A white cop in a black neighborhood: a frightened man with a gun.
I point out in my book, “Why are People So Stupid?” that one of the factors most likely to make people do stupid things is strong emotion. The best example of this is fear. After all, anger is when fear makes you do something illogical. Panic is when you feel so much fear that you do something completely irrational. And usually counter to your survival.
The problem, as any good police officer will tell you, is to get the frightened, angry, panicky person back down to thinking rationally. Because if you can’t, things are going to get worse. If you deal with him violently, he will become more frightened and angry and harder to handle.
Continuing Spiral of Violence.
Once fear starts, it is very difficult to stop the downward spiral. All you need is one act of violence. Normal, confident people can get over it and move on. They depend on society, authority, and the support of other people to give them a sense of security.
The frightened person doesn’t think this way. He doesn’t trust anyone to help him. So he cannot depend on society, authority, or other people. He thinks he’s on his own, in competition with all others. So he must make himself as strong as possible in order to survive. He wants to buy a gun. But since he is frightened and illogical, he is the most likely one to commit the next act of violence.
The Tribal Solution “We/Them”
This is the defensive situation that has existed for tens of thousands of years. The world was a violent, dangerous place, full of things people couldn’t understand. They had a right to be frightened. All those fairytales that taught children to be fearful of the forest were necessary.
So tribal people banded together in small groups to protect each other. Even other tribes were regarded with suspicion, because of competition for resources. Thus the “We/Them” split was born. Recent psychology suggests that the average human can handle about 100 – 150 close relationships. Everyone outside that group is “Them.”
The Modern Solution
In our complicated modern society, there is no way this attitude can exist. One of the “We” people in your life may be a business associate online from around the world. One of the “Them” people may be the guy in the next apartment. Very scary.
The Retrofit Solution
The problem is when simplistic people try to apply the “We/Them” to modern situations. It doesn’t work, it can’t work, and it only makes things worse. But they are frightened, irrational people, and they will never see this. They hear that someone took a gun and shot a bunch of innocent people. Picturing themselves in that situation, they go and buy a gun. It’s even logical.
A recent study revealed that men who admitted to having anger management problems were six times more likely to own multiple guns than the average guy. Now, that’s scary. But it’s logical. Frightened people get angry easily. So they buy a gun to protect themselves. But they still don’t feel safe, so they buy another gun. And then they get mad and shoot someone.
The “We” Solution
This is the point where modern people have put aside their knee-jerk reactions and given their trust to the group for protection. I don’t have to know everyone who is a “We,” so I can feel safe with a lot more people. If someone raped my sister or murdered my brother, my first desire might be to kill that person. That would be a natural fear-and-anger reaction. But if I am a mature, reasonable person, I know that I must act logically, not emotionally. I know that society will not function if I give way to my anger. I have to turn the responsibility over to the police and the courts to find, convict, and sentence the perpetrator in a logical, not emotional way.
The great part of it is that I no longer have to deal with that person. I don’t have to try to be stronger than everybody else. The “We/Them” split is no longer necessary. Or shouldn’t be. And this is good, because it means that I no longer have to view my neighbor with suspicion. I can treat him as a “We,” because the chances are huge that he is. And if he isn’t, I don’t have to deal with him, because I trust the group to do that for me. So for the modern person, the “We” group expands indefinitely, and the “Them” group shrinks in size and importance to a few criminals. We get less and less frightened.
Of course, the frightened person doesn’t trust anyone, so that doesn’t work for him. For him, there are 125 “We” people, and the rest are the enemy. He goes and buys another gun.
Home-Grown Terrorism: A Sense of Alienation
Here’s a look at the spiral from the other side. If you wanted to typify the “average” perpetrator of many of the recent terrorist atrocities, he would be a young male of a visible minority, of recent immigrant stock. The most powerful similarity to others of his ilk would be a strong sense of alienation. I have friends who were “Displaced Persons,” refugees from Hungary in 1956. In spite of the fact that they were Caucasian and came from the same religion as most Canadians, they felt a strong sense of not belonging. “DP” jokes were rife. While they were able to overcome their problems and blend into Canadian society, the memory of that disconnect is still strong, 60 years later.
Picture a recent immigrant from a poor Arab nation. His skin is different. His language is different. His religion is different. He has poor job prospects. He lives in a ghetto with many others with the same problems. He is a second-class citizen.
And how do we treat him?
If we greet him with friendship, find him a job, help him learn English, and above all make him feel accepted, he will soon adapt himself to fit in. He will get enough money to move out of the ghetto, or he will stay and fix it up until it is an “ethnic neigbourhood.”
If we fear him because a very few of his countrymen are a danger to us, if we push him away and keep him downtrodden, if his sister is pushed, beaten, and spat upon for wearing what she considers normal clothing, then we are doing our very best to make him the enemy we fear. He is going to go and buy a gun.
The Final Solution
And the interesting result of this is that if you look at the gunslingers and the terrorists, you find, basically, the same type of people. Alienated from the mainstream, angry and frightened. Isn’t it too bad we couldn’t just put both groups on an island somewhere and let the rest of us go on with our lives? (Apology to Australians necessary.) But that won’t work, because one of the other requirements of the modern “We” society is that we take care of everyone, to give them a chance to become one of “Us.”
Our weakness in choosing leaders.