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Guns Don’t Kill People, Beliefs Kill People

If by fiat I had to draw one core generalization from a quarter century spent studying the psychology of beliefs, it is that almost everyone thinks that their beliefs are right, both ontologically and ethically. For the most part, people think that their beliefs are true, moral, or both. No one joins a cult—they join a group that they believe is going to help them and/or society. No one thinks they’re practicing pseudoscience—they believe they’ve discovered a new truth that mainstream science has yet to recognize. And very few believe their actions are immoral—at the time they had perfectly rational and moral reasons for acting as they did.

You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.

On this latter point, in his 1997 book about serial killers and other career criminals, Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister documents the fact that to a man (and they’re almost all men), these violent criminals justified their evil acts with what they believed to be perfectly good reasons. Examples include the 1994 police record of Frederick Treesh, a spree killer from the Midwest who explained, “Other than the two we killed, the two we wounded, the woman we pistol-whipped, and the light bulbs we stuck in people’s mouths, [my accomplice and I] didn’t really hurt anybody.” Or the file on serial killer John Wayne Gacy who, after killing 33 boys, rationalized, “I see myself more as a victim than as a perpetrator. I was cheated out of my childhood.” As Baumeister concluded: “you do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.”

This brings me to the trifecta of mass public shootings this past week in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. While gun control proponents debate Second Amendment advocates over whether it is guns that kill people or people who kill people, I would like to take the causal chain one step deeper and suggest that it is beliefs that kill people.

Might is Right

The motives of the Dayton and Gilroy killers have yet to come into clear focus, although at the time of this writing (August 5) the former’s social media appears to be left-leaning, while the latter praised on his Instagram account a white supremacist/anti-Semitic 19th-century book titled Might is Right or the Survival of the Fittest, adding “Why overcrowd towns and pave more open space to make room for hordes of mestizos?” Clearly inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, Might is Right opens with these chilling lines:

In this arid wilderness of steel and stone I raise up my voice that you may hear. To the East and to the West I beckon. To the North and to the South I show a sign Proclaiming “Death to the weakling, wealth to the strong.”

Nietzsche’s Übermensch would be proud.

In sharper focus are the motives of the El Paso shooter, thanks to a manifesto he penned and posted on the Internet site 8chan shortly before embarking on his deadly crusade:

In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.

Look what happened to an earlier North American people who failed to take seriously invading hordes from another land, the manifesto continues, resulting in “the nearly complete ethnic and cultural destruction brought to the Native Americans by our European ancestors…. The natives didn’t take the invasion of Europeans seriously, and now what’s left is just a shadow of what was.”

People act on their beliefs, and if you truly believe that your way of life, your civilization, your very people could be facing the fate of Native Americans, there’s a certain logic undergirding the use of violence to prevent it, however perverse and mistaken it may be (undocumented immigrants, for example, commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens). The psychology behind such mass public shootings is rooted in three cognitive processes that come loaded in the human mind: tribalism (and its consequent xenophobia), prejudice (judging specific members of a group by generalizations about the group itself), and moralistic punishment (the desire for justice against perceived wrong-doers).

We evolved in small tribes of hunter-gatherers in which coalitions formed that lead to the natural selection of pro-social and cooperative behavior within groups and the selection of xenophobia and tribalism between groups, or more briefly: within-group amity and between-group enmity. The world of our ancestors was a dangerous and violent one in which the default setting was to distrust strangers until they prove to be allies. In the modern world, President Reagan summed up the sentiment in dealing with the coalition known as the Soviet Union over nuclear disarmament: “trust, but verify.”

The second cognitive setting of prejudice begins with the simple act of generalizing from particulars as a mental shortcut to sorting through the mass of information that flows through our senses every waking moment. No one has the time or energy to taste every last piece of fruit to draw the generalization that objects looking like fruit likely taste sweet when ripe. When you encounter a piece of fruit in the future there’s a reasonably good chance that pre-judging it by the characteristics of past generalizations is a safe road to a tasty treat. And, in reverse valance, taste aversion evolved such that a single negative experience can lead to the generalization of avoiding any similar food item. Unfortunately, when coupled to coalitional tribalism, this cognitive heuristic translates into judging individual members of a group based on the generalization of the group itself — especially if the generalizations are negative — whatever their source and regardless of their accuracy (better to be safe than sorry).

