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When You Stare Into the Abyss

Updated: May 27

Recently, I attended a closed panel in Washington, D.C. on the topic of anti-human trafficking activities and technologies. During the networking afterwards, someone told me about Skull Games, an intrepid task force of veterans who leverage their combined skills to hunt down human traffickers. Check out their website and the first thing you’ll see is their tagline: Oppressors Beware. We Hunt Predators.


Now, human traffickers are arguably some of the most despicable scum of the earth. Especially the ones who practice sexual exploitation, which is what our Skull Games fellows are specifically dedicated to destroying. So, I just want you to imagine for a moment the kinds of scenes and human beings that the members of this team are exposed to. It’s likely pretty brutal stuff. Clearly, it takes a special kind of person to face this kind of evil head on and destroy it.

On Memorial Day, as we honor our fallen service members and the sacrifices they made for our country, I couldn’t help thinking more broadly about the special cadre of security professionals who dedicate themselves to protecting our nation. Our society owes the tranquility of its existence to this unique class of people. From warfighters to first responders, they are the invisible shield against the darkness that lurks at the fringes of our communities. They are the people who are willing to confront monsters and absorb the brunt of evil so that the rest of civilization can survive with their souls intact.

Whether it’s on the battlefield or a crime scene, our security professionals are often confronted with the harrowing depths of human cruelty. An uncomfortable truth about working in this field is that hunting down the bad guys often means thinking like a bad guy. They traverse through the metaphorical abyss, facing the darkest corners of their own psyches as well as they navigate the brutality of conflict.


The reality about people who fight violence is that they need to have a spark of violence within themselves in order to do their jobs effectively. In order to stop violence from being inflicted on our communities, security professionals must sometimes resort to inflicting violence on others. This potentially leaves some in a complex and even painful psychological position. How can one acknowledge their own capacity for violence while maintaining a boundary between their sense of self and the enemy they are fighting?


The 5th century Jewish text of the Talmud states that if someone was born under the planet Mars—which astrologically signifies a thirst for bloodshed— he can be a criminal, a doctor, a shochet (one who ritually slaughters animals, making them kosher), or a mohel (one who performs circumcisions). Such a person has a predilection toward blood, which means he will definitely not be happy if you give him a desk job. This is a high-intensity person, an individual who takes action.


What then should he do with himself? The Talmud says he should find a positive outlet for his drives.


Violent tendencies are not “bad” per se. They certainly harbor dangerous manifestations, but they are a part of the God-given natures of certain people, according to Judaism. Therefore, if a person’s tendency leans towards aggressive and physical behavior, he must recognize his nature and use it. If he fails, he will satisfy his lust with crime and violence. If he succeeds, he will use the same very hands to protect and heal others, performing a respectable service to society.


German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “Whoever battles monsters should take care not to become a monster too; for if you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares back into you.” There are many ways to interpret Nietzsche. One way perhaps is to interpret the abyss as representing the infinite depth of our psychological complexity. This complexity is intensely magnified by wartime experiences, where individuals are forced to witness the depravity of humanity and in the process confront some unsettling truths about the darker side of their identity. They might even question what attracted them to the security field in the first place, and then avoid further exploration of self out of fear.

“There’s an unspoken belief in this culture that we need to disconnect from our emotions and who we are in order to do our jobs well. And I couldn’t disagree with that more,” says Dr. Phil Baquie, a therapist who previously served in infantry and PSYOPS in the U.S. military. “I think the most effective operators are actually the ones who are emotionally in tune with who they are. They’re able to recognize what they’re doing and to do it effectively and even ferociously when needed. But at the same time, you need to be able to come home and reconcile the work that you have to do with the person you are and your role within your family and community.


[Read full blog piece titled “A Soldier-Turned-Therapist Stops PTSD in Its Tracks” here.]


Examining the darkest corners of our minds can be unsettling, even terrifying. But it’s also profoundly liberating. By confronting our fears and insecurities, we strip away the illusions that bind us, and emerge as more resilient and integrated individuals. We can’t erase what we’ve seen or deny who we are, but an understanding of our own complexity can give us psychological strength to keep fighting the battle.


Imagine staring into the abyss and finding not just darkness, but opportunity. When the abyss stares back, it’s not a signal to retreat, but a challenge to delve deeper, to discover what lies at the very core of our being. Nietzsche’s enigmatic aphorism urges us to push the boundaries of our understanding and know who we are in the deepest sense.

Nietzsche’s abyss isn’t just a metaphor; it’s a call to action. It’s a reminder that true wisdom lies not in avoiding the darkness, but in embracing it. Mental health cannot be compartmentalized. Our security professionals should be encouraged to accept the totality of their identity and experiences to continue the important work they do for society. They are multi-layered human beings who have been exposed to abject evil and have emerged as ultimately good. They deserve our understanding and respect.


To all those who have served and to those who continue to serve, thank you for being our guardians.

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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense sector. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, CIA officers, law enforcement, psychologists, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.

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