Is What We Fear Most Each Other?

I expect this to be the last thing I have to say about gun control for, I hope, another five or ten years.

I’ve written, recently, to try and lay out a few facts about gun control and what we might do about it. The response to those pieces has been interesting. Most people don’t seem to care about why people like James Holmes go on their sprees. They don’t seem to want to really do anything serious to prevent future massacres. One side doesn’t want anything done at all, the other is only interested in banning AR-15s. (Very curious considering that James Holmes seems to have carried out most of his shooting spree with a shotgun. Why then is all the attention on the weapon that didn’t work?)

It was very baffling to me. These people are not, for the most part, stupid or malicious. Why, then, did they seem to care so much about the wrong things? Am I the one who’s wrong? (No way!)

My position is the same as it’s been for years regarding airport security; the tool isn’t nearly as important as a person’s willingness to use it to do harm. This seems so obvious to me that I’ve always been puzzled why other people don’t see it. But I think I’ve figured something out in the past few days.

This comic sums it up:

When we live in close proximity to thousands, tens of thousands, of complete strangers, we have to take it on faith that they won’t try to kill us. We, quite literally, aren’t built for this. Humans lived for millions of years in small bands of hunter-gatherers, in close-knit social groups where everyone knew everyone else. You might not like everyone else in the group, but if you had enemies you knew who to watch out for. These people could be trusted, those might try to harm you; no unknowns. (People from another band, of course, were enemies who would try to harm you. We haven’t gotten away from that bit of evolution either.)

Today, we live surrounded by people. We can’t know and trust more than a tiny fraction of them, but we can’t go through our lives constantly on guard against attack by every stranger we see. We have to take it on faith that other people have no interest in doing us harm. Our society can’t work any other way. When you get on a crowded elevator, you have to be comfortably certain that one of the other people isn’t going to stick a knife in your back. So certain that the thought never even enters your mind. Because if someone else on that elevator wanted to stick a knife in you, there’s nothing you could do about it. You’re standing there staring at the numbers over the door, waiting for your floor to light up, and there are five people behind you and if one of them decided to see what your insides look like, he can.

We trust our lives every day to people we don’t know, who we’ve never seen before and will never see again. Any other driver you see on the highway could crash into you at any moment. All that person in the next lane over has to do is yank the wheel and you’re dead. That nice person who compliments you on your beautiful baby might break your baby’s legs.

We have to believe that they’re not going to do that. We have to. Without a certain level of trust, of belief in the fundamental goodness of the people around us, we can’t function. Nearly everyone you see on any given day has the ability to harm or kill you; it’s only the fact that they don’t want to that keeps you alive.

We don’t think about this. We can’t; it would drive us crazy if we did. That’s why these mass killings shake us up so much more than a far greater number of traffic deaths. Traffic deaths are (mostly) accidents; we can take thirty of forty thousand of those a year in stride. We don’t even think about it.

A dozen people killed by a random stranger, though, strikes at that trust, that fragile assumption of good intentions, that holds our society together. It suddenly, at a very deep level, makes us fear that person behind us on the elevator. The delivery guy bringing a box into the office. We look at people differently.

We realize there is a chance that the stranger really is out to kill us. Not a huge chance, not likely, but it’s there. It can happen. We may not think about it consciously, but the fear is there.

Our civilization can’t work that way, though. We can’t live in cities together if we don’t trust the strangers who surround us. If our trust in strangers is shaken, but we can’t get away from them, what can we do? We’re stuck.

So our monkey brains patch around the problem, just as they’ve been doing for thousands of generations.

Some of us internalize the fear. Those people embrace the paranoia. They stroke their guns and think, “I would have been ready. I wouldn’t be a victim. No one will get me.” They arm themselves and so gain the strength to face the endless parade of potentially dangerous strangers.

Some compartmentalize it. It’s not strangers they have to worry about; it’s guns, or certain kinds of guns. They narrow the source of the danger, at least in their own minds, to a point where they can function without being afraid of everyone they see.

Some blame movies or comic books or video games. Get rid of those things and strangers won’t want to kill them.

That’s why some people cling more tightly to their guns in the aftermath these tragedies, while other people call for getting rid of those guns. It’s two different coping mechanisms for dealing with the same problem, the same fear. It’s unfortunate that the two methods are not just incompatible, but directly opposed.

There’s another thing we do: We forget. Within a few weeks, the memories fade and so does our fear and mistrust. We can again carry on our daily lives without fear, even though surrounded by strangers. It’s easy to mock how quickly we forget, but how could we carry on if we didn’t?

I still think that banning certain kinds of guns is the wrong solution, because there are so very many different ways that strangers can hurt you that it’s futile to try stamping them out one at a time, but I better understand the impulse now. Those people, like the rest of us, are just trying to find a way to get through their day.

If we are ever going to stop tragedies like the recent one in Aurora, though, we have to look past the tools and at the people. It’s not something we’re comfortable looking at. It forces us to admit that some of those strangers are dangerous, do want to kill us, and that’s very disturbing. That’s why we ignore it. It’s not the people, it’s the guns/movie/video games. Make those things go away and all will be good!

But it’s not the things. It’s us. We have to gain some understanding into why some people want to commit these atrocities, maybe even find some way to identify them beforehand and stop them, help them.

Because if we don’t, the killing will go on. No black rifle is as dark as the evil that might lurk in the heart and mind of the stranger standing next to you.

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