The Inconvenent Truth

The third cognitive feature that the human mind comes equipped with is a moral module that desires justice, and when institutions don’t appear to provide it—as in cities where the police are perceived to be racist, in states where the criminal justice system is perceived to be corrupt, and in nations where the state has failed altogether—people engage in what criminologists call “self-help justice,” also known as “frontier justice,” or “vigilantism.” Perhaps this is what the El Paso shooter was thinking when he wrote:

America is rotting from the inside out, and peaceful means to stop this seem to be nearly impossible. The inconvenient truth is that our leaders, both Democrat AND Republican, have been failing us for decades. They are either complacent or involved in one of the biggest betrayals of the American public in our history.

When you expose these three mental features (not bugs) of the human mind to political rhetoric about immigrant throngs invading our country across the southern border, don’t be surprised if someone grabs a rifle and drives nine hours to the border town of El Paso to take the law into his own hands.

Might is Right

Conspiracy theories also prove motivational to the marginalized, and the El Paso killer gives us another hint to his impetus when he referenced a conspiracy theory called “The Great Replacement,” which also drove the Christchurch shooter to kill 50 people in two mosques on Friday, March 15, 2019. The Great Replacement is a book penned by the French author Renaud Camus, and it outlines a right-wing conspiracy theory that contends white Christian Europeans are being systematically replaced through immigration and higher birth rates by people of non-European descent, most notably from North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Arab Middle East.

The Christchurch killer’s manifesto—referenced by the El Paso gunman—is filled with white supremacist tropes focused on this conspiracy theory, starting with his opening sentence “It’s the birthrates” repeated three times. “If there is one thing I want you to remember from these writings, it’s that the birthrates must change. Even if we were to deport all Non-Europeans from our lands tomorrow, the European people would still be spiraling into decay and eventual death.” The result, he concludes, is “white genocide.”

This is vintage 19th century blood-and-soil romanticism (also seen in Might is Right), and the Christchurch shooter describes himself as an “Ethno-nationalist” that led him to go on a murderous spree “to ensure the existence of our people and a future for white children, whilst preserving and exulting nature and the natural order.”

All of this is reminiscent of the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017 when white supremacists shouted slogans like “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” The latter reference reflects the conspiracy theory that Jews control the media, politics, banking, and even the world economy, which helps account for the Christchurch shooter’s reference to the 14-word slogan originally coined by the white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

The number is sometimes rendered as 14/88, with the 8s representing the eighth letter of the alphabet—H—and 88 or HH standing for Heil Hitler. Lane, in turn, was inspired by Adolf Hitler’s conspiracy-theory laden book Mein Kampf, in which the Nazi leader snarls:

What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children and the purity of our blood, the freedom and independence of the fatherland, so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.

Hitler goes on to identify the enemy of his mission—the Jews—which reflects yet another conspiracy theory popular in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s known as the “stab in the back,” which asserts that the only reason the Germans lost World War I was that they were stabbed in the back by the “November Criminals” who the Nazis identified as Jews, Marxists, and Bolsheviks.

And this “stab in the back” conspiracy theory itself derives from an earlier and broader conspiracy theory involving The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a hoaxed document widely believed to be the proceedings of a secret meeting of Jews plotting to take over the world. The Protocols fake itself was plagiarized from a 19th-century propaganda piece titled Dialogues in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, penned by a French lawyer protesting Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (nephew of Napoleon I), along with a garishly anti-Semitic novel titled Biarritz. And both of these tracts drew on anti-Semitic tropes going back to Roman times.

