"I can't believe the news today. I can't close my eyes and make it go away." —"Sunday, Bloody Sunday," U2
America experienced two mass shootings within a 24-hour period over this past weekend, leaving a total of 31 dead and many more injured. We are all sickened by these tragedies, yet these horrors seem all too common. It's not our imagination: Mass shootings are on the rise. What's going on here?
It's Not Video Game Violence
There are rarely simple answers to complicated questions. The causes of homicide in general and mass shootings, in particular, involve many variables. At the same time, we want answers so that we can take measures to reduce acts of senseless violence. We must make changes, but they need to be informed and skillful.
What are the root causes of these mass shootings? President Trump suggested that the glorification of violence in video games was at least partly to blame. Yet, there is no evidence that playing violent video games leads to such acts of violence. In fact, the evidence that such games increase aggression is weak at best. Moreover, there is no evidence whatsoever that playing such games leads to acts of homicide.
If it were true that playing violent video games led to homicidal acts then America would have seen a tremendous spike in violence over the past couple of decades. Playing violent video games is almost universal among male teenagers and young adults. This is the age demographic most likely to commit murder, including mass shootings. Yet, when we actually look at the overall homicide rate in America, it was much higher even before video games were available. Mass shootings might be on the rise, but violent video games have been around for decades. Video game violence, while an easy target, is a red herring when it comes to explaining homicides and mass shootings.
Interestingly, Trump also said that guns have nothing to do with such acts of violence, stating, "It's mental illness and hatred that pull the trigger, not the gun." If he believes that to be true, then it makes no sense to blame video game violence for such shootings either. Guns do have triggers that can be pulled, whereas gamers can't go on killing sprees in real life using their game controllers as weapons.
Many countries, such as Japan, show a similar appetite for violent video games but have only a fraction of the U.S. homicide rate. (The U.S. had 26.5 times the homicide rate of Japan in 2017.) The availability of firearms is one factor that contributes to mass killings. There are reasons mass killings by knife attack don't make the headlines: They don't happen. As heated as this topic is, though, let's explore some other potential causes of mass shootings.
Are Mass Shootings a Problem of Mental Illness?
One could argue that many acts of violence, especially homicides and mass shootings, have their roots in mental health issues. Who in their right mind would kill innocent people? Still, most people with mental health issues don't commit acts of violence. Mental health issues are much more likely to contribute to suicide-by-gun than mass shootings. In the United States, 22,938 gun-related suicides and 14,415 gun-related homicides occurred in the U.S. in 2016 compared to 71 deaths by mass shootings. About 90 percent of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness, such as depression. Certainly, improved efforts to help those with mental health issues is a good thing. It would likely reduce countless suicides, homicides, and some mass shootings.
Is Hatred the Cause of Mass Shootings?
Trump indicated that hatred is partly to blame for mass shootings. Indeed, the shooter in El Paso wrote a white-extremist, hate-filled, anti-immigration manifesto online. In this manifesto, he ranted about how Hispanics were "invading" Texas and that America was being taken over by foreigners. While the motives of the Dayton, Ohio shooter are less clear, he had expressed some extreme leftist views, including anti-fascism, online.
When it comes to mass shootings, hatred, perhaps fueled by extremism, might be motivating some shooters. This isn't to say that those who oppose fascism are the same as white supremacists, of course. However, hating haters might inspire some people, especially those who have mental health issues, to take matters into their own hands.
The Real Enemy Is Not Hate
What could inspire such hatred, though? Perhaps there is a deeper catalyst. Underlying much hatred is fear. As Gandhi said, "The enemy is fear. We think it is hate, but it is fear." When we look at what is happening in America, and even in other parts of the world, fear of foreign "invaders" has stoked the passions of millions who worry about their physical safety, jobs, and the dilution of their culture.
It doesn't mean such fears are warranted. Fear is a primal emotion. It resides within all of us. It has an evolutionary purpose, and that's to help us survive. Yet, we live in a very different world from that of our hunter-gather ancestors. Fear has the power to overwhelm our reasoning and drive our behavior, including violent behavior. Sparks, in the form of words from our leaders about foreign
"invaders," can ignite these primal fears.
The Fear of Others
Who do we fear? We fear "others." Who are these "others?" Anyone who is not us; not in our "tribe." We evolved to trust our own tribe members and to fear others because this fear had survival value in our ancestral world. Sure, the person from the other tribe might be friendly. But the first reaction was usually fear. If that other person were hostile, we might not live to see another day. So fear often motivated a fight/flight reaction to ensure our survival.
The problem is we live in a world that is very different from our evolutionary ancestors. America was founded by immigrants, who then treated Native Americans as foreigners. Each new wave of immigrants suffered from being treated as the "other"–Italians, Germans, Jews, Polish, Chinese, Irish, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Mexicans. Man's inhumanity to others is a sad part of our history, and at the root of every genocide.
Separateness from Others as the Root of Violence
"When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence."
While there are many causes of violence, such as mass shootings, part of the problem is this: Misguided hatred is fueled by fear. Fear is caused by seeing ourselves as separate from others.
Just as there is no single cause to societal violence, there is no one solution, either. With that big caveat, perhaps part of the solution depends upon our ability to transcend the self such that we no longer see ourselves as separate from others. "It's man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil ways," teaches the Buddha. Thus, we need to transcend old, dysfunctional mindsets that are vestiges of our evolutionary heritage because these have outlasted their original purpose.
How Can We See Ourselves in Others?
How can we start this process? How can we liberate ourselves from these violent ways of thinking? It's not easy, because we are going against millions of years of evolution. We might say that part of our evolutionary purpose now is to transcend our evolutionary heritage.
In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama tackles this challenge with some thought exercises. Instead of seeing how others are different than us, we should instead focus on how we are the same. Just like us, others want to be happy, and don't want to suffer. They have the same emotions, such as love, fear, anger, compassion, and sadness. They love their kids, family members, and friends. Just like everyone, we were all born at a particular time, to particular parents, and in a particular country over which we had absolutely no input or control.
It takes mindful practice to see through the illusory barriers that separate us from others. We aren't going to be able to do this 100 percent of the time. However, when we can do this, "they" are no longer the "other." When they are not the other, we have no reason to fear them, hate them, or commit acts of violence against them. In fact, there is no "them" at all.