When Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire on the Dallas police, he seemed to want to be understood as a man pursuing justice for the deaths of far too many young black men at the hands of mostly white police officers. Justice, of course, is supposed to be blind to such surface details as race, and to focus instead on right and wrong, harm and evil. What he actually seemed to be seeking instead was vengeance, which feeds, not on justice, but on anger and hate.
Vengeance is a peculiar activity. The language avengers use seems to suggest that they are engaged in a sport (“settling the score”) or are servicing a debt (“getting payback”). Sports and accounting (and sharing a pizza) are examples of something called “zero-sum game”, an activity for multiple sides in which one side’s losses are exactly balanced the other sides’ gains. In volleyball, say, when one team moves ahead by a point, the other falls behind by the same amount. In accounting, the liability of a car loan balances the asset of the car. In pizza, every slice that you eat is one I cannot have. In all these cases, when the gains on one side and the losses on the other are summed up, the result is zero.
To be zero-sum, the parties must be competing for a limited resource: in volleyball, this is the 25 points points needed to win the game, in accounting it is the total equity in the company, in pizza it is the size of the pie. In this circumstance, there can be only one winner, or a tie. Where the resource in question is unlimited, or even very abundant, there can be no zero-sum game. No matter which side gets the most stuff, there is still plenty left to go around. In this situation, especially if there are common interests among the players, everybody can win (or conversely, lose). No side’s performance is strictly dependent on the others’. Achieve a common goal together by cooperating, and everybody wins.
A zero-sum game fosters envy and competition. A non-zero-sum game can encourage cooperation and respect.
Is vengeance a zero-sum game, though, or is that just an illusion? Who really gains, and who loses, when a shooter levels a semiautomatic weapon at a crowd. This question is more difficult than it seems on its face, because different shooters have different reasons for their hate. One shooter, in fact, may have several motives at once. Political leaders often blame terrorism, because doing so furthers their own agendas. Others blame white supremacists, or gangs, or black people, or cops, for the same reason. Mental health and social advocates blame society’s neglect of mental illness, domestic violence, and poverty. Some blame the gun lobby’s strident defense of Fifth Amendment rights. Some blame the graphic violence in music, film, and video games. They are all right. And completely wrong. The issues are incredibly complex.
In a vengeance shooting, no one really gains, and certainly, no one wins (unless you count successful suicide-by-cop as a victory). After Orlando, the LGBTQ community went on, strengthened if anything by the horrors that Mateen wrought at The Pulse. After Harris and Klebold, Columbine High School continues to hold classes, give exams, field teams, and have proms. The Armed Services Career Center and the Navy Reserve Center in Chattanooga still operate after being shot up by Abdulazeez. These shooters, young men all, are dead. There are no winners here.
There are losers aplenty, though. The people who lost their lives, their spouses, their comfort with their lives. The children deprived of a parent and the parents deprived of a child. The dwellers in communities who never gave a thought that such horrors could happen there, who now must always watch their backs and fear what might be lurking in the shadows. Massive losses, unbalanced by a single win.
I can’t imagine being a father who suddenly discovers all at once that the son he loves, whom he coached through Little League, and hugged all night to ease his pain when their pet dog died, is now the author of unthinkable violence, and painfully, gruesomely dead. I can’t imagine being a mother watching the son she nursed, and saw through his first day of school and his first date, shot in the back by a thug in a uniform as he tried to flee a traffic stop where he felt his life was threatened. (Thereby proving he was right.) These shooters themselves are revealed as biggest losers of all.
I do not mean to imply that anyone in a uniform is thuggy (in the non-Tupac sense)–the vast majority is not. Nor is every black man an instrument of rampage or of murder–most detest it with the same vehemence that the rest of us do. Nor does everyone in gang colors, or motorcycle leathers, or openly carrying a sidearm, pose a threat of violence. Not that there are not bad guys in these groups, but they are not the only place you find them. The real threat resides in the misdirected fear we have let these emblems generate in us, and the false security we feel when they are absent. It is this fear, and the hate that grows from it, that we must conquer. Each of us. All of us.
It is popular today to tie these acts of terrorism to “Radical Islamic Terrorism”, but history does not bear this out. Massacres at Austin TX (1966), Oklahoma City (1995), Virginia Tech (2007), Sandy Hook Elementary (2012), and Washington Navy Yard (1913), for example, had no Islamic connections. Nor did Islam figure in the worst mass shooting in American history, at Mountain Meadows UT, in 1857. Islam does not gain territory, wealth, or prestige by the atrocities wrought by these angry, cowardly, ineffectual men.
Examining the targets of these killers, as well as some of their common attributes, is quite suggestive. Often the targets involve enforced social systems that are strictly hierarchical, such as schools, military installations, and corporate or government workplaces. The shooters are frequently described as loners, often with dark, quirky personalities or outright mental illness, which do not fit well in those hierarchies. It is easy to imagine Syed Farook, the San Bernardino shooter, hearing the banter and the laughter from a group around the water cooler, a group to which he could never belong. Or Harris and Klebold, brimming with extraordinary intelligence, sitting alone at a friendless table in a Columbine cafeteria bustling with adolescent sociability they did not have the skills to join. Would they grow, first alienated, then angry, and finally violent?
New to today’s world are the social media, driven by algorithms that study us, and then serve up internet content they soullessly calculate we want to see, in order to induce us to buy stuff. The algorithms make each of our internet worlds a bubble world unique to each of us, filled with things and values some computer has calculated will please us. We are given the illusion that the rest of world is just like us, and everyone else is the outsider. If the algorithm detects that we follow the tenets of Sharia or Pastafarianism, the content of that bubble world may stray very far from mainstream thought in the direction of that style of belief. To us it might seem that the computer is telling us that the whole world shares our beliefs, simply because it does not offer us any others.
