Why? It’s the first thing people want to know when tragedy strikes. Why us? Why here? Why now? Why this?
But when lives are lost, no answer can ever suffice. Still, we ask, buoyed by hope and reason, in an effort to do that which has proven nearly impossible for the human race: learn from history. Perhaps if we know the cause of a given tragedy, then we can prevent similar ones from happening in the future.
Such has been the logic driving many keen on answering the “whys” behind the recent mass killings committed by an affluent young white man in southern California. In the case of the Isla Vista shootings, people have collected a variety of answers: lax gun laws, misogyny, a broken mental health system and the list goes on.
But there is one answer that has been chronically overlooked, one that has nothing to do with flawed policy or culture, but rather with a flawed individual.
If we are going to be inspired to change policy — whether surrounding guns or mental health or gender equality — it ought to be by people worthy of inspiring us. To base any policy on a rare event committed by an individual who represents a wicked aberration from all the groups to which he belongs would be misguided. Those who commit mass killings are valid representatives of one group and one group alone — namely, those who commit mass killings.
Trying to get inside the head of this rare species of human is a futile and potentially counterproductive task. Perhaps instead of focusing on how to prevent tragedy, we ought to start focusing on how to promote prosperity.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t fight misogyny or improve our mental health system or tighten gun regulations. Surely, we should do all of those things, but not simply because we want to prevent mass murders, which are exceptionally rare. Rather, we should do them because we want to create a better world for the vast majority of relatively decent human beings on this planet who would never kill another person.
Motivation matters. In the words of T.S. Eliot: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Take the example of efforts to improve our mental health system in response to mass killings. Underlying such initiatives is the assumption that mental illness is to blame for these events. As one of the tens of millions of Americans living with a mental illness, I assure you that the most common tragedy that results from mental illness isn’t homicide, let alone mass homicide. Rather, it’s suicide. Roughly 100 Americans take their own lives every day. That’s more than twice the number who die as a result of homicide.
When we ignore these daily tragedies and take up the cause of improving our mental health system with the stated aim of preventing freak mass killings, we actively disincentivize people with mental illness from seeking help. Something about being associated with mass murderers makes it hard to admit you have a mental illness, and harder still to seek help for it.
However we choose to answer our “whys,” whomever we choose to blame, it’s worth remembering that good policy and good culture do more than appeal to the best within us. They respond to it.