Humans have an astonishing capacity for empathy and love, but they also have a dreadful capacity for committing vicious acts and inflicting pain on fellow human beings. The horrific shooting rampage at a Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin is a sad reminder of the latter. The shooter Wade Michael Page murdered six members of the Sikh community who had gathered at the Gurdwara for worship services and he then also ambushed and shot a policeman who arrived on the scene to help the victims. Since Page himself was killed during the shoot-out with the police, we may never know all the details regarding his motive for his heinous acts. However, the fact that he was associated with white supremacist groups and wore tattoos that point to a far right or neo-Nazi background strongly suggest that Page was primarily motivated by hatred. It is not yet clear, whether his hatred was directed against Sikhs or Indians or whether he wanted to kill Muslims and mistook Sikhs for Muslims out of ignorance. Even though multiple news media outlets point out the possible accidental conflation of Sikhs and Muslims, this should not distract from the fact that in either case, the underlying motive would be a hatred of "the other." Sikhs do not try to portray themselves as not being Muslim and they have actually shown a remarkable amount of solidarity with Muslims when Muslims have been the target of prejudice and profiling.
These murders are reminiscent of two other recent hate crimes: The murder of more than 70 people in July of 2011 in Norway perpetrated by Anders Breivik and the more recent Toulouse killings committed by Mohammed Merah in March of 2012. Breivik distributed a manifesto via the internet prior to his killing spree, which involved the murder of numerous teenagers attending a youth camp of the social democratic party. This document gives a detailed account of his motives: Hatred directed towards liberals, social democrats and socialists, contempt for feminists, environmentalists and multi-culturalists and a desire to purge Europe of Muslims. Mohammed Merah was a French Muslim of Algerian descent and killed off-duty French soldiers and then murdered a Rabbi and Jewish school-children while they were attending school. He did not compile a manifesto like Breivik did, but based on what he told police negotiators prior to his death, Merah claimed that he committed the murders to avenge deaths of Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces, as a punishment for France's military involvement in Afghanistan and the face veil ban.
In the past, the expression "terrorism" has been used to describe acts committed by organized groups who kill civilians and arouse fear in the general population as a means to further a political or religious agenda of their group. Breivik, Merah and Page may represent a new form of terrorism. They may have had some limited interactions other organizations or larger groups, but when it came to planning and carrying out their murders, they acted as individuals, motivated by their individual hatred and contempt for selected groups of fellow humans because of their faith, ethnicity or political views.
The lack of empathy exhibited by these killers seems inconceivable and after all of these horrific crimes, there was a broad outpouring of sympathy from people all over the world. These killers chose vulnerable, innocent members of society, such as school-children, worshipers or teenagers and we could all relate to the pain of their loved ones. Breivik calmly fired at crowds of teenagers at the youth camp in Utøya. Merah grabbed a young 8-year old Jewish girl by the hair before shooting her. Page shot at peaceful worshipers and ambushed an officer who tried to help victims.
As we struggle to understand these atrocities, it is tempting to conveniently dismiss these killers as psychopaths and blame their lack of empathy on a mental illness or on a form of psychopathy. However, the victims of these mass killings were not chosen at random. The victims belonged to certain ethnic, religious or political groups and the killings were seem to have been fueled by specific forms of hatred and contempt. In the case of Breivik, we have his detailed account of why he committed the crimes and it seems that he saw himself as a courageous martyr who was taking on the fight against liberals and multiculturalists. He knew that his actions would be initially reviled but later on hailed as heroic, because he had the courage to act on ideas, which were silently shared by others. Since Merah and Page are dead, we will never know whether they also felt the same way Breivik did, but the fact that Page was a member of a skinhead band called "End Apathy" suggests that he may have also seem himself as a warrior who was taking action where others depicted apathy.
These recurring hate crimes and mass killings force us to carefully evaluate the motivations of these killers, who hail from different cultural and religious backgrounds, and try to act before these hate crimes become even more frequent. As a society, we have to ask ourselves if we have inadvertently or passively contributed to the hatred that motivated these killers and whether our society contributes to the self-perception of these cowardly murderers as "heroes." When we look at the contemporary political and religious discourse, it is difficult to ignore the severe polarization that exists and the hate-filled rhetoric that is used to express opinions. Whether it is on TV, in online blogs, social media, websites or talk radio -- opponents are often vilified. They are not simply portrayed as fellow human beings with dissenting view-points but as subhuman entities that do not deserve any respect.
The internet has allowed an unprecedented number of people all over the world to participate in political, ideological and religious discussions. It allows us to rapidly communicate information and ideas, and engage in dialogue. However, we have to keep in mind that the internet also allows us to rapidly disseminate hatred and prejudice. For example, the comments made in response to many news articles, we can see that the anonymity of the internet may even promote a culture of abuse, rudeness and contempt. Especially topics that touch on political controversies or differing religious views seem to provoke firestorms of demeaning comments. It appears that on the internet, hate may be more contagious than love. Breivik used the internet to obtain most of the information contained in his manifesto and made it available online immediately prior to committing the murders. There are reports that Merah wanted to upload videos of his murders, so that others could see what he had done. These hate-filled killers seem to have believed that there was an audience that would approve of their heinous acts. Is it possible that our culture of vilification and contempt allows such killers to think that their crimes will be condoned or hailed by people who share their political or religious views?
After a tragedy like the shooting in Wisconsin, we have to move beyond merely offering our sympathy and condolences to the families who lost their loved ones. We have to try our best to help replace the current culture of contempt with a culture of respect for those who we disagree with. There is no guarantee that this will necessarily reduce the risk of future hate crimes, but if we work together to create a broad culture of respect for our opponents, we will make it much harder for potential perpetrators of hate crimes to see themselves as heroes. It is critical that we create such a culture of respect on a permanent basis and not just as a short-term reaction after horrific crimes are committed.
Follow Jalees Rehman, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jalees_rehman