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The Ethical Warrior: Dehumanization and PTSD

How do we show respect to someone when we don’t respect their behavior? And why must we? In previous articles we have explored the concept of an Ethical Warrior in terms of tactics, safety and even self-image.

These discussions generated tremendous debate about whether respecting the life of criminal adversaries is appropriate, or even possible. Some agreed that it is proper to respect the lives of everyone (Life Value) — even if we abhor their behavior (relative values).

Others argued that the lives of anti-social criminals do not deserve any kind of respect. If you are still unsure, we suggest you consider another benefit of ethical warriorship — it is healthier for you.

We are talking about our long-term psychological and spiritual health here, not the immediate condition of life and limb after a confrontation. We all have friends who escaped conflicts without physical scars but could not escape the non-physical ones.

This phenomenon has been noted in the military for many years and is now referred to as “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). Today, we see many of our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan exhibiting these symptoms. Observation of Vietnam War veterans for more than 30 years yielded the observation that PTSD is an unfortunate, maybe inescapable, consequence of war; it’s not a character flaw. Significantly, however, in his book, “Achilles in Vietnam,” Jonathan Shea discusses dehumanization and disrespect for the enemy as a prime cause of PTSD.

The Lessons for LEOs
We, too, are vulnerable to PTSD from one or more intense life threatening engagements, and/or the chronic stress that comes from daily exposure to troubled people, helpless victims, and a constant undercurrent of conflict and danger. But there are things we can do to make ourselves more resistant to the inevitable stress of conflict. We suggest that, respect for the enemy (or criminal) as an equal human being — even though his or her behavioral values may be immoral — is essential in mediating PTSD.

It is important that we never lose sight of the fundamental value of every human life, especially the life of those whom we protect or those who seek to harm us. We believe that dehumanizing our adversaries, as individuals or groups, is corrosive to our own respect for the Life Value. In other words, just as the literature suggests, dehumanizing others is dangerous to our own physical, mental and spiritual health.

The Two Tribes
It may be helpful to explore why it is so tempting and seemingly natural to dehumanize our adversaries. For millions of years, human beings lived in small bands. Imagine a tribe — we’ll call them Tribe A of Valley A — settled in a defensible geographic location with just enough food, water and shelter to support their fairly small group. Tribe A is not particularly warlike, but they fiercely guard their limited resources. Over in Valley B, Tribe B has a problem. There is no longer enough food in their territory, perhaps due to population growth, fires, droughts or floods. Tribe B starts to roam and eventually they begin to encroach on Tribe A’s territory. This is a serious life and death conflict. Tribe A has to stop the “invasion” to protect the resources needed by its “in-group.” Tribe A fights and kills to protect the resources that support their lives.

Yet, the people in Tribe A are not natural born killers of humans, just as we are not today (think about it, how many natural born killers do we encounter compared to the rest of us non-killers?). In fact, for virtually all of us protecting life is our primary and universal value. So what do the people in Tribe A do? How do they deal with the conundrum? They create an artifice. They allow themselves to believe that those “others” from the encroaching tribe are not human. They de-humanize them. Now it becomes slightly easier to attack, and if necessary, kill them. It’s an imperfect trick, but it works in the short term, especially when emotions like fear, anger, disgust, etc. work to overwhelm the ability to reason. The artifice doesn’t always work perfectly. People often feel guilty or depressed after they dehumanize others, especially if it results in violence and killing, but we have been doing it for thousands of years.

And we are still doing it. People don’t have to be of a distinctly different tribe to have conflict. Almost any real or imagined cultural or behavioral value deemed objectionable by one group can lead them to rationalize themselves into violating the Life Value of those “others.” People do it over such arbitrary differences as a favorite sports team. San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow was nearly beaten to death in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium reportedly for wearing a Giants jersey. The attackers didn’t appear to care that they might kill Stow, a paramedic and protector of life; they only saw an enemy from another tribe.

We see how easy it is to dehumanize people just because they are from another “tribe.” It is even easier to dehumanize them when the culture or behavior of the other group is threatening, immoral or illegal — like that of a criminal “tribe” or gang.

Surviving the Difficult Situations
It is easy to succumb to the seductive mistake of using relative values (how someone acts) rather than the Life Value (an objective, universal value) as criteria for judging the worth of another human being. When a person’s behavior is not “equal,” or does not conform to what is considered “good,” then it is as if the person himself is not equal or worthy. When people of one relative value system (behavior, culture, religion, etc.) see people of another relative value system as “unequal” human beings (read: sub-human), the trouble begins — and it could be big trouble.

LEOs are often susceptible to losing sight of each individual’s Life Value. They deal repeatedly with difficult and dangerous people from identifiable ethnic, socio-economic, and neighborhood groups. It is all too easy to see these people as group members first, and human beings second; all the more because that is how they often see themselves.

To “inoculate” ourselves to the dangers of dehumanization and PTSD, the Ethical Warrior resists the “tribal artifice” in order to stay mentally and spiritually healthy. Ignoring the universal value of the adversaries’ life may make it easier to cope day-to-day, but in the long run, the Ethical Warrior can survive the most difficult situations with mind, body, and spirit intact by respecting all life, and dealing with immoral or illegal behavior as a separate and manageable part of the job.

Jack E. Hoban is president of Resolution Group International, subject matter expert for Combatives and Warrior Ethics for the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, and trains police officers in de-escalation skills.

Bruce J. Gourlie is a former U.S. Army infantry officer, a retired FBI Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge for Intelligence and currently the director of security in a large healthcare system.

Correspondence can be sent to both authors by emailing Hoban & Gourlie.