Can Violence & Empathy Coexist?

I grip my armrests. As Captain Phillips begins, the theater becomes the USS Maersk Alabama. We, the audience, are the crew, stormed by Somali pirates bent on winning their power battle no matter what. It’s terrifying, and Paul Greengrass’s riveting documentary-style film Captain Phillips makes that terror almost unbearable. But there’s more to the film than real-life trauma: for this psychoanalyst, there’s Muse, the pirate captain, and his relationship to Captain Phillips.

Can A Captive Man Express Empathy? 

Could someone like Muse, capable of brutal self-interest, also have empathy? That’s a fascinating question. The relationship between Muse and Captain Phillips, the man Muse calls “Irish,” isn’t so simple as captive and hostage. We certainly see Muse mercilessly vying for power. But, aren’t there also hints of the wish for approval? Fear? And, most strikingly, what appear to be moments of concern?

Every time Muse says, “It’s going to be okay, Irish,” I find myself suddenly in the presence of a different man. How does someone resort to such brutality but still have moments of almost-sensitivity? Who is this man, Muse? Is he merely a vicious pirate? Or is he a person, not unlike the rest of us who’s gone awry for extremely complicated—but maybe even understandable—reasons?

Extreme situations of helplessness, frustration, deprivation, jealousy, and terror can lead to extremes in behavior in people who might otherwise be capable of empathy. Muse’s ruthlessness arises out of desperation. That might seem a strange thing to say. But didn’t he become hostage to his Somalian warlord out of privation and hopelessness? And isn’t he now terrified for his own life if he doesn’t do what’s expected of him?

Can We Find Empathy For A Violent Man? 

Violent crime is an abhorrent thing. But can we bring ourselves to empathize with circumstances that might lead someone like Muse to violence? Restorative Justice projects around the world attempt to do just that. These programs, active in places like Rwanda, work to bring wrongdoers and victims together to talk. In these encounters, there is healing in recognizing the basic humanity of one another, the violent person’s desire to understand the pain he inflicts, and the victim’s willingness to forgive.

So what makes hate overwhelm empathy? Does living on scraps and the constant terror of not having enough ever qualify as a plausible explanation? How about being overwhelmed by the inevitable envy that’s stirred by seeing prosperous outsiders (like Americans) flaunt their relentless quest for MORE? Is it possible these factors could lure people living in extreme deprivation to pursue delusional and even frightening, schemes to get what they feel they deserve? In spite of the complex social and economic factors that drive Muse’s decisions, glimmers of humanity seem not to be completely extinguished in him—not yet.

Therefore, what allows Muse’s empathy to, at times, breakthrough? Is it when he sees something of his terror in Phillips? “It’s going to be OK, Irish,” are surely reassuring words that no one has ever offered someone like Muse. The relationship between Muse and Captain Phillips is not only a battle of wits or power. It’s a battle against terror – and who will succumb to terror, and who will not.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.