What the Tragedy in New Zealand Teaches All of Us about Ourselves

Like so many people, I was horrified to hear of the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand this past Friday. I can only hope that the scum behind those inexcusable atrocities are swiftly tried and harshly punished. There is no excuse for their actions.

At the same time, I was comforted to see the solidarity and sympathy expressed for the victims by people across the globe. Leaders from Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, and secularist organizations offered their condolences. Political leaders from both of America’s major parties denounced the attacks as a cowardly assault on the rights that all of us hold sacred.

The sick, deluded white supremacist ideology that inspired the shooter is a lie that has lived among us for far too long. It’s an abomination, an anachronism, a toxic brew of ancient prejudices that belongs in the trash heap of history.

We must strive to eliminate this mental virus from our world, both through education and through civil dialogue between members of varying racial, religious, and ideological communities. Extremists can only thrive in an atmosphere of mistrust.

One temptation we must always resist is the urge to eliminate free speech in the name of promoting tolerance. Using the power of the State in a misguided effort to mandate brotherly love will only give those on the fringe a sense of martyrdom. It will solidify their sense of identity and energize their recruitment efforts. It’s far better for us to know who the bigots among us are than to drive them underground, where they can plot against us beneath a cloak of anonymity.

We must also remember that white supremacy is an example of a greater problem, one which afflicts the entire human race and dates back to the origins of life on earth. All of us carry in our genetic makeup the shadows of our evolutionary past, the primitive drives and persistent aggression we see evidenced every day in our non-human cousins.

Those instincts allowed us to rise to the top of the food chain. But they may also drive us back into the nothingness from which we came, unless we exercise extreme care to prevent them from doing so.

Charles Darwin warned us of this troubling possibility in the conclusion to his 1871 book The Descent of Man. After spending 300 pages elucidating on the cold, calculating, often cruel nature of the human evolutionary process, he concluded by writing:

We must acknowledge…that man, with all his noble qualities, with his sympathy, his benevolence, with his godlike intellect…still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

This brief comment from one of humanity’s greatest minds sums up with sober eloquence the great paradox of human nature, the strange psychosis that prevents us from admitting our limitless capacity for evil. We comfort ourselves by believing that we are not like “them,” that we are incapable of such senseless savagery.

Yet the sad truth of the matter is that the dividing line between “us” and “them” is vanishingly small. This was revealed in the sentiments expressed by many of us in the wake of the New Zealand shootings. Religious fundamentalists said the killings were the inevitable result of society’s growing secularization. Anti-religious fundamentalists said the shootings were evidence of religion’s inherent toxicity. Both groups used the tragedy as grist for the rhetorical mill.

This tendency towards opportunistic instigation was not limited to the world of religion. Gun control opponents said the killings reveal the absurdity of firearms restrictions. Gun control advocates said that the need for firearms restrictions is now all the more obvious.

Many progressives saw the killings as an indictment of Trump’s supporters. Trump supporters themselves saw the tragedy as a breakdown of law and order, all the more reason to build the wall.

In other words, an unsettling number of us saw the mosque shootings as undeniable proof that “our side” was right all along. Psychologists refer to this tendency as “confirmation bias.” We see the world through a filter of unfailing self-affirmation.

Tragedies are never a call to question our cherished beliefs. Rather, they make us cling to them with renewed ferocity. Our response is always to point a finger and never to look in the mirror.

And what do we do when someone challenges our chosen worldview? Do we rub our chins thoughtfully and say, “you’ve got a point; I may have been wrong all this time?” Of course not. We dig in our heels. We lash out. We shout or scream or just block the offending party from our social media page.

We all admit that there’s plenty of blame to go around, of course. But never, ever shall it fall upon us. We are faultless. We are pure. We are always the heroes. It’s those “other people” who are the villains.

This is surely the sentiment that occupied the thoughts of the New Zealand shooter and his henchmen this past Friday. In their minds, they were only doing what was necessary for the sake of a greater good. They were the ones with the moral courage needed to make the tough decisions, unlike the cowardly fools who turn a blind eye to the truth.

Put another way, they saw themselves as valiant heroes struggling against the forces of evil. Sound familiar?

Thankfully, very few of us will go as far as the deluded fanatic who shot up those mosques. Most of us limit our self-congratulatory displays to wars of words, not bullets or bombs.

Nonetheless, the urge to excuse in ourselves the characteristics we rightly condemn in others is our common human heritage. It’s what underlies all of our acts of violence, no matter what creed we confess.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. This includes freedom from our own darker nature. We must continually remind ourselves that we too are capable of horrific evil, that there’s a little bit of “them” in “us.” Otherwise the tragic events in New Zealand may only be the latest chapter in an ongoing horror story, one in which we are the monsters — no matter who “we” are. That’s a disturbing but essential fact to keep in mind, as we begin a new week as caretakers of a troubled world.

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