And how should we respond? Do our public responses only make things worse?
This post approach the issue from a liberal Christian perspective. I believe God has put us in a world where we are capable of living together in harmony, without wars or oppression, and with everybody having the resources they need.
Our responses can make things worse. We often focus on the offenders rather than the victims or the people who help minimise the damage. We focus on individual offenders, as though the problem lay entirely with them and nobody else was at fault. We then demonise the individual offenders as though they were a different species of animal, quite different from the rest of us.
In this way we fail to address the real causes. If there had only ever been one mass shooting, there would have been a case for seeking the cause entirely in the character of the offender. He might have been mentally ill, or whatever. The more often these shootings happen, the more inappropriate it is.
For these things to happen so often, something is wrong with society. Because the shootings happen in different countries, there is something wrong with what those countries have in common.
In the case of this recent New Zealand shooting, the gunman was Australian and the victims Muslims. Australia has a long tradition of senior politicians condemning Muslims and trying to stop them entering the country. Why? Because it helps make them popular; or at least, there is a vicious spiral as anti-Islamic sentiment in the country and anti-Islamic rhetoric by politicians feed on each other. When these attitudes become part of mainstream culture, accepted as normal, somebody is going to follow the logic to its conclusion. A video by Waleed Aly expresses the point well. Many people are involved in this process of pushing society towards violence.
In the long run having more police and CCTV cameras won’t stop this kind of thing happening. What will stop it is making sure that nobody gets so bitter or angry that they want to do it; or at least, that when people reach that point, their friends and relatives know how to restrain them from violent action.
This is why scapegoating the individual gunmen distracts us from the real question: what is it about our modern western society that generates ever-increasing numbers of angry gunmen determined to shoot strangers?
Here in Britain, the quality of life of the poorest communities has been declining for over 40 years. In 1975 the British Government abandoned its Incomes Policy. Until then, economic growth benefited the poor along with the rich. Thereafter, economic growth became consistent with the poor getting poorer. Governments have retained the rhetoric that economic growth benefits everyone. This is the story people read in the newspapers and on television.
For increasing numbers of poor people, reality has been very different. For forty years they have been getting poorer, while the rich have got richer. Sooner or later a reaction was inevitable. The austerity agenda since 2010 has hastened it. In other westernised countries similar processes have been at work.
However, those most affected often do not see it this way. They depend on the mass media for information about what is happening outside their local area. The mass media have long provided scapegoats for impoverishment: Pakistanis, Jews, the unemployed, Muslims, the European Union, immigrants. When they are persistently told that these are the causes of their distress, it is hardly surprising that some people believe it – and get angry about it.
While newspapers can provoke anger, they less often report it. The rest of us, mostly, have not been aware of their increasing distress, and prefer not to believe it is happening.
In those communities, mostly unreported by the media, the bitterness and anger has been increasing. The Brexit and Trump votes symbolised it. Eventually embittered communities produce someone who takes matters into his own hands.
How can we stop this happening? I return to that central Christian claim. We – the whole human race – have been designed to live together in harmony, making sure everybody’s needs are met. This is an act of faith. We have never actually achieved it. Maybe it’s impossible; but if we think it’s impossible we’ll carry on killing each other.
When we convince ourselves that a better society really is possible, we can work together to achieve it.
We could become less individualistic, less concerned with our personal well-being, and more concerned with the well-being of the community – especially the most disadvantaged. We could be less concerned about having good things, more concerned about having good relationships. We could be less competitive, more collaborative. We could be less concerned to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and more willing to follow the example of God whose love extends to everybody.