Sadly, It’s Not at All Inexplicable

Right now the world is reeling from the slaughter in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Some (many) people describe the shooting as “inexplicable.”  But it’s important to recognize that it is not inexplicable, nor is it the result of “mental illness,” though it does reveal that the shooter was not acting rationally. None of this is intended to excuse the shooter or what he did.  But to throw our hands in the air and treat this as if it was a random act of a hostile universe is simply wrong.

The shooter was, by his own account, influenced by others–including Anders Breivik, who perpetrated his own massacre.  He had the entirety of the internet available to him, but he read only a narrow slice.

The slaughter led a friend of mine to post on Facebook something to the effect of how “leftists” blame easy availability of weapons for shootings in the US, but when a country with “strong” gun regulation, like New Zealand (that point is open to debate) suffers an event like this, “[l]eftists are left merely saying how sad these senseless massacres are.”

Not this leftist.  I can make sense of these events.  Granted, I have the advantage of having studied sociology, but the answer seems like it should be obvious.

As might be expected, the Facebook discussion was really an argument against gun control, with my friend subsequently accusing me of being “anti-gun.”  My response was a statement to the effect that I’m anti-gun in the sense that I’ve never felt the need to own a firearm.  One of my friend’s friends responded to that with a question and they and I had the following conversation:


The key is their statement that it’s extremely  dangerous in Detroit.  Of course it’s dangerous in Detroit.  My response was that I didn’t see what difference carrying a gun would make. In other words, the problem isn’t the danger, the problem is the fear of danger.

I should be clear here.  When I lived in Chicago as a young man, I carried a Swiss Army knife at all times.  It was useful in many ways, but I always had in the back of my mind, while riding the El, the idea that it might be useful as a weapon against people who wanted to hurt me (it never was–nor did I ever encounter anyone who wanted to hurt me, though twice I did encounter people who wanted my money).  This was a view fostered by the University I was attending, which (perhaps in an overabundance of caution) sought to portray many of the people in the surrounding neighborhood as predators.

The key is fear.  It is possible to be worried or concerned without fear.  It is possible to think that going into some neighborhoods might be inadvisable, still without fear.  It is possible to contemplate the changing demographics of your region without fear.  As an attorney who works on civil rights cases for inmates, I often meet at arm’s length with people who have been convicted of murder–people who have literally nothing to lose.  I can do this without fear.

But once fear enters in, things change.  Merriam-Webster defines fear as “an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger.”    Fear is an emotional response in anticipation.  Fear is the idea that someone wants to harm you, and the extension is that you’d better harm them, first.

Fear isn’t always irrational.  If I find myself in a cage with a hungry tiger, it’s entirely rational.  But fear is part of a cycle–if I believe that other humans are motivated by fear, then my own fear will lead me to expect them to try to harm me first, and the result will be to accelerate my own desire to hurt them first.  In this sense, fear reflects on itself.

Carrying a gun in Detroit does nothing to make you safe.  It may have the effect of making you feel safe, because you can project injury (in theory) before someone else can hurt you.

The Christchurch shooter was fearful.  He saw the rest of the world as driven by fear–not surprising if you spend a lot of time in certain slices of the web.  And so he acted in accord with that fear.  Anticipating that Muslims would strike first, injuring him, he chose to strike first, injuring them.

Frank Herbert, author of Dune, created for that work the Litany Against Fear:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Fear turns us from rational beings into reactive beings or–worse, as I’ve suggested above–anticipatorily reactive beings.

But fear is also tremendously useful.  It sells things–alarm systems, weapons, politicians, walls, borders.  That’s for starters.  Because fear shuts down the rational parts of our minds, it gives those who can instill fear–whether they are thugs or politicians–enormous control over us.

We live in an age of fear.  We fear those alien to our cultures, who have different religions or different languages.  Why?  We fear our neighbors.  Why?

Not everyone who fears will kill their enemies in advance.  But fear is the motivator behind most people who do.

We need to put fear away.  It’s not easy.  Fear is in the same class with emotions that makes us try to keep our tender bits out of cold water.  But we do know that, once we’re in the water, it’s not so bad.  Similarly, fear is rooted in ignorance.  Don’t know someone who is Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant?  That very fact is likely to keep you from knowing someone who is Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or Protestant.  Once you know someone whose skin looks different from yours, it’s easier to accept as non-threatening others whose skin is different.

It’s not easy to put fear away.  But it’s time to start.  Because so long as we do not, violence of the type that took place in New Zealand last week is all too explicable.




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