A cautious response to mass killings and police violence



Assaulted as we are by almost daily images of new brutal killings in the United States and Europe, many of us find it difficult to respond.

Ali David SonbolyEach image of shootings by police or of police in the United States and of people mown down by the truck in Nice evokes personal sympathy for the victims. But each image also reflects the reality of a wider social conflict between black and white or between rogue Islamic ideology and Western society, and demands that we form a judgment on these issues.

It is challenging to respond in a way that holds these twin aspects together, particularly when public discussion is so inflamed and each event is followed quickly by another even more appalling. So, now there is Munich, and there is Kabul, and there is Rouen.

The best way to respond is to keep focused on what matters: the human beings involved. These are principally the people who were killed and those who did the killing. To focus on them, however, draws our eyes further out to include those to whom they were related as family, friends, fellow students, workmates, and through their personal experience or cultural, political and religious interests.

Human beings are not islands. They are joined to others and to the wider world by the bridges and causeways of the relationships that shape them as persons.

These relationships are interlocking, so that what happens to one person affects families, groups, towns and eventually a whole society. For this reason it is inadequate to respond to the deaths of victims only by grieving for them as individuals. They invite us to hold in our minds and hearts their relatives, their workmates and communities, and to ask how we can best support them to deal with the violent death of their spouse, brother or sister or friend.

This will lead us to reflect on the society in which they live and on the resources, prejudices and fears that will affect the possibility of healing. So we will be led to grapple with the larger conflicts that formed the context of their grief.

It is more challenging to enter the humanity of those responsible for killing. Once we see them as human beings we cannot define them exclusively by their action, whatever its motivation.


"Before condemning the police as racist we should reflect on the broader relationships of the individual persons involved, particularly those involved in the culture of a police force in a divided society."


As human beings they are also shaped by their relationships to family, friends, religious and cultural groups, their society and its institutions. Their group allegiances will reflect earlier experiences, often of abuse, discrimination, lack of education and employment, mental illnesses and qualities of temperament and personality. These will have influenced the actions that led to others' deaths.

It follows that if we are to learn from the actions of Mohamed Bouhel in Nice, Gavin Long and Omar Mateen in the United States, Ali Sonboly in Munich and Adel Kermiche in Rouen, we would need to look beyond the ideological associations for their action to study the impact of their experiences, pathologies and other relationships. They form the matrix which made acting out a violent ideology seem natural to them.

Similarly in the case of shootings by police in Baton Rouge and New York, specific antagonism to or fear of black people may have been a contributing factor. But even if that were so, before condemning the police as racist we should reflect on the broader relationships of the individual persons involved, particularly those involved in the culture of a police force in a divided society. That reflection would lead us to consider the economic and social factors that colour the relationship between Black Americans and police.

My argument is that when confronted by violent killings we should be appalled by them, identify sympathetically with the victims and with those affected indirectly by these tragedies, and also take a respectful interest in the complex lives of the perpetrators and the relationships that contributed to the shootings. The pause before making larger judgments respects the complexity of motivation and of social interactions involved in the killings, and offers a base for reflecting to some purpose on how we may lessen the possibility of them happening in future.

This cautious and self-denying response differs from the more usual public reaction, which moves quickly from sympathy for the victims to a harsh judgment of the perpetrator and a large and simple explanation for it. When perpetrators are found to share vicious religious or political ideas, they lose their individuality and are seen as impersonal expressions of an ideology. This has two effects: it prevents anything being learned that might stop future violence, and it further divides society by associating all police, all Black or Muslim citizens with murderous ideologies. Fear and prejudice reign — precisely the qualities that terrorists see as the seedbed of their own success.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Ali David Sonboly, who carried out the shooting in the vicinity of the Olympia shopping mall in Munich on 22 July 2016.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Election 2016, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

A.H. ‘the matrix which made acting out a violent ideology seem natural to them.’ Two linked components of this matrix are (1) Tradition, and (2) myopia. A memorable line from the film ‘Mississippi Burning’, was ‘That’s the way Negroes are treated in Mississippi. That’s the way they have always been treated. And that’s the way they will always be treated‘. Such a solipsistic short sighted viewpoint strips individuals of their humanity, their worth and their needs. Unfortunately it appeals to ‘rednecks’ and is often used by politicians to push their agendas in complex matters like treatment of minorities, asylum seekers, and ‘law-breakers’

Robert Liddy | 28 July 2016  

This is such wise and timely advice, Andrew - calling for a contemplative not reactive, insular or disinterested response to the almost-daily unfolding of suffering afflicting our time.

vivien | 28 July 2016  

While agreeing with the point you make, Andrew, I do feel you are underestimating your readers. The very frequency of the brutal killings in USA, Europe, Northern African and Middle Eastern countries cause many, probably most, of us now to consider the systemic problems of which the individual cases are but examples. As a domestic example, the brutal treatment of youthful detainees in Darwin was immediately and widely recognised as a systemic problem in the culture, specifically the culture of the juvenile justice system in Northern Territory. And recognition of racism as a contributing factor within the culture is not out of order given the generally broad awareness of black-white relations in both USA and the Northern Territory since the 1960s. That said, I think you are right to appeal for people to consider larger social questions when looking at so-called Islamic terrorism. Again, we have domestic examples of people who believe that all Muslims are potential terrorists because the terrorists are living their faith more fully than the great majority of Muslims. In this area, yes, there does appear to be insufficient awareness of Islam, and insufficient consideration of the challenges facing immigrant and first-generation communities in Western countries.

Ian Fraser | 28 July 2016  

Brilliant article. And the ultimate question I ask is 'Can the perpetrators, if and when ever understood, be forgiven?'

Peggy Spencer | 28 July 2016  

A kind of social entropy proceeds - the drift of individuals from 'orderly' or 'controlling' structures, either ideologically on the right, or in the form of loosely knit alienation on the left, towards the 'muddle of the middle', within a matrix of 7 billion-plus people on the planet. Think of the Trump phenomenon, our cross-benched parliament, the mass of people with a fixation on their 'middling-muddling' media devices. Anything can happen, it does, and it will. The mix of enculturation practices born of the ideology of autonomy, the failure of traditional family stability, the prevalence of mental illness, the lack of worthwhile vocational experience, etc. etc. Andrew's commentary offers worthwhile suggestions of what to keep in mind if we are to live with our muddle, and even here and there decode it and then act constructively for the benefit of our contemporary world.

Noel McMaster | 28 July 2016  

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