Manitoba·Opinion

Avoiding the boiling point: Society must help prevent violence, writes Joanne Seiff

Overwhelmingly, those who commits large-scale acts of violence tend to be people who struggle on multiple fronts, from discrimination to poverty, writes Joanne Seiff.

Mass violence often caused by people who are angry, disaffected and alienated

French police investigate the scene on July 15, 2016, near the heavy truck that ran into a crowd at Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Massacres, chaos, murders, and terrorism are in the news lately. Nationalists may ascribe this solely to religious radicalism — specifically, Islam — yet violence isn't one religion's domain.

Who commits large-scale acts of violence?  Overwhelmingly, they're people who struggle, often on multiple fronts.

An African-American military veteran pulled the trigger in the recent shootings of white police officers in Dallas. In the terrible aftermath of the Orlando Pulse nightclub massacre, the media trumpeted the shooter's religion and affiliation with ISIS. He also appeared to have suffered from mental illness and struggled with gender or sexual orientation identity issues.

The Oklahoma City bomber was a U.S. veteran who killed 168 people, including 19 children, and wounded 184 others … but he was neither African-American nor Muslim.

In 1994, a Jewish American-Israeli physician killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 more at the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank.

The Moncton, N.B., shooter, who killed three police officers and seriously injured two others in 2014, grew up in a religious Catholic household.

No one religion has a monopoly. Those who commit mass killings come from all backgrounds and traditions, yet they seem to have certain things in common.

Alienated by discrimination

Angry, disaffected minorities and outsiders become agents for violence because they feel alienated by discrimination. They lack social and health supports, often suffer economic distress, and are influenced by an omnipresent media.

The radicalism of those involved in the attacks in Paris, Brussels and more recently in Nice didn't necessarily start in the Middle East, but rather are due to the stress they experienced as low-income minorities in a very challenging Western cultural context.

Immigrants in France (and Europe more generally) are often unemployed or underemployed.  Despite European citizenship and efforts to assimilate, the majority culture may actively discriminate against these minorities, even if they are second- or third-generation citizens.

Often, those who are most in need of support are least able to advocate for it. It seems obvious that veterans returning from war might need both physical and mental health services. Historically, those services for North American veterans have been uneven or hard to access.

Refugees and their children also need physical and mental health support but, again, that's sometimes not available. In Canada, the Harper government sought to cut health programs for refugees and it took the Federal Court of Canada to stop the cuts to their health services.

Immigrants, their children, minorities and other disadvantaged groups — including women, who aren't technically a minority — also face consistent difficulties in earning a good living.

Low-income families often suffer hardships including poor access to food, substandard housing in dangerous neighbourhoods and low-quality educational options.

Paying for health care without equal pay and benefits for that work can seem an impossible task. If government health services don't cover these services, often low-wage workers who lack supplemental insurance must do without necessary care.

When one feels unwell, hungry, unsafe, and under siege by majority culture, it's hard to see a productive, law-abiding way ahead.

When diversity is only "tolerated" and those who are disadvantaged due to these differences are unable to better their lives, people often feel overwhelming frustration and anger. Is it any wonder that a simmering kettle boils over?

Technology speeds up flow of communication

Some say, "This sort of thing didn't used to happen," but violence is as old as we are.

Technology speeds communication of this bloodshed. Democratic countries' media enable the fast flow of information. We hear about every horrible incident because of free speech and the freedom of the press.

Further, we're all citizen reporters, using social media to livestream injustice, shootings, and terrorist activity. Social media provides information democratically, but without a filter.

One can inflict harm on others in countless ways. The quick flow of information available online means that unstable people who are ready to commit crimes or terrorist acts don't need any imagination or intelligent plans of their own.

Using the internet to make connections, gather plans of attack and garner support for their own brands of hate or immorality, these criminals feel bolstered and supported by what they find online. It's easier to commit mayhem when you don't have to dream it all up on your own.

There will be a lot of mourning, vigils, and rhetoric after every horrific loss of life — and rightfully so, as it allows for people to ritualize and heal after terrible tragedy and pain.

However, without better societal supports in place, unstable people will always boil over with disastrous effect.

Minorities must feel more than tolerated. Society has to adjust to make all feel valued and a part of an essential national human resource. We must work to fight racism, religious and gender discrimination and all bias as a society, and within ourselves.

Poverty costs us all too much. Every hungry or homeless person (child or adult) who cannot live up to his/her potential affects us negatively. The lack of social supports and physical and mental health infrastructure for the disadvantaged demonstrates how we continue to value the lives of the wealthy above others.

We can't flip a switch to go back to some mythic time when these horrors didn't take place. We can, however, work ahead.

Communities and governments can strengthen citizens' safety and security and our social support infrastructures. Employers could "give someone a chance" to enable societal upward mobility. Individually, we can do more to look out for one another.  Maybe a "watched pot never boils" — and that's as it should be.

If we try to help others avoid their personal and societal boiling points, we might sometimes avert disaster before it strikes.


Joanne Seiff, a writer based in Winnipeg, holds degrees in Near Eastern Studies, Religious Studies and Education and has experience teaching both immigrant and under-served minority communities in the U.S.