The river of tears keeps flowing. Children are killed by bombs in Baghdad, Kabul and Manchester. In Portland, Oregon, three Good Samaritans are knifed while protecting teenage girls from racist harassment. In Fresno, a teenager who worked to end violence in her neighborhood is killed in a gang-related shooting.
We search for causes and cures for cruelty. Some blame weapons. Friday was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Protesters wore orange to bring attention to gun violence, which kills 90 Americans every day.
A Breitbart columnist, AWR Hawkins, has criticized the campaign. He points out only a third of those 90 daily deaths are homicides. The rest are suicides or accidents.
That’s a difference without significance for grieving families. Our tears fall for all of the dead. Suicide is as troubling as murder.
A different approach might look to neuroscience. Mental illness can contribute to violence. But let’s be careful. People who commit violent crimes are often mentally ill. But most mentally ill people are not violent.
A similar story holds with regard to alcohol, which is a major contributor to violence. Many violent people are drunk. But most drunks are not violent. Moral character is what matters. A good person who is drunk is not suddenly going to become violent. And an evil person is a menace, whether stoned or sober.
Some blame religion or politics. But terrorists and mass murderers have been politically, religiously and racially diverse. They say that “guns don’t kill people, people do.” It is also true that ideologies don’t kill people, evil people do. The danger lies in the cruel indifference of people who wield ideas and weapons in immoral ways.
Masculinity is another significant factor. Mother Jones has a database of mass shootings in the U.S. Its latest entry is for a racially charged murder that killed three white men in downtown Fresno on April 18, 2017.
In 83 of the 86 cases in this database, the attacker was a man. But again, let’s be careful in drawing conclusions. While nearly every terrorist and mass murderer is a man, not every man is a terrorist. Men of good character simply don’t commit mass murder.
It is clear that violence involves multiple causes. Violence occurs when unstable or drunken men with easy access to weapons get fixated on bad ideas.
There are no simple solutions here. Just think how much society would have to be modified in order to change the causal factors contributing to violence. We might begin by providing better mental health care, alternatives to gangs, and drug and alcohol counseling. One simple proposal is to raise the price of booze. Apparently this has worked to reduce violence in the United Kingdom.
In a society that values liberty, we are not going ban weapons and alcohol – or cruel religions and racist ideologies. The risk of violence may be the price of liberty. But that should not leave us indifferent to atrocity. Liberty must be linked to education, morality and responsibility.
Free people need compassion and self-control. A society of free persons depends upon a serious commitment to universal moral education. We create a peaceful world by teaching children to be loving, courageous, and just.
Among the more poignant stories emerging from the recent carnage is a letter written by the mother of Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a 23-year-old who was killed trying to protect those teenage girls from a racist assailant in Portland. Taliesin’s mother wrote, that her son’s selfless act “changed the world, when in the face of hate he did not hesitate to act with love.” She raised her son well, it seems.
Slow progress will be made by strong mothers who raise courageous sons like Taliesin. Let’s not forget that there are many brave and loving people among the decent majority of peace-loving people. Fresno’s Kayla Foster was another example. She worked to end violence before she was gunned down.
Let’s celebrate the good, while we lament the evil. We need a systematic and multifaceted effort to reduce violence. We should avoid simplistic answers and politicized debate. And once we stop mourning, let’s get to work. There is no more urgent task than creating a world in which our children are no longer murdered.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala