Excuse me while I peel my face from my hands and dry my tears. For the love of evolutionary imperative can we all just take a time out for the rest of the summer? Do we have to go down the road so frequently traveled by human kind and take to the whole sale slaughter of each other? Of course, I’m referring to the police shootings in Baton Rouge. Even if it turns out to be a shoot out between cops and some bad guys and not an ambush, we still need to take a deep collective breathe and count collectively to ten or a hundred or a thousand or whatever it takes… perhaps infinity, amirite?
Now, back to your regularly scheduled blog post about all the other insane hate-filled violence that we’ve seen in the past month. Sometimes you just can’t write this shit fast enough. Luckily, not only does psychology provide some very well grounded insight into the causes of the violence we’ve seen in the US and in France and Turkey recently, it gives us some ideas of how to respond.
Orlando, Dallas, Nice, etc etc etc
It has been a hellacious month or so, hasn’t it? Let’s review, god help us:
- 12 June 2016: 49 Americans slaughtered at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida
- 28 June 2016: The Ataturk Airport in Istanbul was bombed
- 1 July 2016: Terrorists killed hostages in Dhaka, Bangladesh
- 4 July 2016: Suicide bomber detonates outside of the US Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
- 5 July 2016: Police shot and killed Alton Sterling is shot and killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
- 6 July 2016: Police shot and killed Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota
- 7 July 2016: Five police officers were shot and killed and eleven shot and injured in Dallas, Texas
- 14 July 2016: 84 killed in Nice, France after a man deliberately drives a freight truck 1.3 miles through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day.
- 17 July 2016: Three police officers shot dead and three wounded — one critically — in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
And, this isn’t mentioning every shitty little assault and murder and suicide that hasn’t garnered the national spotlight or the things that only horrify a small section of the population like the FBI not indicting Clinton or Trump picking Pence as his VP or the Brits pulling an America and actually voting themselves out of the EU and accepting a new prime minister who abolished their climate change office because she actually believes her party’s propaganda.
Can Science Explain It?
Where does all of this violence, hatred, and penchant for killing come from? What are these people thinking? What motivates them? Can’t they sit at home and draw or sculpt or stand on street corners shouting at imaginary horrors until they feel better like the rest of us do? Can’t they limit their disturbed sense of damaged ego to more local violent that may only get reported on the local news? Must they try to disturb the rest of us with it?
In one of my favorite books, The Angels of our Better Nature, the esteemed Steven Pinker maintains, …violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. But Neil Kressel states in Mass Hate that the brutality of humankind erupted and flowed more expansively in the twentieth century than ever before. And, the rise of suicide terrorism as a weapon in the latter half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries gives us at least the impression that we are living in a threatening time (The Root Causes of Suicide Terrorism).
If these ding dang dumb East Coast intellectual elitists would get there acts together and decide which it is, then all the conservatives could quit clutching their pearls and just believe in science as much as they believe Jesus preaches the hatred that lives in their hearts. So, what gives?
We know that the IMPRESSION of this being a dangerous world is created by the availability heuristic: the tendency to use the most accessible information to judge the probability of something happening in the near future. The most accessible information is usually the memory with the strongest emotion associated with it. So, when deciding whether to hitchhike or fly to grandma’s house, we choose hitchhiking because we remember Malaysian Air flight 370 that disappeared a few years ago and are convinced that every other flight and the vast majority of passengers just disappear into nothingness probably flown to a secret airbase by terrorists or taken up by black holes or ghosts as CNN’s Don Lemon assured us.
Police Shootings and Retaliatory Shootings
Regardless of whether we live in a more, less, or unchanged violent age, as the list above shows, we experience violence all too frequently. And, as the list above shows, that violence is of a unique kind. Few of those acts are exclusively one private individual doing violence to another like say in a healthy domestic abuse situation, child abuse, or even sexual assault. This shit almost makes that shit seem wholesome — ALMOST, y’all! It’s a joke — a bad joke, but a joke nonetheless. They involve a group (the police, a terrorist group, or an individual inspired by a group) doing violence to an individual representing a group or to a group or class of people. As Hawdon notes in his chapter, On the Forms and Nature of Group Violence, in The Causes and Consequences of Group Violence: From Bullies to Terrorists, de la Roche believes that collective violence varies directly with the relational distance between perpetrators and targets with the probability and severity of violence increasing when the perpetrators and targets fit several categories:
- culturally distant,
- unequal, or
- functionally independent.
