If by fiat I had to draw one core generalization from a quarter century spent studying the psychology of beliefs, it is that almost everyone thinks that their beliefs are right, both ontologically and ethically. For the most part, people think that their beliefs are true, moral, or both. No one joins a cult—they join a group that they believe is going to help them and/or society. No one thinks they’re practicing pseudoscience—they believe they’ve discovered a new truth that mainstream science has yet to recognize. And very few believe their actions are immoral—at the time they had perfectly rational and moral reasons for acting as they did.
You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.
On this latter point, in his 1997 book about serial killers and other career criminals, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister documents the fact that to a man (and they’re almost all men), these violent criminals justified their evil acts with what they believed to be perfectly good reasons. Examples include the 1994 police record of Frederick Treesh, a spree killer from the Midwest who explained, “Other than the two we killed, the two we wounded, the woman we pistol-whipped, and the light bulbs we stuck in people’s mouths, [my accomplice and I] didn’t really hurt anybody.” Or the file on serial killer John Wayne Gacy who, after killing 33 boys, rationalized, “I see myself more as a victim than as a perpetrator. I was cheated out of my childhood.” As Baumeister concluded: “you do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.”
This brings me to the trifecta of mass public shootings this past week in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. While gun control proponents debate Second Amendment advocates over whether it is guns that kill people or people who kill people, I would like to take the causal chain one step deeper and suggest that it is beliefs that kill people.
The motives of the Dayton and Gilroy killers have yet to come into clear focus, although at the time of this writing (August 5) the former’s social media appears to be left-leaning, while the latter praised on his Instagram account a white supremacist/anti-Semitic 19th-century book titled Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest, adding “Why overcrowd towns and pave more open space to make room for hordes of mestizos?” Clearly inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, Might is Right opens with these chilling lines:
In this arid wilderness of steel and stone I raise up my voice that you may hear. To the East and to the West I beckon. To the North and to the South I show a sign Proclaiming “Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong.”
Nietzsche’s Übermensch would be proud.
In sharper focus are the motives of the El Paso shooter, thanks to a manifesto he penned and posted on the Internet site 8chan shortly before embarking on his deadly crusade:
In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.
Look what happened to an earlier North American people who failed to take seriously invading hordes from another land, the manifesto continues, resulting in “the nearly complete ethnic and cultural destruction brought to the Native Americans by our European ancestors…. The natives didn’t take the invasion of Europeans seriously, and now what’s left is just a shadow of what was.”
People act on their beliefs, and if you truly believe that your way of life, your civilization, your very people could be facing the fate of Native Americans, there’s a certain logic undergirding the use of violence to prevent it, however perverse and mistaken it may be (undocumented immigrants, for example, commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens). The psychology behind such mass public shootings is rooted in three cognitive processes that come loaded in the human mind: tribalism (and its consequent xenophobia), prejudice (judging specific members of a group by generalizations about the group itself), and moralistic punishment (the desire for justice against perceived wrong-doers).
We evolved in small tribes of hunter-gatherers in which coalitions formed that lead to the natural selection of pro-social and cooperative behavior within groups and the selection of xenophobia and tribalism between groups, or more briefly: within-group amity and between-group enmity. The world of our ancestors was a dangerous and violent one in which the default setting was to distrust strangers until they prove to be allies. In the modern world, President Reagan summed up the sentiment in dealing with the coalition known as the Soviet Union over nuclear disarmament: “trust, but verify.”
The second cognitive setting of prejudice begins with the simple act of generalizing from particulars as a mental shortcut to sorting through the mass of information that flows through our senses every waking moment. No one has the time or energy to taste every last piece of fruit to draw the generalization that objects looking like fruit likely taste sweet when ripe. When you encounter a piece of fruit in the future there’s a reasonably good chance that pre-judging it by the characteristics of past generalizations is a safe road to a tasty treat. And, in reverse valance, taste aversion evolved such that a single negative experience can lead to the generalization of avoiding any similar food item. Unfortunately, when coupled to coalitional tribalism, this cognitive heuristic translates into judging individual members of a group based on the generalization of the group itself — especially if the generalizations are negative — whatever their source and regardless of their accuracy (better to be safe than sorry).
