The paratroopers led Alleg down the corridor. The other prisoners looked at him with acknowledgment- they knew what the paratroopers planned to do to Alleg. The prisoners said, “Courage brother! Stay strong.”
Henri Alleg’s The Question is a book about how the author himself was tortured in the Algerian War that happened during Algeria’s struggle of independence against the French. Alleg’s book gives a shockingly meticulous account of the French paratroopers’ torture tactics that were far from humane. His account has many takeaways- some direct and some implied.
In retrospection of his takeaways, I wondered: why does Alleg provide such an explicit account of how he was tortured? Why does he describe how he was beaten, electrocuted, and starved? In a group discussion, I heard answers such as “to make us feel” and “to enlighten us.” It is true- any account of infliction of pain to retrieve information makes readers and spectators reflect on the basic values and ethical standards of humanity. But what intrigued me most is that question of the pain-induced food for thought: why does suffering make us empathize? Why is it that we are able to identify with other individuals when they are unhappy? Is it possible that we derive pleasure in someone else’s pain and that’s why we empathize with them?
After searching for answers, I discovered the concept of mirrored empathy. According to this concept and to my surprise, human beings are biologically disposed to understand people in their sadness. Giacommo Rizzolatti, in discovering the existence of mirror neurons with his colleagues, explained that when an individual observes another’s actions or feelings, the individual’s neurons attempt to imitate what they perceive. In other words, the mirror neurons treat the stimuli as mirrors and then impersonate what they see in these self-made mirrors. Similarly, when an individual’s mirror neurons perceive that another individual exhibits identical feelings or thinking, the neurons tend to respond to the affinity. That is probably why when an individual is sad, he/she tends to identify with another person going through.
The same can be said of the prisoners of the French during the Algerian War. All the captives underwent the same experience. Biologically, I suspect that their mirror neurons reacted when they received stimuli that matched their own physiology. That is perhaps why they were able to feel Alleg’s pain and conceive an enigmatic brotherhood with him. Now the extent to which these mirror neurons make us seem empathetic is a matter of biology and perspective!
By: Namrata Haribal