Our psychological armor helps us withstand mass fire, but numbs us to destruction
News of the mass shooting in Monterey Park broke early last Sunday morning and crashed into expectations of a new day. Details were slow to develop – one gunman still at large – but soon enough the scale of the tragedy was revealed.
Ten people were killed and at least 10 others were injured when a gunman opened fire on a ballroom dance studio….
The shooting occurred off a main thoroughfare in Monterey Park, California, which earlier in the day hosted a festival celebrating Lunar New Year’s Eve, a major holiday in many Asian communities….
A familiar dirge had begun, voices were raised, struggling to find the words to match this horrible act.
But nothing succeeds, just silence. We’ve been here too many times – to Sandy Hook, Orlando, Parkland, Buffalo, Colorado Springs – standing on this terrible topography.
And now it had landed us in a familiar suburb – one of the many familiar suburbs of Los Angeles – where the story seemed more intimate, more knowable. The victims were our neighbors.
Monday, the count was complete: 11 victims, six women, five men. Soon followed the harrowing and necessary theater of press conferences, vigils and calls to action. Now it’s almost a formula.
We have been here before, and will return. Saturday’s shooting in Benedict Canyon, killing three and injuring four, confirms this, and a week before Monterey Park, six people were killed in the Central Valley town of Goshen. Less than three days after Monterey Park, a gunman opened fire in Half Moon Bay, killing seven. And the urgency of those losses loosens its grip, almost dissipated by the numbers, the grief and the confusion.
The dead died on a scale and by such violence that defies assumptions about what life, especially life in America, is meant to be, and the details — victims, shooter profile, community impact — matter little . They differ only in degrees.
Gun violence has become the rhythm these days. We say we’re shocked, but we’re really not. We say we’re in disbelief, but we’re really not.
“A numbness is happening,” said Dr. Paul Nestadt, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The normalization of tragedy is human nature. It’s called adaptive psychology: if we allowed these dead to live in our heads, we wouldn’t be able to live ourselves.
Nestadt borrows from the work of Robert Jay Lifton, who coined the phrase “psychic numbness” after conducting research in Hiroshima in 1962 and witnessing the shrunken emotions of survivors of the 1945 atomic bombing. Where feeling is a liability , psychic numbness is a reality.
Since New Year’s Day, 43 mass shootings from Minnesota to Florida, from Baltimore to San Francisco, have left 78 dead and 176 injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive online dashboardand the number is increasing almost every day.
Not all incidents are highly publicized; they probably should be. The night Huu Can Tran went on a rampage in Monterey Park, gunfire erupted at a nightclub in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, injuring 12 people. Earlier this month in Miami Gardens, Florida, 19 people were injured in two incidents four days apart, records show.
The paradox of this bloodshed – making sense of the foolish, understanding the incomprehensible – leads to a strange calculation. Even if we try to meet the moral imperative not to look away — by laying wreaths in Monterey Park, for example — we end up looking away.
Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who studies empathy and mass loss, made this point in the aftermath of war, genocide and the pandemic. “Our feelings are not good for the quantitative assessment,” Slovic said. “As the numbers increase, we become more and more insensitive.”
“I don’t blame people for addiction,” said Dr. Jonathan Metzl, professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University. “That’s what happens with repetitive stress and trauma.”
Metzl, who has studied and written extensively on gun violence in America, describes a sense of deja vu, resignation, despair, anger and frustration even among those who are so determined to end these tragedies. Such emotions, he said, inhibit our ability to appreciate the complexity of the problem.
“Part of what happens when you feel frustrated and resigned is that you are unwilling to engage in nuance and complexity – not just with mass shootings, but with American gun violence. more broadly,” he said. The impulse is to look for “easy causal answers, but that’s never a thing”.
Instead, we shape handwritten signs– “ban semi-automatic rifles” – and decry politicians and the gun lobby and find ourselves once again caught up in a long debate that cannot be won.
The evolution is predictable. From grief comes rage, an emotion that is easier to bear than grief. It animates the rhetoric. It requires an explanation as if an explanation could ease the pain or prevent future murders.
“The deep irony,” said Scott Slovic, an English professor at the University of Idaho and son of Paul Slovic and a member of his father’s research team, “is that we have this psychological armor, those insensitivities that have kept us from being sufficiently sensitive to the destruction around us.
In the rush to find answers and motivations, causes and effects, we gradually move away from lost lives, lives parallel to our own.
“We are doomed to the status quo until we develop new habits,” said Scott Slovic, who advocates for a broader understanding of compassion. “We can’t say that I am who I am and this incident in Half Moon Bay or in the suburbs of Los Angeles has nothing to do with me. We have to erase our identity and immerse ourselves in another’s situation.
In Monterey Park, they were mothers and fatherswives, sons and brothers who have seen children grow up, mourned the death of a parent, sought happiness in the company of others and the pleasure of music and dance.
Some had immigrated here, leaving behind memories of war, loss, and hardship, and found some semblance of peace, happiness, and even prosperity far from home. Through rituals, food, and memories, they found their place in America and celebrated their ties to the past in a new world.
In Half Moon Bay, they were a different community, separated perhaps by only a generation from what they dreamed of. They were farm workerswhose lives were intertwined by their jobs, their struggles, and the memories of the countries and family they left behind.
Working for a new life, they had supported each other with love and the hope of finding a future that could sustain them. By some accounts, they were successful, if the food they shared, the reunions with family, the celebrations and the pains they endured are any measure.
But more than words on a page, a Facebook post or a GoFundMe campaign, their stories remind us how similar we all are and that their shooting death could also be our death. When it comes to mass shootings, it’s not them and us. Few things keep us safe from a workplace grievance, a wrath from a spouse or partner, a racial vendetta.
“It’s not just a count of the dead,” Metzl said, “but the broader psychology of feeling unsafe in public spaces, which has broad implications for society.”
Our days, like those of the victims, depend on the assurance that they will end as they began. Anything less is a reminder that life is fleeting and precarious, and it can be cruel. This may be the truth we avoid by following familiar response patterns that keep us in a psychological and political bind.
“I think our society will increasingly struggle to respond effectively to these mass disasters unless we find more compassion within ourselves, and such compassion is reflected in our public policies,” said Scott Slovic. .
We glimpsed that possibility last year when President Biden signed the most sweeping gun violence bill in decades, strengthen background checks on young gun buyers, restrict gun ownership for perpetrators of domestic violence, and provide grants to agencies trying to enforce red flag laws.
“The mass shootings are a reflection of a dysfunctional political system,” Metzl said. “Limiting losses requires a functioning political system where people can negotiate reasonable protection. »
Progress will be slow and sometimes hesitant, but the lives lost in Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay and across this ravaged country demand nothing less.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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