Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fear of Outsiders and American Mass Murder

We are primed, almost programmed, to blame our troubles on outsiders. We like to think, need to think, that threats to us and our loved ones come from strangers. White Americans fear black criminals; suburbanites fear urban gangs; natives worry about violent immigrants. Even when the criminals we fear look like us, they are not part of us. Our iconic villain is the serial killer, preying on random strangers, swooping down from outside their worlds like a hawk on a rabbit warren. The scariest bad guys in America are those wandering child molesters who, as one activist put it, "roam the roads of our country kidnapping children at random." The whole industry of faces on mild cartons was built around this dark fantasy.

The sad truth is that almost all molested children are victimized by someone who knows them well. Most murders also arise, not from random encounters with strangers, but from close relationships gone badly wrong. Unless you are involved in drugs or gangs, or live in a neighborhood where crossfire is a problem, your murderer is likely to be someone you've lived with or slept with.

The nadir of blame-the-outsider thinking, to me, arose after an incident that took place in New York about 15 years ago. A drunk diplomat, attached to the UN, struck and killed a pedestrian with his car but couldn't be arrested because of diplomatic immunity. This produced an outpouring of anger in the tabloids, on local news, and even in the letters to the Times, about the dire threat posed by these wicked outsiders immune to our laws. It was left to the mayor to point out that diplomats are, for the most part, extremely law abiding and pose next to no threat to New Yorkers.

America has spent the past decade in a state of fear and rage about Islamic terrorists. They have become the wicked outsiders laying siege to our gates, the stuff of our nightmares. To combat this menace we have launched a vast war, invading two countries and bombing several others, spending over a trillion dollars and losing more than 5,000 lives.

But the real menace is not in the mountains of Afghanistan or the slums of Sadr City. It is here, among us. This, to me, is the lesson of the recent mass killings in America. If you are killed, either by a gunman or a drunk driver, chances are that your killer will be of your own race and live in your own town. The things that will reduce this threat are not dramatic acts like invasions or drone strikes. What will make us safer is a quiet, persistent struggle against the risks that really menace us. The nationwide campaign against drunk driving has saved more people than terrorists could kill in their wildest dreams. To reduce crime, we need better drug treatment and better treatment for the mentally ill, better relations between police and the residents of poor neighborhoods, and economic opportunities for the children of poverty.

To fight danger is often something of an oxymoron, because fighting is dangerous. This, to me, is the story of Sikh Temple murderer Wade Michael Page. He worked himself into such a rage over the threat posed to American civilization by dark-skinned outsiders that he became the very thing he claimed to fear: a violent assault on the order of our society. He was so addled by his anger toward foreigners that he opened fire on the wrong target, mistaking Sikhs for Muslims. He died in a crazed, futile assault on outsiders, born from his own demons and that deep, human impulse to blame the others for our woes.


Unknown said...

Some fears are based on delusion and/or a need to find a focus for hostility, like the shooter's rage at the Sikhs or David Icke's fear of a giant reptile conspiracy; some are overreactions in varying degrees; and some are realistic. I confess I find lumping all these together rather tendentious and high-handed. The 9/11 attacks were real, and if the invasion of Iraq was stupid and based on fantasy, the invasion of Afghanistan (I guess I'll say it again) was not, regardless of its outcome. Likewise, it may be mathematically far more likely that one will die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack, but surely the proper reaction to that should be to ask, what is the point that a simple mathematical calculation misses?, rather than simply exclaiming "aren't people just so irrational!" Likewise, even if the suburban fear of anonymous child molesters is overblown, surely the proper response is to ask with some sympathy what this fear is about, rather than just shaking one's head at human folly (not to mention that there really are real missing children, and the real people who are really missing them would really like to find them, and some seem to have been helped by the milk carton "business").

Whew, glad I got that off my chest. I'm going to check all my doors and windows now.

John said...

Well, that's what I'm asking: what are these fears about? I think they are largely about a need to project our experience of danger onto outsiders. I think we have radically different responses to different kinds of risk because of this very old evolutionary heritage. We have, for one, a built-in set of responses to people (demands for fairness, demands for apologies) that is different from our responses to storms and the like, and which goes some way toward explaining why we react different to different threats. Those that seem personal bother us more. And, we have a built-in tribal or band instinct that leads us to excuse acts by people on our side and shift the blame to outsiders, for the sake of maintaining the essential community.

Unknown said...

I don't disagree with any of that, but the locution "project our experience of danger onto outsiders" implies that you see a false or delusive quality in what these fears are about, and that you mean to debunk such projections. Surely it is disingenuous to suggest that your post merely voices disinterested curiosity on your part, or don't you mean to make a political point when you lump the Sikh massacre and the invasion of Afghanistan together?

John said...

I absolutely do think our invasion of Afghanistan and the Sikh Temple shooting have much in common. Sometimes it makes to sense to respond to violence with violence -- I supported the invasion of Afghanistan -- but the initial emotional response to lash out is always irrational, always rooted in fear, rage, and group solidarity. Our capacity to wage war depends on the same brain modules as our ability to murder. We may need those modules to survive, but that does not make them any less dangerous. Our deepest, strongest emotions -- anger, lust, greed, fear, loyalty -- are essential to life, but unless tempered by good sense they are disastrous guides to behavior.

Unknown said...

Well played, sir!