We don’t know if the El Paso shooter’s motivations run this conspiratorially deep (or to what extent he was mentally deranged, socially marginalized, or driven to find instant fame in a Christchurch-copycat crime), but we do know that the polarizing political rhetoric focused on undocumented immigrants, and the concomitant references to invading hordes that can only be stopped by building a wall in order to protect us from Mexico sending us their drugs and rapists, is surely a contributing factor that can be addressed immediately by changing the nature of the immigration debate away from such coalitional tribalism and xenophobic prejudice that triggers the inner demons of our nature. Some people take such political orotundity literally, and some act on such literalness with violence in the form of self-help justice.

This must stop.

About the Author

Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University, and the author of The Moral Arc, Heavens on Earth, and Why People Believe Weird Things.

This article was published on August 6, 2019.


44 responses to “Guns Don’t Kill People, Beliefs Kill People”

  1. Otis Needleman says:

    Glenn, check this out, for starters.

    Oh, we aren’t “European” white people. We’re American white people. Got it? Don’t be so naive.

  2. Glenn Rose says:

    In discussing the problems of immigration, legal and illegal, how many examples of criminal behavior have there been that give xenophobes a reason for their fear?

    To the contrary, don’t the people who come to this country come fully embracing the values that they see in the United States of America. Would they come here for any other reason than to be a part of a culture they admire and seek to join? Would they come here believing that they could effect a change in this culture? If so, why leave what they were born to.

    The glaring facts are that we have more home grown, good old European white people killing non-tribal members than any other “ethnic” group.

    Have the xenophobes forgotten Timothy McVeigh and his murders of fellow, innocent citizens?

    The fact is that our culture here on North America has thrived because of immigrants.

    No one owns Antarctica. Perhaps the xenophobes should move there. They couldn’t find anywhere else more white than it. At least until climate change renders it ice-less.

  3. Otis Needleman says:

    1. They aren’t “undocumented immigrants”, they’re illegal aliens.

    2. So illegal aliens commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens. Tell that to Kate Steinle’s family, and the other victims of crimes committed by illegal aliens. If these illegal aliens weren’t in our country perhaps those crimes wouldn’t have been committed in the first place.

    3. Every nation has the right and duty to protect its’ borders – part of being a sovereign nation. Other countries, such as Mexico and Israel, use walls to help protect their borders. Let’s finish building our wall. I’m all for legal immigration – have seen the process work several times in my own family – but the illegal aliens need to stay out. It’s OUR country, NOT theirs. Those who advocate for open borders are fools, pure and simple.

  4. Jon D. Girard says:

    Way to go Scarlett! I wish I was as smart as you. While I enjoyed most of the comments…yours was spot on. Well said, nice lady. You’d make a great president.

    How about that Michael Shermer? I’m a big fan. I used to worry that he was too soft in debates. I’ve grown some, and see him as a true voice of reason.

  5. B.Purvis says:

    This comment was the most thought provoking:
    “You do not have to give people reasons to be violent, because they already have plenty of reasons. All you have to do is take away their reasons to restrain themselves.”

    What restrains most of us?

    If we really cared about premature deaths, why aren’t we screaming for safer cars & roads? Perhaps more accident avoidance systems. I know I would love to have a system supervising my driving, or driving for me.

  6. bukowski says:

    Every year 900,000 people ( or there about) are killed in car accidents . Where is the outrage !!!!!