The third cognitive feature that the human mind comes equipped with is a moral module that desires justice, and when institutions don’t appear to provide it—as in cities where the police are perceived to be racist, in states where the criminal justice system is perceived to be corrupt, and in nations where the state has failed altogether—people engage in what criminologists call “self-help justice,” also known as “frontier justice,” or “vigilantism.” Perhaps this is what the El Paso shooter was thinking when he wrote:
America is rotting from the inside out, and peaceful means to stop this seem to be nearly impossible. The inconvenient truth is that our leaders, both Democrat AND Republican, have been failing us for decades. They are either complacent or involved in one of the biggest betrayals of the American public in our history.
When you expose these three mental features (not bugs) of the human mind to political rhetoric about immigrant throngs invading our country across the southern border, don’t be surprised if someone grabs a rifle and drives nine hours to the border town of El Paso to take the law into his own hands.
Conspiracy theories also prove motivational to the marginalized, and the El Paso killer gives us another hint to his impetus when he referenced a conspiracy theory called “The Great Replacement,” which also drove the Christchurch shooter to kill 50 people in two mosques on Friday, March 15, 2019. The Great Replacement is a book penned by the French author Renaud Camus, and it outlines a right-wing conspiracy theory that contends white Christian Europeans are being systematically replaced through immigration and higher birth rates by people of non-European descent, most notably from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab Middle East.
The Christchurch killer’s manifesto—referenced by the El Paso gunman—is filled with white supremacist tropes focused on this conspiracy theory, starting with his opening sentence “It’s the birthrates” repeated three times. “If there is one thing I want you to remember from these writings, it’s that the birthrates must change. Even if we were to deport all Non-Europeans from our lands tomorrow, the European people would still be spiraling into decay and eventual death.” The result, he concludes, is “white genocide.”
This is vintage 19th century blood-and-soil romanticism (also seen in Might is Right), and the Christchurch shooter describes himself as an “Ethno-nationalist” that led him to go on a murderous spree “to ensure the existence of our people and a future for white children, whilst preserving and exulting nature and the natural order.”
All of this is reminiscent of the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017 when white supremacists shouted slogans like “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The latter reference reflects the conspiracy theory that Jews control the media, politics, banking, and even the world economy, which helps account for the Christchurch shooter’s reference to the 14-word slogan originally coined by the white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The number is sometimes rendered as 14/88, with the 8s representing the eighth letter of the alphabet—H—and 88 or HH standing for Heil Hitler. Lane, in turn, was inspired by Adolf Hitler’s conspiracy-theory laden book Mein Kampf, in which the Nazi leader snarls:
What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood, the freedom and independence of the fatherland, so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.
Hitler goes on to identify the enemy of his mission—the Jews—which reflects yet another conspiracy theory popular in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s known as the “stab in the back,” which asserts that the only reason the Germans lost World War I was that they were stabbed in the back by the “November Criminals” who the Nazis identified as Jews, Marxists, and Bolsheviks.
And this “stab in the back” conspiracy theory itself derives from an earlier and broader conspiracy theory involving The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a hoaxed document widely believed to be the proceedings of a secret meeting of Jews plotting to take over the world. The Protocols fake was itself was plagiarized from a 19th-century propaganda piece titled Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, penned by a French lawyer protesting Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon I), along with a garishly anti-Semitic novel titled Biarritz. And both of these tracts drew on anti-Semitic tropes going back to Roman times.
We don’t know if the El Paso shooter’s motivations run this conspiratorially deep (or to what extent he was mentally deranged, socially marginalized, or driven to find instant fame in a Christchurch-copycat crime), but we do know that the polarizing political rhetoric focused on undocumented immigrants, and the concomitant references to invading hordes that can only be stopped by building a wall in order to protect us from Mexico sending us their drugs and rapists, is surely a contributing factor that can be addressed immediately by changing the nature of the immigration debate away from such coalitional tribalism and xenophobic prejudice that triggers the inner demons of our nature. Some people take such political orotundity literally, and some act on such literalness with violence in the form of self-help justice.
This must stop.