The Death of Empathy

How mass shootings make victims of us all

Posted Feb 14, 2018

This time a Florida school. Seventeen dead.

Another day, another mass shooting, more deaths and—what? Shock? Outrage? Sorrow?

More likely it is numbness. As chief executive of the American Psychological Association, Arthur Evans, notes, in recent years we have gone from “How could this happen?” to “Here we go again.”

With mass shootings at the hands of fanatics or angry, uncontrollable or unhinged individuals a steady drumbeat, the news of a massacre is absorbed and the public moves on. After the Las Vegas mass shooting, for instance, the deadliest in US history, the gambling capital quickly returned to normal with visitors taking in shows, playing slot machines, visiting gaming tables and generally having a good time.

With each heinous murder, we more quickly return to the business of ordinary life. Horrors blur one into another and if the next shooting involves few people, it hardly calls attention to itself.

Is this resilience, a refusal to be cowed, or something else?

I think of this in relation to the comments of officials and postings on social media after each mass shooting. A nearly empty ritual rushes to replace shock and grief: the utterance of ‘our thoughts and prayers’ go out to the victims’ families; a call for greater gun control; denouncing calls for gun control as ‘politicizing’ a tragedy; a photo on Facebook to express condolences.

Typically, rituals follow loss, as they provide comfort, support, psychological strength and a way for a community to overcome petty concerns. The responses and rituals around today’s acts of terror are, in fact, not doing that all. Rather than focusing on the deeper meanings of life, these rituals hold grief at bay. They allow us return to our mundane tasks without needing to feel the depth of the tragedy. There is no mourning, no genuine condolences, no change in behavior.

We know that telling a bereaved person to go back to enjoying themselves is both callous and not useful. But with every mass shooting, each of us becomes one of the bereaved.

The APA’s Dr. Evans notes that when a person is exposed to continuous light and sound “they become less sensitive to that stimuli. It would be expected,” he said in a New York Times article, “that if people are exposed to [mass shootings] in the news all the time, that they’re going to be less reactive.”

A school, dance club, house of worship, shopping mall, train station, army base, airport, immigration center, city sidewalk—the site of a mass shooting no longer surprises us; but it is an abrasion to the emotion that makes us most human: empathy.

As a matter of self-protection, to keep from constant grief, we turn away and pay less attention to the tragedies around us. There is no longer the shock. the horror of the deaths of many innocent people killed in the course of living their ordinary lives.

This suppression of empathy isn’t resilience in the long run but rather it is a great loss of an essential component of humanity.  

There must be a way to find the balance between caring for others and caring for ourselves. For the larger truth is that, in the long run, we can’t really take care of ourselves unless we also take care of others.