  7. Harinder Singh - UK says:

    Good article for thought –
    Even better for the intelligent responses.
    Some very clear and precise.
    May I add – though …
    Living is real – thought is in the mind.
    An action is personal and must be responsible.
    It is given to every human to navigate life through/over his or her life. Only a fractional minuscule of the population understand the dynamics of the issue in the contexts discussed herein. MOST … in fact almost all don’t kill people in a self legitimised belief – cause – or callousness.
    I am reminded of the passage of time/life…Mother Nature …Father Time.
    In the past we had a soul … now we have a self. Ego … as in Self Concept (and the need to self define as it is the cause of self worth has got our knickers in a twist). Add to this a tremendous sense of responsibility and a society / media led social, moral framework and a numbers economic game where one is marginalised … you have a prescription for disassociated unwholesome lives. In ever larger numbers and with unforeseen outcomes this is now played out globally.
    For all of Western liberalism – Democratic Govts are failing to control outcomes mired in socio/cultural/political/philosophical/economic divisions. Parallels individual lives are self focussed/centred. Society and Govt are blamed for every ill. It seems the aim of living is to maximise TAKE …(as in consumption and experience to optimise Life … all self defined/legitimised)
    When everybody is somebody nobody is anybody … takes over – and we bumble along.
    Till the next conflagration… just another passing shooting ( pardon the pun) star in the irrelevance of our Life and All Time.

  8. Adam says:

    first half to Anselm :

    Groups are different from one another … thats why they are groups. Sure, totalizing them like “inferior/superior” is not very beneficial in most contexts due to historical connotations. I’ll still try to use these words in a less totalizing way, maybe someone makes something of it. We somehow have to deal with the question of observable group differences and not just assert that they dont matter – as I believe this has caused as much if not more mayhem in history and recent politics both than over-emphasizing group differences. Since the divide and different outcomes between groups are observable – attempting to falsely assert their absolute equity in one realm will lead to exaggerating their differences in other realms to explain the extent of observable differences – and it will lead to the wrong solutions by the socially conscious which create further problems. Again and again.
    As for the nature of prejudice I think it is important to conceptualize it in the individual – collective dichotomy as a misapplication of information between these categories (treating an individual as they are a sum of their group is wrong). This is compatible with your suggestion, but I do not agree with what you intend to add to it to avoid prejudice. Groups are superior and inferior to one another in countless things across the board all the time almost no matter how we split them up. I would advocate for accepting our differences instead of denying them for the fear of this knowledge catalyzing prejudice. Sure it is a precursor in the sense that believing that humans can be held responsible for anything in the first place is a precursor. Prejudice needs to be stopped at the start of prejudice itself not at the start of understanding our differences. I’m aware you were not advocating for denying anything but I believe this is what is happening because of the attempts to distance ourselves from possible prejudice with more and more steps. Denying one group’s superiority in a certain quality might seem to be the decent thing to do to promote equality, it will result in their outcomes left wanting an alternative explanation which then almost invariably becomes an accusation of moral inferiority. I’ll actualize this with examples because it can be confusing describing it only in the abstract. (trigger warning) Why would the jews be at the top of society if they are not just scheming and morally corrupt? Well, maybe because they are genetically smarter or have superior cultural practices and beliefs – or both. Why would whites and western civilization do so well if they are not just oppressive and supremacist? Well, again superior genetics on some fronts and/or superior cultural practices and beliefs might explain it. I hope I made the distinction sufficiently clear of not judging individuals based on group averages. I wrote this down because I believe grappling with this is at the core of current political issues and it ties back to the legitimacy of tribalism I mentioned earlier (which is not only about race). We as a civilization have not only literally but also figuratively let our borders down to become global citizens instead of a narrower tribe. We find differentiation and tribalism distasteful as that is part of our ethics to maintain this new broader way of living. Then we got slapped in the face by cold hard reality as other tribes do not open themselves up at the same rate – or even at all and sometimes interact with us in favor of their tribal interests (meaning they dont assimilate). Now how we react to this as a civilization is still up in the air. Go back and close ourselves? (as if it was possible) Continue as if everything is fine with this? (as if it was true). Some middle ground needs to be found that makes peaceful coexisting possible with reasonable limitations to cultural diversity – but strong tribalism and no tribalism just seem to be extremes unbearable to different segments of the population. Maybe race does not need to be the focus of the conversation over culture but its there – it amounts to something – so are false beliefs about it which drive us further from properly nailing down the issues.

  9. Tpaine says:

    Put an airplane, especially a jetliner, in the hands of callous people and you will have far more dead than by any means short of warfare. Many others may share the assailant’s beliefs, but without callousness –and without a jetliner– they will not commit that act or do that much damage.

