Mental Health Matters: Embrace the human aspect of mass violence
Mental Health Matters
As I begin this column, Munich, Germany, is in mourning — at least nine dead, killed by one shooter who then killed himself. Another instance of unpredictable, murderous rage.
This comes following the killing of three policemen in Baton Rouge, and five in Dallas, and the police killing of a black man in Minneapolis, and another in Baton Rouge.
Previously, 47 people were murdered by a gunman in Orlando, and 84 were killed by one man in Nice, France. Then, days ago, 80 Afghanis were killed by an Isis suicide bomber.
All this mayhem leaves Americans anxious about their security.
Marches and commemorative events are organized to pay homage to fallen police officers. Fundraising is undertaken to provide for their families. The searing fumes of seemingly senseless murder pervades the commons.
The black gunman, Gavin Long, who killed the Baton Rouge officers before being shot dead, is said to have posted online, “Bloodshed is the only way to end oppression,” and, “You gotta fight back,” against injustice visited on black people.
Meanwhile, the black, telegenic Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as “black slime,” “garbage,” and ”purveyors of hate,” and called several blacks shot by police “goons,” “criminal creeps,” and “co-conspirators in their own deaths.”
When we learn about violence overseas in the non-Western world, little is said about its victims — millions on the march out of Syria are dead and decaying in Syrian sands; the killing fields in Iraq; Afghanistan still a country at war with itself and, at times, America’s presence there.
Then there is the violence visited on defenseless populations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in America’s Drone War as part of its counterterrorism program. Hundreds of civilians killed, “collateral damage” in our efforts to eradicate the enemy.
It’s all about bad guys and good guys — the vicious enemy, including Saddam, al-Qaida, Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists and Isis — against us, the chosen people.
Never mind the inconvenient truth, for example, that the Islamic State grew out of al-Qaida in Iraq, a jihadist group that followed on the American invasion there in 2003.
For me, as a psychiatrist, there are no good guys or bad guys, aside from that small number who are so damaged by life that evil becomes their only calling card.
Steven Pinker, prize winning Professor of Psychology at Harvard, is one of my guides in exploring human violence. In, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: A history of violence and humanity” (2011), Pinker says that evolution shaped the basic design of our brain and that this process has given us both genetic propensities toward violence, which he labels “inner demons,” and inclinations to be peaceful and cooperative, the “better angels of our nature.”
One critical violence inhibitor is empathy, our ability to treat the interests of others as comparable to our own. The more we come to know about and viscerally understand the lives of others, the less likely we are to visit violence upon them.
Empathy requires an appreciation of our common humanity, an awareness that people in other, and at times far away, places with different material and cultural histories are as fully human as us, with the same basic genetic structure and the same fundamental needs and desires. We all start with mothers and fathers.
Violence of any sort, but particularly war, obfuscates and obliterates our common humanity, if we allow it. And allow it we do, whether in declared or undeclared wars — the War on Terror, the War on Drugs , the War against Isis, or a War against Black Lives Matter, or against the police.
In each instance, the “good” people see themselves as more fully human than “those” people justifying their violence.
I’m old enough to remember Vietnam. The “enemy” were “gooks,” not fully human. Debasing their humanity, exhausted veterans were, in the eyes of many anti-war activists, murderers and baby killers.
When a policeman is killed, we learn about his humanity and that of his grieving family. When a policeman kills a civilian, we rarely gain a similar understanding.
To ameliorate violence, we must understand the individual humanity of both perpetrators and victims, the lives they lived, and the people they loved. We must embrace them as fully human, even as we deplore their actions or grieve their death.
Incendiary rhetoric only closes off truth telling, prevents understanding, and promotes further violence.
By dehumanizing those who commit violent acts, for example labeling them as terrorists, demented or deranged, crazed or crazy, we make future violence more probable.
By dehumanizing the victims of violent acts, our better angels sit silently, and righteous rage hungers for more victims.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.