Toussaint column: When ‘the blood tide is loosed’ and the center cannot hold
Hate is in fashion, and I’m struggling to understand why. Why would anyone murder elderly Jews or African-Americans, total strangers, in their places of worship?
More than 80 percent of Americans live in cities or suburbs, among strangers. Before moving to Carbondale, I lived in Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. I rarely ran into anyone I knew. Millions of strangers ignored me. The violence I experienced nearly always came from people I knew.
That’s normal. FBI statistics show that about 70 percent of murder victims are killed by people they know: a coworker, partner, friend, family member, a neighbor. The closer the relationship, the greater the violence. If the attack is “hot-blooded” — characterized by stab wounds, choking, beating — detectives generally know they’re looking for an intimate partner or perhaps a business partner. (For women, it’s almost always the former.)
Stranger attacks usually concern money and/or drugs. These “cold-blooded” crimes are characterized by what forensic psychologists call “transactional” violence — just enough to get the job done. Although victims and perpetrators are often strangers, they’re usually from similar racial, class and educational backgrounds. Compared to intimate and acquaintance crimes, stranger attacks are far less likely to result in injury or death.
So what prompts a man to massacre strangers?
Biologist José María Gómez from the University of Granada has found that primates kill their own species about six times as often as other mammals. Although violence is in our nature, Gómez calculated that humans’ lethal violence ranged 3.4 to 3.9 percent during Paleolithic times, and rose to around 12 percent during the Middle Ages. Then, as civilization and the rule of law took hold, it fell to well below the primate average.
But now, to echo William Butler Yeat’s poem, it seems that “the blood tide is loosed.”
FBI data shows that hate crimes — the killing of people “different from us” — have increased for three years running and rose by 17 percent this past year. Roughly three out of five hate crimes targeted a person’s race or ethnicity; one in five targeted their religion.
But why? Is it our primate heritage? Are we like silverback apes who murder to enforce a social hierarchy — killing to hold territory and control females, and murdering infants to preserve their genes? Many human mass murderers, 97 percent of whom are male, believe that they’re killing to protect a social order. Are these killers, from nationalists to infuriated incels, enraged over the loss of yesteryear’s racist, patriarchal and class-conscious pecking order? Are they frustrated silverbacks, demanding the wealth, sexual access or status they think should be due to them?
Hierarchical homicide trails a long and tragic history: the Crusades, witch-burnings, Kristalnacht, lynching, the Inquisition. Historically, those who feel entitled to (or safer within) a stratified social order have often been “driven” to violence by inflammatory rhetoric and acts.
Studying FBI data from the early 1990s forward, California State University’s Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found a 21 percent increase in hate crimes the day after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Researchers at Northeastern University found dramatic increases in hate crimes following both the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the 9/11 attacks.
The sparks snap all around us: at political rallies, on the radio, on the internet. The rants and taunts of the commando-in-chief do much to ensure that the center does not hold, but it’s both sides now. Anarchy is loosed when Kathy Griffith holds up a mock, severed head of Trump. A decapitated plastic Hillary Clinton head paraded at a Trump rally does the same.
Prior to invading the Tree of Life synagogue, gunman Robert Bowers repeatedly posted on the white supremacist website Gab, calling immigrants “invaders” and labeling Jews the “enemy of white people.”
But when he was brought into Allegeny Hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, three of six doctors and nurses treating him were Jewish. The hospital’s president, Dr. Jeffrey K. Cohen, is as well.
Although Cohen knew nine of the 11 people who were killed, he visited Bowers’ bedside and asked after his well-being.
Later, Dr. Cohen explained to ABC News that he found it important to “lead by example.” He had to speak to Bowers because “words mean something” and “words are leading to people doing things like this.”
I pray that I’d to have the courage to follow Dr. Cohen’s example — and that I will never need to. Although I’m agnostic, I have been reciting St. Francis’ prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”
If there has ever been a time to seek the better angels in our nature, that time is now.
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly in the Post Independent.
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