  10. Anselm says:

    Very insightful, thought-provoking article – and the best commendation in the comments, IMHO, was from Bernard Glos, Ph.D., who confirms the underlying science.

    Can I suggest one more category to add to the three you mention (tribalism, prejudice and moralistic punishment)? For want of a snappier name, I’d call it “assumption of subject (real or imagined) group’s superiority”. It’s a necessary precursor to prejudice. If I’m “prejudiced” against someone because of their membership of a particular group, doesn’t it stand to reason that a) I have to recognise that group as somehow distinct from the one I belong to, and b) that that group is inferior to mine? (Of course, I’m assuming for these purposes that “prejudice” has the common negative connotation of “against”, rather than the more neutral one defined in the article.)

    It’s this mentality that led “civilised” Greeks and Romans to classify other people as (necessarily inferior) “barbarians”, Nazis to call Jews “subhuman vermin”, and European and American colonisers to regard indigenous populations as “lesser breeds without the law”, subject to various forms of subjection and exploitation, including slavery, as of right.

    I see this assumption of group superiority as even more relevant to the recent mass shootings (including in my native NZ) than prejudice. The Christchurch and El Paso shooters weren’t targeting individual people based on their membership of a particular group so much as targeting a group as a whole because they felt it to be inferior (or dangerous?) in some way to their own. If, hypothetically, every person in their targeted group had been in that location, they would have killed them all, without distinguishing between individuals in any way. The unjustified assumption is “My group is different to yours; therefore mine is better”.

  11. Tzindaro says:

    Question: How many mass killers have had a religious upbringing? I suspect the firm conviction of being wholly in the right and all other views are pure evil has some correlation with religion. Even if the killer does not mention religion in his writings it may lurk in the background of his thinking and influence his action.

  12. Gamalrefr says:

    Now do Dayton!

  13. Steve P. says:

    Jim Maher: “If we aren’t willing to enforce the laws we have, how will more laws really change anything?”

    Maybe we don’t need more laws. How about eliminating a law – the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act (PLCAA)? It “shields manufacturers and retailers from civil liability in lawsuits brought by victims of gun violence.” [Wikipedia] That might have an effect.

    That aside, I keep hearing this argument that existing laws aren’t being enforced. And I also keep hearing that no law was broken with respect to how a weapon was obtained in many of these mass murders. Clearly we need more effective laws.

    We really need a whole new regulatory regime over guns. The rest of the civilized world (of which we’re supposedly a part) isn’t experiencing anywhere near the number of gun deaths that the US does, much less mass murders. Maybe we could see what they’re doing right and we’re doing dreadfully wrong?

  14. Steve P. says:

    Beliefs kill people? No. A belief is a thought process. As such it cannot by itself kill anything. So if you’re going to say guns are inanimate objects that can’t kill of their own volition, which is true, then you also have to acknowledge that the other half of this meme is incorrect. The whole argument is at best sophistry.

    What is true is that the availability of weapons of war to people with evil beliefs and intentions produces what we are seeing now – more and more frequent mass murders of innocent people.

    The reason the problem of gun violence can never be solved is not because of crazy ideology. It’s because we are lied to, we believe the lies and we repeat them.

  15. sitting bytheriver says:

    All wonderful and interesting responses.

    Michael: Great Article. I am rereading it and sharing it with others. Thank you.

  16. Jim Maher says:

    Skeptonomist, you seem to think that the characterization of the other side is totally one-sided. While the shooters have more often been on the right wing of politics, that has not universally been the case, and some on the left (including a presidential candidate) have characterized those on the right as essentially sub-human also. We need to stop blaming the other guy and look at ourselves also. All of us need to step back from allowing our prejudice to characterize a group which may well be 25% or more of our fellow citizens. It may be ok to characterize an individual, but not “Trump supporters,” Right (or Left) wingers, NRA members, or corporations or members of a particular profession because of some association you assume. As a gun-control, Never-Trump conservative, I am at least as concerned about the number of illegal guns in Chicago and Detroit as I am about the mass shooter automatic weapons. If we aren’t willing to enforce the laws we have, how will more laws really change anything?