Do lonesome players like Farook go home and substitute the internet for the intimacy they do not know how to find at work? Do they Google Islam, since it is a part of their identity they may struggle with, just a Christian or Jew may have a crisis of faith? Are they then led by the algorithms to fundamentalism, ISIL, gun rights, and rage, until, within this weird and dangerous mental space, mass murder seems not only natural, but also noble?
So Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, returns to school, where his humiliation began. Syed Farook, of the San Bernardino massacre, goes back to the party where his coworkers’ celebration of Christmas, but never Eid Al-Adha, seems intended as a personal insult to him. Nidal Hasan, the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, opens fire at the military
base where so many people were his “superiors”, empowered to issue orders he, a highly educated man, was required to obey. Omar Matteen returns to an LGBTQ nightspot where hundreds seemed to find comfort, even joy, in a world where he found only tumult, and which had rejected him.
Many of these shooters were Muslims, but not devout. Radicalization was a late arrival to their lives, a thin veneer to rationalize what they were already about to do. The bitterness and anger were already there, churning volcanically for years, fed by pangs of loneliness and internet algorithms that only amplified what was already there.
Why is it important to know if you are in a zero-sum game? Because, in both personal and policy spheres, different kinds of problems demand different kinds of solutions. To find the right answer, it is first necessary to be sure you understand the question.
Consider the question, how do you stop ISIL-inspired violence? The zero-sum answer: Defeat ISIL! Fight ‘em with guns and bombs and killer drones. Wipe ‘em off the face of the earth. At all costs, WIN!
But wait. ISIL is decentralized and widely disseminated. More than anything else, it is a contagious idea spreading worldwide on electronic media. Bomb Paris, Orlando, Killeen, Brussels, Chattanooga, Nice, and the internet itself? That would barely be a start. Build walls between Mexico and the US, Virginia and Maryland, Bel Air and Compton? However, zero-sum provides an answer that is simple and easy to understand, as long as you don’t think it through, but this answer road does not lead to winning.
A non-zero-sum answer: examine the causes of all this discontent, and work to fix them. This approach is daunting and incredibly complex. Mental health issues, economic disparities, ethnic and racial hatreds spanning generations, social and sexual exploitation, and yes, the right to bear arms, all play a part. The answer will require really listening to one another and respecting the legitimate views of people who do not agree with us. The answer involves respecting the rule of law, and ensuring that every person is treated equally before the bar. Putting aside racial bias is not necessary (though it would help) as long as it does not enter into policy or judicial decisions. Putting aside hatred and violence is essential.
Consider this question – how do you stop the shooting of black men by white police officers, and the shooting of police officers by black men? The very formulation of the question suggests it is a zero-sum proposition, but it is not. You cannot shoot cops until no one dares put on a uniform, or shoot black men until they are all dead. In such a grizzly world, the victors become more evil than the vanquished. Black Lives Matter has been telling us this all along, in a remarkably civil manner, and they are right.
A non-zero-sum solution is again complex and difficult. In addition to seriously trying to understand how the shooters got that way, we need to take searching, honest stock of ourselves, and the degree that we contribute to
the fear and anger that spills into violence. If I belong to a gang, or even am a fan of Gangsta pop-culture, then I am part of the reason the police officer fears to get out of his cruiser without first drawing his weapon. If you are a police officer so fearful of a black man that you must shoot in self-defense when he reaches for the license and registration you demanded, or feel compelled to use deadly force if he flees, then you are part of the reason that black men carry weapons or run for their lives from a traffic stop.
If we are ever going to back down from this hair-trigger situation, we have to stop thinking of one another as scumbags and pigs. I must start seeing the other guy as a person who is just as afraid of me as I am of him, he has to do the same, and so do you. Then we have to leave our weapons in the trenches and crawl out, mutually unarmed and equally vulnerable, to talk with one another in the devastated war zone that has separated us. We need to listen. To respect. Eventually we need to trust, even to love. It won’t be easy.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus told us, “and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world,” warned Martin Luther King, Jr., “that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation… Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Trust is vital, because we must forsake violence on all sides, including law enforcement under most circumstances. Wearing a uniform does not entitle you to use deadly force indiscriminately, nor does inappropriate use of force by law enforcement entitle anyone to go out with deadly weapons to ambush cops.
“Nonviolence,” says Martin Luther King, Jr., “is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” But since it derives its power from forgiveness and love (and only when these things are truly felt and firmly held), it is not for the weak to wield. “The weak can never forgive,” warned Gandhi, who knew a thing or two about nonviolence, having wielded it to free India from British hegemony without spilling a drop of British blood. “Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. … A coward is incapable of exhibiting love; it is the prerogative of the brave.
We cannot all be as strong as MLK or Gandhi, of course. However, we can all look within ourselves to find the courage and strength to recognize and own our own biases and beliefs that butt up against the biases of others, contributing to the violence. Only then can we begin the hard work of discussing them, and ultimately fixing them. We may not be able to reform the world, but we can, with the will to change, the willingness to compromise and sacrifice, and plenty of strenuous effort, reform ourselves. That is where we must start.
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn’t believe it,no
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head:to tell
him (e e cummings)
The time to hear this message is now, before that shrapnel takes us unawares. It has taken far too many unsuspecting and innocent lives already. We must each act unilaterally, expecting no payback. This is not a zero-sum game.