Mind Matters — Violence or Better Angels?

When are we as a society going to understand the systemic role we play in the violence we experience? Ever consider a connection among the violent ones—Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, John Allen Muhammad, the DC snipers, Micah Xavier Johnson, sniper of the police in Dallas, Gavin Eugene Long, the sniper of police in Baton Rouge?

They were all in the military. Timothy McVeigh saw his buddy get blown up in front of him. Do they all share the narrative of learning how to kill that overrides the human instinct not to? Well, if they were in the military, yes, they do share this. Might they all have been suffering some traumatic wounds from their service? Probably—and they probably buried their woundedness under a macho mask. Might they have felt left out and dis-enfranchised from society when they came home from serving their country? Most likely, yes. None of these factors are an excuse for the murdering of civilians or government employees, including the police. Violence begets violence, no matter the perpetrator. Our wars abroad come home to us here in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder in those who have served. Of course, not every military person suffers such woundedness; of course, most military persons who do suffer PTSD don’t become violent snipers on return. Nevertheless, the connection, in my mind, needs to be addressed: that our homegrown terrorists are sometimes our very own wounded warriors.

My connection here is a conjecture that deserves research. Another connection is that several murderers in the news have had a history of domestic abuse. Whether the mass murder was in Nice, France, careening into people on Bastille Day or mowing down people in a gay bar in Orlando or shooting police in Baton Rouge, their common thread was how their past was prologue. They were known in their communities for their domestic violence. This is not a blanket statement regarding all murderers, but it is a noteworthy feature.

Yet, despite the despicable acts of violence committed—let’s include here not only acts done to police, but also by police—violence is actually on the wane. Hard to believe, given 24/7 coverage by social and news media and a presidential campaign where a bully boy provokes violence and invokes fear.

Facts and research give evidence that crime and violence is not on the rise in the US—and in fact, not globally either. Yes, there are many places where people live in fear—here and abroad and we must act to change that.

Steven Pinker, psychologist and linguist at Harvard University, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, details his research of history, psychology, science, economics, and sociology to support his thesis that violence over the millennia has decreased. It is easy, with the continuous “news” bombardment of the media, to be skeptical. Pinker responds to the skepticism with statistics and fact upon fact to validate his proposition. Think about the past for a moment! The acceptance of slavery, torture, despotism. Animal abuse was outlawed eventually—and child abuse finally was too. Women had fewer rights than a cow and were considered property. We live in a far from ideal world and racism, bigotry, misogyny, and hatred still abound. However, we have come through the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties; we have seen strides in the equal rights not only of women, but also for the LGBTQ community.

Pinker notes that part of what moves us to higher forms of morality, and, I would say, towards care for the common good, is reason. In our ability to be reflective, we develop moral reasoning and judgment. Where would we be if Kennedy and Krushchev had been inflammatory and impulsive leaders not considering the consequences of their actions? Peter Singer, bioethics professor at Princeton University, in his New York Times book review of Pinker’s text, notes “if the fate of the world had been in the hands of leaders under the sway of a different kind of morality—one dominated by honor and the importance of not backing down—[it] might have been the end of the human story. Fortunately, Kennedy and Krushchev understood the trap they were in and did what was necessary to avoid disaster.”

Consider these points in this election year. To continue the process in the direction of “the better angels of our nature,” we need leaders who bring us together, who don’t foment fear, violence, and bigotry, who do ask us to think about the consequences of our actions on others as well as ourselves.