Americans once again found themselves reeling from a mass shooting that claimed the lives of several children last month.
The violence erupted at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee after a shooter armed with three firearms descended on the Christian school and began spraying bullets indiscriminately. Among the dead were three nine-year old children and the school’s administrator.
Police identified the shooter as Audrey Hale, a 28-year-old transgender person who had previously attended the school. (Hale was shot and killed by police officers who quickly responded to the attack.)
In the wake of the shooting, partisan quarrels erupted on social media and television, compounding the tragedy. Democrats quickly blamed Republicans for not embracing stricter gun control measures.
"How many more children have to be murdered before Republicans in Congress will step up and act to pass the Assault Weapons Ban?" asked White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
Many conservatives, meanwhile, seized on Hale's transgender identity, alleging that “transgender terrorists are the largest-growing terrorist group per capita in America,” and suggesting that hormonal treatments might have been to blame.
These reactions, sadly, are fairly typical to mass shootings today, but they are not just harmful but false. The truth is Hale is the only person responsible for the heinous act. She bought the weapons and pulled the triggers that claimed those six lives. Transgenderism is not to blame, nor are Republicans who support the Second Amendment.
Yet our collective failure to recognize this, and to give in to the temptation to blame political opponents and particular classes for the carnage, was on full display this week.
One former US Senator suggested a Congressman who posed with his family for a holiday photo was somehow to blame for Monday’s atrocity because they were pictured with firearms.
A high profile conservative account, meanwhile, shared a picture of one of the victims and said “the Left is pure evil.” (The post was retweeted more than 11,000 times.) A left wing influencer, in a post later deleted, suggested that perhaps the victims were at fault for not “praying enough.” Numerous others have argued that transgender individuals should be stripped of their Second Amendment rights because they are “mentally ill.”
These posts are all problematic for various reasons, but they share a common theme: each deflects blame from the person solely responsible for the tragedy in Nashville—the shooter—and places it on individuals or groups that had nothing to do with the crime. This isn’t just unfair to the people or groups accused, it also fans hatred and dehumanizes them.
Author David Livingstone explored dehumanization in his award-winning 2012 book Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others. The process of dehumanization, which caused the worst atrocities in modern history, from the Holocaust to Abu Ghraib and beyond, begins, he notes, when individuals of one group begin to “see themselves as quite distinct from members of another, and may then treat group and non-group individuals differently.”
Blaming people—whether they be Christians, transgender people, or gun-toting Republicans—for a heinous crime they had no part in is a step toward dehumanization, and runs counter to the American ethos of individualism, which holds that a person’s individual rights and basic worth have nothing to do with their group identity.
This does not mean, of course, that we must stifle debates around transgenderism or gun control. It’s perfectly appropriate to discuss both. What must be resisted is the impulse to blame other groups for crimes they had no part in, to see them as collectively evil because they don’t support the same public policies you do, pray to a different God, or live a lifestyle you reject.
As the authors of The Anatomy of Peace have observed, when we dehumanize others we dehumanize ourselves. And by rushing to see political opponents as uncaring monsters, we overlook a dark truth about the actual nature of evil.
“The line between good and evil runs not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart,” the Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously noted.