn to grow in compassion for our enemies. We will learn to expand our compassion for those who were responsible for their choices… but who are also—and like us—considerably the subjects of tragic circumstance.”

Without the overtly Christian tones, Alistair Little exemplifies this approach in his peacemaking. In his own life’s conversion from warrior to peacemaker, Alistair tells us, experiences of empathy for his enemy played a crucial role in his transformation. In those moments, he saw his enemy as troubled, courageous, and fully human being, and this allowed the relationship to shift in his mind from one of essential enmity to one of common human beings struggling together through difficult conditions.

Such shifts have become the cornerstone of his peace work. Today Alistair facilitates eighteen-month workshops that bring together people from all different sides of the conflict: Catholics and Protestants, victims and perpetrators, paramilitary and police. In a spirit of empathy, participants tell and listen to each other’s stories. They discover, as Alistair learned, that “By sharing my experience, I show listeners that I [have] a story to tell, that [I’m not] without humanity, that [I’m not] a monster” (Little, 163). In these moments of humanization, psychological barriers dissolve. Catholics and Protestants, killers and victims, imagine themselves not as different identity groups irreconcilable to each other, but as human beings, caught up in the oceanic forces of a wide social tragedy too deep and powerful to deny.

For Alistair, when we see the human in each other, our psychological and moral resistance to each other lessens. We see both ourselves and enemy alike as trying to do what we think is right, discovering all too late how flawed our understanding of “the right thing to do” can be. We see the other less as a monster and more as a human who, as any of us could, has made flawed choices. Compassionate respect for the other starts to grow, and with it, eventually, understanding and maybe even concern for the other’s welfare. In all, this healing and reconciliation begins.

The great obstacle to Alistair’s approach is a mind frame that organizes people into distinct and divisive moral categories: murderous Catholics versus self-defending Protestants (or vice versa), innocent victims versus monstrous perpetrators. From Alistair’s view, this kind of categorization only seems to reinforce axes along which conflict can be perpetuated.

It is also the sort of categorizing that our feeling of moral horror for the act of killing tends to produce in our psyches. In the same way that I was hesitant to shake Alistair’s hand, when we feel that horror for a murderous act, we see the perpetrator as different, degraded, having at some stage “lost their humanity” and now holding a lesser moral status. When we feel that horror we cannot understand why the other has committed such an atrocity.

Alistair strives against this by emphasizing two things. First, he emphasizes that the capacity for tremendous violence is latent in all of us, shared by merit of our common humanity. Where some of us commit great violence and others do not, it tends to come down to a difference in social conditions. Some of us are unfortunate enough to wind up in circumstances (for example, being raised in a war zone) that make manifest our worst latent capacities.

Alistair writes, “Most of the people caught up in the violence of Northern Ireland are normal people, just like those who haven’t been caught up in conflict, but they’ve committed acts of violence that have devastated the lives of others. It’s the worst aspect of human nature but it’s still human nature. It’s not the sort of thing we want to acknowledge because it… becomes the responsibility of us all to create the kind of society that doesn’t force some of its members to live out the dark sides of their natures” (Little, 217).

Second, Alistair stresses moral complexity and ambiguity, breaking down the lines that define some of us as “good” or “innocent” and others as “bad” or “monstrous.” Rather, he suggests, none of us are monolithically good or bad.

In “bad” people, then, he finds emergent good: “[A]s human beings we find it easier if people stick to the labels that we give them. So paramilitaries are evil in the eyes of many. Many of us did do evil things, though we thought we were right to do them at the time. Yet when the opportunity arose we debated the issues, changed our thinking, met with ‘our enemy’ and began to work for peace…” (174).

In “good” people, he finds bad. “[People] often feel comfortable with the idea of the victim hitting out and wounding the perpetrator… but not the perpetrator fighting back. That seems to be because the victim is seen as the innocent party, the good guy, and the perpetrator is the guilty one who deserves all he gets. [But this only] suggests that they think some human beings are of less worth than others… If they felt able to justify an act of inhumanity against me because I was a perpetrator, what did it say about them?” (205).

Ultimately it strikes us that in conflicts like Northern Ireland’s there may be no real moral line between victims and perpetrators. Rather, there is a host of victims on either side of the gun, struggling with different forms of victimization. Alistair writes that he is “seen as a man who created victims, not a man who was one,” but he “knew that [he’d] become a perpetrator in response to being a victim of the conflict” (158–9).

With the mind frame of reconciliation Alistair works so hard to encourage, the space opens up for enemies to meet each other with kindness and grace. Alistair punctuates his autobiography with examples of “the grace I experienced from victims who, despite the grief caused by people like me, offered support.” On his journey away from violence, these small moments of grace played a crucial role. They “kept [him] going time and again” (164). When he frequently met the opposite reaction—rejection, revulsion for his past—Alistair would wonder, “Sometimes I felt others would prefer if I remained a man of violence. That way I wouldn’t challenge their perspective” (173–4).

It can be argued that peacemaking in a place like Northern Ireland fundamentally just is the alchemization of mind frames and relationships—from division, resistance, and enmity to respect, understanding, and grace—that Alistair Little, working with a secularized form of the New Testament ethic of reconciliation, is effecting.


When I think of violent conflict in Northern Ireland I am torn between two reactions. On one hand, there is empathy for everyone involved, and the deep desire to transform all the resentment and enmity in Northern Ireland into something more luminous: something workable, life-affirming, even loving. On the other hand, I feel righteous anger for the deeds committed by violent women and men, who seemed to lose in the fog of this war the raw horror which should signal to us all, in powerful tones, the evil of taking a human life.