Groups that commit violence usually have some type of intimacy or solidarity among their members — think in-group and out-group and the thin Blue Line. These groups have a strong group culture. Thus, the group members are socially close, but socially distant from the target. The police are bros and they are separated from those nasty black people living in ghetto and thanks to open carry the police are certain every black man is carrying and it is far far better to shoot first and ask questions never.
Apply these concepts to the above list of violence, and what do you get? Check, check, check, and check: the perpetrators and targets are all strangers, socially distant, unequal, and functionally independent. Before you go patting me and the folks who determined all of this on the back, remember, the violence is all quite real, deadly, and severe.
The Lone Wolf Terrorist
Now, here’s the interesting thing: terrorism does not differ substantially from other groups committing violence on a population.
Turk says that terrorism is a social construct. Don’t get me wrong, the violence is real. But for purposes of fear mongering and demagoguery, we chosen to categorize one type of violence as terrorism and others as not terrorism. This is arbitrary and created by the human mind much like time and race are also constructs. How else is a know nothing like Trump and W gonna get elected? Fair is fair, right?
Hawdon summarizes the academic view of terrorism as an attempt by a group to address a long-standing grievance. Terrorists, as we conceive of them, are dirty brown people living in deserts, abusing their women even worser than we do, and worshiping some derivation of our god or the devil or something. Terrorists are often derived from a social group that is organized around ethnicity (Tamil Tigers, anyone?) or religion (Sri Lankan Buddhists, perhaps?) and attack the social group that they believe has aggrieved them. That other group is often derived from ethnicity, religion, or nationality. This includes the lone-wolf attacks that we’ve seen in San Bernardino, Orlando, and Nice and to some extent to the fellow in Dallas and perhaps to Baton Rouge (if it pans out to be an ambush-type thing). Even though the lone-wolf is not strongly connected to the larger group and exists in isolation, he or she often views the larger group as their audience that they are trying to please.
Let’s focus on something that is terribly important here: all of these terrorist attacks are an attempt to address some terrible awful insult or other harm inflicted on them by a rich powerful group when all other methods of getting satisfaction have been ineffective. I am not blaming the police, hating on the police, blaming the good people of Nice, the patrons of Pulse, or employees of the Inland Regional Center. I am saying that whatever other methods of redress are available have not worked.
Terrorism often occurs when there is a large social distance between the attacker and victim. This distance can be characterized by the following dimensions:
- cultural distance,
- high levels of inequality,
- vertical segmentation (classes),
- relational distance, and
- functional independence.
All you keeners out there — I’m looking at you mom! — should realize that this list is pretty much the same as the first one. The violence associated with terrorism does not differ much from the violence perpetrated against American blacks by American police departments. I am not calling the police terrorists, either! Terrorism is an arbitrary social construct. But, the relationship between the attackers and the victims are very similar: high levels of disparity and vast cultural differences. There is one key difference, though, terrorists usually have a lower social status than their victims and police have a higher social status than their victims. Terrorists are attempting to influence their social superiors through violence while the police are attempting to influence their social inferiors through violence.
The Role of the State
Of course, states play a role in any act of violence. Theoretically, the state reserves to itself the exclusive right to use violence. That individuals and other non-state actors also use violence is a vexing problem for states to solve and they — as Cliven Bundy is finding out — do not take kindly to individuals and groups utilizing violence or threats of violence for their own ends.
Without the state’s monopoly on violence we would live in a world, as Hobbes so famously described it, where life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Hobbes and others proposed that there is a kind of logic to violence. Let’s face it, nature ain’t stupid. Trees and rocks don’t fight back, other animals do. When we do violence to wood and rock, we get building materials. But, just ask the hunter that a deer just kicked the ever loving tar out of or that lion that a cape buffalo has gored. But, intraspecies violence is the most stupidest kind of all because all y’all have the same skill sets (Pinker, The Angels of our Better Nature). Thus, indiscriminate violence often leads to bad ends ridding the gene pool of the stupid genes. Violence needs to have a purpose, a goal that makes the risk worthwhile. Violence is strategic.
