Last week, a gunman opened fire at a synagogue in the town of Poway, California, creating a cruel symmetry between the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, each of which has seen a deadly attack in the past couple of months.
Yet, despite each of these targets being places of worship, I’d argue that religion played an extremely minor role in the horrors that have been occurring.
Looking less at the specific religion of the victims and their place in their respective societies reveals something that’s both interesting and hopefully obvious. Christians in Sri Lanka make up 7.5% of the population. In the United States only about 2% of the population is Jewish. And in New Zealand, only 1.1% of the population practices Islam.
I’d argue that while these three most recent attacks (Sri Lanka, Poway and Christchurch) have little to do with religion, they have everything to do with the poisonous "Us" vs. "Them" mentality. All of these victims were minorities in their respective homes, and all were targeted by people who felt some delusional threat from these groups.
On some level, it’s very simple “monkey brain” psychology. "Bad Thing" happens, "Other" exists, "Other" confuses and scares "Us," "Other" gets blamed for "Bad Thing".
It’s a knee jerk reaction that’s easy to push aside if you’re in a stable, relatively calm environment. But those impulses get much harder to push aside when people are scared, when they feel threatened, and when they feel like their group is being targeted. It can lead to irrational behavior and this can push people who were already unstable into doing something rash, something terrible.
It creates something like an arms race, a downward spiral that brings out the worst in us and creates a much more dangerous world. I’ve had these conversations; I’ve talked to people who think the border should be closed and Muslims should be deported. People fear for their safety and think that getting rid of the Other will keep them safe, but this very act of targeting builds resentment between groups.
People that would sit in the middle or be cooperative start getting attacked and draw inward, get pulled more towards their own in-group that makes them feel safe. Those people that are already sitting on the far end of the spectrum see something much more sinister and get it in their head that someone has genocide as a goal and decide that it’s "Us" vs. "Them."
I am scared, but not of being attacked by someone with different beliefs, I’m scared that someone will take my beliefs and turn them into a sword, turn them into a justification for something monstrous. At KU, we’re lucky enough to dwell in a community that is remarkably welcoming for diverse groups of people, and as such it offers a unique opportunity that I beg students to take advantage of.
The opposite of hate and fear is love and understanding. To combat this death spiral we’re being pushed in to, people have to reach out, they have to go outside of their comfort zones and reach out to other groups. At KU, we walk past groups of people that are remarkably different from us every day. Take the time. Reach out. Build bridges instead of raising the palisade; our lives might just depend on it.
Jeffrey Birch is a sophomore from Wichita majoring in accounting.