Even though both of these reactions seem ethically required, they pull us in different directions. The latter, even if spurred on by an empathic feeling for the victims of violence, has the feel of law to it. It pushes us into making divisive moral categories between those who violate the law against killing and those that do not. The former compels us toward grace. It draws us toward dissolving or transcending those moral categories in the name of compassion for our common humanity.

Despite my anger, I am convinced that Northern Ireland itself is proof of, if nothing else, the practical importance of an ethic of grace and reconciliation. As imperfect creatures living imperfect lives, there is for us no perfect, royal road to peace, and I would never suggest that the kind of peacemaking Alistair exemplifies is the clear, singular answer to violent conflict. But the process of humanization that Alistair promotes has been indispensable to the successes of the Northern Irish peace process. For many commentators, the Northern Irish conflict largely hinged on intractable political disagreements. But in the relative peace of today’s Northern Ireland, with hindsight we know that even the most polarized Catholic and Protestant groups can come together to find workable solutions to their issues. More fundamental were the psychological divisions—the hate, fear, mistrust, and prejudice—that kept the two communities from coming together to talk out their problems in the first place. As Alistair writes, “[I]t’s easy to commit acts of violence against people you’ve demonized. You don’t consider their pain. You don’t consider their families” (169). In this, the rehumanization of the other in the eyes of the most polarized of Northern Irish communities has been central to Irish peacemaking.

Yet in grappling with my reaction to shaking Alistair’s hand I was eventually reminded of how indispensable it is to hold on to that feeling of horror for killing, as well.

My deep worry is that when we lose touch with that feeling of horror we begin down a slippery slope of accepting—perhaps not legitimating, but resigning ourselves to—a sense that humans killing humans is inevitable: that in our tragic circumstances, inherently sinful creatures that we are, we have to understand that killing simply will happen. Our consolation, our comfort, is that God will forgive us if we repent, and whatever damage is wrought need not be permanent on society. By being graceful with each other, understanding and through our increasing knowledge of peacemaking, human beings are able to find a way to refashion peace after our violent outbursts. The consequences of killing are not insurmountable. It is a sin that we do not want, but one with which we can learn to live.

Later in life, a mature and long-transformed Alistair Little has dealings with the family of the man he killed decades ago, and hears (second hand) about the “anger, pain and loss” of the victim’s brother.

“Because I was responsible for his pain,” writes Alistair, “what I heard pierced my heart… I tried to think about the boy I was then, and found myself wondering yet again, how could I have done what I did. Then again, I had to acknowledge that I, like any other human being in certain circumstances, had the capacity to kill” (204).

We can debate whether this is a shirking of personal responsibility for the killing or not. But what I want to draw our attention to is how, in order to maintain the graceful attitude of reconciliation, Alistair applies to himself the same moral ambiguity he applies when reconciling victims and perpetrators in his workshops. This murder was a tragedy, but he must accept that this is the sad condition of being human.

At what point, does this acceptance of the tragic human condition—gracious, compassionate, and conducive to reconciliation—become a narrative that erodes our resistance to the moral imperative against killing humans: against an evil we should not cease to resist.

While it seems theologically undeniable, among Christians at least, that there is no scale of higher and lower sins, we can certainly recognize that some sins result in more damage than others. Killing steals everything from the killed, every possible hope, opportunity, experience once written in his future. There is no act more damaging. We must accept ourselves as creatures that will never transcend our sinful natures by our own accord, but still we can draw a line under the most damaging sins and say, “and yet, not this!”

In this I think Martin Luther King, Jr., must be right when he sermonizes, “How can evil be cast out of our individual and collective lives?... [N]either God nor man will individually bring the world’s salvation. Rather both man and God, made one in a marvelous unity of purpose… can… drive out the deadly cancer of sin” (140). In the continuing process of the Kingdom of Heaven erupting into the kingdom of earth, our choices have some role to play.

So while I agree it would be ugly and wrong not to shake Alistair’s hand, while I have nothing but reverence for his profoundly important work as a peacemaker, and while I think it is crucial to promote the ethic of reconciliation he now embodies, not only for Northern Ireland but for all of us, I cannot apologize for feeling discomfort in the presence of a killer, any more than I would feel in my own skin should I one day become a murderer.

In this, I think I say no more than Alistair Little has expressed of himself. He too remains conflicted, torn between these two orientations. He conducts his peace work without “a sense of having redeemed myself. There is no inner peace… and I think that’s the price you pay for being involved in violence.” Later he writes, “It’s said that those who most need forgiveness are those that have least right to it, [and] I don’t think it’s for me to seek it out.” Yet he hopes, “As I continue in this work, maybe those who hear my story will not begrudge me experiences of grace” (Little,  221). 

Alistair, myself, Northern Ireland, perhaps the world: in the face of great violence we sit conflicted between two ethical requirements: graceful reconciliation and moral horror. Philosophers and theologians, I suspect, will see this conflict as simply a place to start their investigations: a problem to be solved, answers patiently waiting. But I think that is a mistake, treating something as complex as Northern Ireland—as human life—as a Rubik’s cube: a puzzle to twist and turn until the solution reveals itself.

Instead, I suspect, the only way to avoid this conflict is nonviolence: the active commitment to never killing humans in the first place.


David S. Western is Lecturer in Humanities and Political Thought in Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University.


Works Cited


Biggar, Nigel. “Forgiving Enemies in Northern Ireland.” Westminster Forum Lecture presented December 14, 2009. Accessed at

King, Jr., Martin Luther. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Little, Alistair. Give a Boy a Gun: From Killing to Peacemaking. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2009.

McKittrick, David. “Ulster Talks: Blair barracked after historic handshake with Adams.” The Independent. October 14, 1997.

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