  17. Cathy K says:

    This article is so well thought out and so spot on that I’ve just subscribed to eSkeptic. I would need to re-read before I could make any intelligent addition to the conversation, but I thought I would just inject a bit of the “opposite” of the fellow who apparently didn’t understand the piece at all. So as he unsubscribed, here I am subscribing. Carry on, please. There is so much intelligence for me to absorb!

  18. Alan E. Bernstein says:

    You’re right that the NRA slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is wrong. But beliefs are not a substitute for “people” in that formula. At best, beliefs are an excuse for violent action, not the cause. They are among the environmental factors that make action, even that violent action, seem necessary. But when all the other circumstances are taken into account (peer pressure, a personal grievance, turf rivalry, competition for scarce goods, and others) a person cannot commit a violent act without having been inured to violence. Seen from the other end of the telescope, a person must lack certain inhibiting controls, whether from the brain or from culture/society, in order to do what he or she will do to the victim. My candidate for a one word answer: callousness.
    But in fact, guns do kill people. Guns elevate the success rate of every aggressive act they’re used in. (On this, please see Put a gun, especially an assault rifle, in the hands of a callous person and you will have far more dead than by any means short of warfare. Many others may share the assailant’s beliefs, but without callousness –and without a gun– they will not commit that act or do that much damage.

  19. Jim Maher says:

    This is a great article. While I take exception to blaming Clinton for Columbine, Obama for the 43 mass shootings on his watch, or Trump for this, the increasing loss of a middle in American politics definitely feeds the urge to violence by those who feel threatened. We need to make society feel less threatening to all by emphasizing our commonalities and not our differences, Enforced political correctness rather than morality in the schools, violent video games and media, the heroes who kill or maim “to get information” like Jack Bauer, and the breakdown of the family with strong mothers and fathers, and the isolation accompanying social media, all are likely to cause alienated individuals to wish to strike out. Whether with guns, fertilizer, or a box of fireworks, the weapons are available to cause mass casualties if someone is so inclined. We need to approach this psychiatrically or psychologically if we are serious about saving a harmonious society (and I support gun control).

  20. Michael A Smith says:

    Just a couple of more quotes from FN in support of this fine assessment:

    … It is not the conflict of opin­ions that has made history so violent, but the conflict of belief in opinions, that is, of convictions. Yet if all those who thought so highly of their convictions, made all kinds of sacrifices to them, and spared neither honor, nor body, nor life in their ser­vice had devoted merely half of their strength to investigating by what right they adhered to this or that conviction or the way in which they had come to it: how peaceful human history would then appear! How much more knowledge there would be! …

    Human, All too Human (630)

    Enemies of truth. – Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than are lies.

    Human, All to Human (483)

  21. Scarlett says:

    To Os, who sent the same comment twice, in hopes of getting attention from this community:

    Since “know” you “know not to read” these articles anymore, you are unlikelty to see this. However, if you do happen to read these comments, please understand that you are far more likely to be welcomed into discussion if you properly write and spell the language in which we are communicating. If you cannot bother to learn thoroughly, or attempt to communicate accurately, why would your viewpoints gain attention in a community of people who spend their lives learning as much as possible, about everything and anything? Lazy thinkers fall for the ideas of other lazy thinkers, and lazy thinking is the last thing our society needs.

    Perhaps English is your second or third language, in which case your misunderstanding of this article is still just plain lazy. If you read it, you should have noticed that the author emphasized that the media needs to stop “blaming Trump”.

    The article explains quite clearly that bashing others serves only to exacerabte the violence. Please look up the definition of “righting”. In the case of your comment, the use of this word is “irony”.

