I’ve had a number of acquaintances over the years tell me that they don’t pay attention to the news anymore because it’s just too depressing. These last few weeks I’ve been more sympathetic to that point of view than I have been for a long time.
Even though statistics say that violent crime in our country has been on the decline overall in recent years, it’s hard to believe based on all the killings reported on daily both here in the Macon area and around the country.
Three mass shootings in public places occurred in less than a week in California, Texas and Ohio. Closer to home, a Macon teenager who had choked his younger sister to death after fighting with her over use of the Wi-Fi in their home was convicted and sentenced to life in prison last week.
In the aftermath of these seemingly senseless acts we are always faced with the same burning question – why? What makes seemingly normal human beings decide to snuff out the lives of innocent people for completely trivial reasons, or for no reason at all?
Unfortunately, politicians use these horrific events to push their own agendas. And they all tend to issue a throwaway line about our failure as a society to effectively identify and treat people with dangerous mental illnesses. That observation, vague and useless though it is when expressed that way, has the support of actual scientific evidence behind it and deserves to be fleshed out and addressed in more detail.
A large portion of the murders that occur in this country (including those referenced above) are committed by young men in their late teens and early 20s. Very often they are described as loners who harbor a great deal of rage that explodes unexpectedly, often without any obvious triggering event.
Neuroscientists believe that they have isolated some of the keys to understanding why these young men unleash their anger so suddenly and violently. Their research shows that the physiology and functionality of the brains of these killers are not fundamentally different than yours or mine. The instinct to respond with violence when feeling threatened is an innate survival mechanism that we all possess, and it is this instinct that drives these young men to lash out at those around them.
If we are being honest, I think we all occasionally feel the urge to respond violently when we feel that someone has wronged us in some way. The offenses that trigger these thoughts might seem trivial to an outside observer (maybe someone cut you off in traffic or publicly humiliated you) but inside us the rage and homicidal thoughts spring up involuntarily nonetheless.
Fortunately, most of us also have an active filtering process in the brain that evaluates these homicidal impulses and overrides them when it weighs the consequences of our actions. That governing mental process is clearly malfunctioning in the case of a young man who strangles his sister over the family Wi-Fi password or guns down Hispanic people because he thinks they are taking too many jobs away from people who were born here.
What pushes these young men over the edge often seems to be a combination of an immature brain (the higher reasoning portion of the brain does not fully mature until the mid to late twenties) and some kind of trauma that occurs during childhood that permanently warps his view of himself and his relationship to the rest of society.
Armed with this knowledge, maybe we can discuss what can be done to reach people who might fall into this category and get them into treatment and out of the local gun stores. One good place to start would be to have all teenagers in public schools spend some one-on-one time with a licensed mental health professional.
It’s possible that just having someone care enough to ask how they are doing could be enough to keep some of these young men from ending up on a path that leads to isolation and violence.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.