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Empathy That Withers Away

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Watching CCTV footage of 15-year-old Santre Sanchez Gayle carrying a shotgun and turning up at the door of 26-year-old Gulistan Subasi and shooting her dead, is deeply disturbing. Little wonder that Gayle was this week sentenced to serve at least 20 years for her murder. Judge Stephen Kramer told Gayle and his co-accused, Izak Billy (22): "It was an efficient, ruthless and calculated execution."

Perhaps most shocking of all is that Gayle killed this young woman on the eve of her son's 9th birthday and for payment of just £200. Little surprise therefore that the police have described Gayle as being completely devoid of remorse.

Gayle's criminal career dates back to when he was given a referral order for an attempted robbery at the age of 14, but like any other London gang member his unlawful activity will have started much earlier. Somewhere along the way, and certainly before this last brutal crime in March 2010, empathy -- like an underused muscle -- will have withered away.

According to development psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg the age of seven marks a critical turning point in a child's moral development. It is then that children start to develop a conscience and "empathy for others"; they learn to "manage their anger" and become "more resilient and optimistic." But this moral growth can be thrown off course by trauma and broken attachments, storing up problems for society that detonate when these children become angry adolescents.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, believes that a radical lack of empathy can only partially be explained by genetic factors and malfunction of the brain. By far the most important factor is environment. Without secure attachments, a young person can develop a risky state of mind, throwing off kilter the way he or she views themselves and others.

In a recent BBC radio program exploring the subject of evil, Baron-Cohen described empathy as "a skill like any human skill," and lack of empathy "a disability" which wasn't "fixed" and which, if you get a chance to practice, "can get better." This suggests that if someone has no empathy and behaves in an explicably cruel way, then perhaps the health service may be a better place to treat them than prison? At any rate this analysis does suggest there is a chance, that with the right interventions and treatment, convicted killers like Gayle may, inside of prison, begin to understand the harm they have caused and the impact of such appalling acts on others.

As founder of The Forgiveness Project, I have met many victims of people like Gayle - people who have an immense capacity for human cruelty. Most of these victims, however, have chosen to use forgiveness as way out of trauma. Forgiveness in this sense does not mean reconciling with the perpetrator, but taking hold of painful emotions and deciding to let them go.

One of the hundred-plus stories on The Forgiveness Project website is that of Magdeline Makola, a South African-born nurse living in Scotland. In 2008 Makola was abducted by fellow countryman Justice Ngema, who locked her in the boot of her car for ten days.

At the trial, Ngema demonstrated not a scrap of remorse but despite this Makola has refused to see him as anything other than a human-being motivated by greed and desperation. "It's hard to understand why he did what he did. He wasn't on drugs, he wasn't drunk, and he didn't have mental problems," she says.

"My hope now is that in prison he comes into contact with people who can help him so that he can understand the harm that he did and change his life. You have to be positive to open up ways for someone to become a better person. If I hate him I'll make him more entrenched in his attitude of greed and desperation."