In Leviathan Hobbes suggested three reasons for violence to occur: (1) competition, (2) diffidence, and (3) glory. Competition is self-evident: you have something I need, so I take it. Diffidence is less so: I commit violence to create safety by setting an example to all others that I will take care of myself. And glory is also all too familiar: I commit violence because it gains me a honor: don’t dis me, man! Those movies in the hood got it right! You can’t dis me, otherwise it could easily spiral out of control with larger and larger insults following and eventually someone taking a shot at me. That Hobbes was a bad… Shut yo mouth1
Competition leads to violence as we vie for scarce resources — and our resources are only getting scarcer. Diffidence leads to violence as we fear our neighbors taking our resources. As Pinker points out, if you fear your neighbor is about to kill you and take your food, livestock, water, land, wife, and children, then you’d be wise to kill him first. The best example here is perhaps on the Korean peninsula: since both North and South Korea are likely to survive the initial attack that the other is able to mount, the subsequent struggle between them would be too costly to make an outbreak of a shooting war worthwhile. This explains the North’s desire to acquire nuclear weapons and the South’s to stop them.
By monopolizing violence, the state is guaranteeing its citizens that they need not engage in violence to compete, defend themselves, or glorify themselves. The state will seek revenge in the case of a citizen being attacked. The state will arbitrate disputes through the courts. By acting as a disinterested third party, the state can effectively end the need for violence between citizens. One reason we have trials by impartial juries.
What does all of this have to do with the shootings of police and lone-wolf terrorist attacks? When citizens, i.e. African Americans in the States, do not perceive the government, i.e. the police, the local magistrate, or the Department of Justice, as being able to defend them from unwarranted abuse by whites or the police, then the only logical thing to do is to take the law into your own hands and fight back.
When people decide to retaliate against Muslims after terrorist attacks, it is in large part due to a lack of trust that the government can protect them. Indeed, that seems to be the goal of terrorism: to erode trust in the government and cause social order to breakdown. It may be one of the few ways that a weaker group can achieve their goals against a stronger opponent.
When a lone wolf decides to attack the society that he or she resides in, it is in part because he or she perceives that the society no longer serves his or her interests. Think about accusations of the decadence towards Western culture. The affront the fellow in Orlando felt when seeing men kissing in the streets — perhaps the unwanted arousal seeing such things caused in himself — could’ve been prevented had the conservative politicians had their way, no homosexuals would be encountered in the streets being openly gay. The state would have served his interest. Thanks Obama!
First, strengthening the state. We must convince the Cliven Bundy’s, Micah Johnson’s of the country that the state will protect their interests. One of the things that needs to happen is for a system to credibly investigate police shootings of unarmed civilians. We need to trust that the government is going to handle these cases well. One of the developments of the last century was the decision by the federal government to intervene on behalf of people of color to protect them from the abuses of local government. The Voting Rights Act was a big part of that protection. And, the gerrymandering that guarantees Republican majorities and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act convinced many that the federal government is stepping back from this protecting role.
Second, strengthen failed states. Syria is now a failed state. Iraq is now a failed state. Libya is now a failed state. Egypt teeters on edge of being a failed state. The ethnic, tribal, and religious politics of these states is complex, and we broke it when we colonized it and then set it free. And, democracy, as W found out, does not fix it. Protecting minority rights does help The problems in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt can be blamed on the minority government abusing the majority.
Third, strengthening international and regional organizations and agreements. We are currently seeing a trend away from these agreements. Trump has threatened to dissolve NATO. The UK has voted to leave the EU. These organizations are important because they make us more interdependent. When we are interdependent, we needn’t worry so much about competition or protecting ourselves from aggression. Trump doesn’t seem to realize that you catch more flies with honey! China is ignoring a decision that went against it by the International Court of Justice. We need to these organizations to help us enforce a rule of law and a trust that nations, organizations, or groups needn’t resort to violence to address grievances with each other. China doesn’t believe that a real live dead shooting war could result from its incursions into the South China Sea.
And fourth, we need to educate our citizens so that we all understand how the system works, that our vote matters, and our investment in the system. I cannot help but come to the conclusion that there has been a systematic undermining of American democracy so that we can be exploited by the wealthy.We no longer understand our democracy, our economy, or our social structure. We’d rather capture Pokemon than vote.
The solution to that is not to vote for the Greens or the Libertarians but to vote for Clinton and vote in every election. For all of Clinton’s faults, it is clear that Trump and the Republicans are going to do the exact opposite of what needs to be done to contain the violence that we are facing.
The solution is to organize and participate in the democracy that we have. To not blindly believe that we are the best and rest on our laurels, but to seek to improve our democracy and institutions. We can only do that through voting and education.