  22. Adam says:

    If I’m dedicated to learn the truth I cannot stop halfway for moral considerations. Maybe there is an optimistic assumption at the bottom of this that knowing the truth is always better and is always compatible with moral behavior.
    It is interesting that as an example of perceived injustice you mentioned perceived racism of the police. I’ve long been suspecting that this rhetoric about the police makes black criminals shoot at the police at much higher rates – on basis of the belief that they would not be treated fairly and might even get killed even if they surrender. But what if the extent of the racism involved was painted accurately. Surely then, the negative results of knowing the truth would be the “smaller evil” even if it necessarily causes distrust and self-help action.
    Prejudice was definitely needed to commit a terrorist act against innocent individuals – and I cannot stress enough the importance of fighting prejudice. However prejudice itself is not needed to simply have a negative view of mass (and/or) undocumented immigration and even label it as something with disastrous consequences. The reason being – groups and the effect of their actions/presence can be judged without the belief that every individual in that group is the same or is even morally responsible to a considerable degree for the effects of that group. (for example we would not put too much of the blame for global warming on a single individual we don’t even know – however an unhinged shooter might). To finally get to the point: to say that harmful rhetoric (of the right/left/whoever)needs to stop is to proclaim that the rhetoric in question does not accurately represent the truth of the matter. Unfortunately I’m not convinced that tribalism is a pure evil that has no place in the modern world. Even with all the problems it can unnecessarily cause. So what you are calling for here is to at least for one side to give up their political positions and bow to the other in favor of getting along.
    Otherwise its a good writing but I can only agree to the conclusion to the extent it calls for moderation – but not to the extent where it tells us what to give up in order to obtain it.

  23. ACW says:

    Excellent article. I commend comment #1: Nietzsche is like most other philosophers (including that Nazarene carpenter), in that the worst thing to happen to him was, and is, his self-anointed followers.
    As for the other comments, some are good. Others — I’m looking at you, Os — need to get back on their meds.
    (For the record, I’m in favour of reforming, and enforcing, our immigration laws. As far as I’m concerned, both the ‘build the wall’ right-wing and the ‘no borders at all’ left-wing are wrong. And no matter where you stand on this or any other issue, do not go killing or hurting people in the name of your cause. If only because for every one you eliminate, you create dozens or hundreds of people who not only are not persuaded but who become your sworn enemy and will never listen to any of your arguments … even if by chance they have some merit. If you can’t summon some decency, good lord, at least apply some common sense and realize that every time you shoot someone, you also shoot yourself in the foot.

  24. John E Persichilli says:

    Hi Mr. Shermer,

    I applaud your article doing a deeper dive into the mentality of these mass murders. I am aware of the sentiment about an invasion here in Arizona. While I also condemn these young men for what they have done and will never agree with these actions, I think there is a grain of truth to what is happening to our nations (and other) populations. Non-white birthrates are higher and along with little control of our southern border allowing for more to enter our country, illegally we will see in the coming decades a shift to non majority – minority status for all racial groups in the US. Should we allow illegal immigration to speed up this process? I’m just asking the question. No one asks me a single white male of 64 years for my opinion anyway. I think the debate can be an honest one but just mentioning the issue usually results in being called a racist which I am not. Again, I’m simply asking the question should we allow continued illegal immigration. What I really see, is even more of a concern, a population bomb is happening across the world. No one seems to either care nor talk about what is happening and its effects on the Earth as a system upon which we need to survive. Over population in my estimation has caused unrepairable degradation of the Earths environment. I have a pessimistic view for the future of mankind. I am not sure we will survive to become a space faring species.

  25. skeptonomist says:

    There are really three problems involved: (1) Cultivation of the white-supremacist mentality, which characterizes “others” as subhuman and some kind of existential threat (a standard mentality in war); (2) Gun culture in the US, in which people fantasize about or actually act out their aggressions, whatever they may be; and (3) The political power of the gun manufacturers, combined with those involved in (2), as exerted through the NRA.
    There have been many mass killings without element (1), although that is a very dangerous element itself and could lead to worse than isolated shooting sprees. All types of mass killings themselves are only a small fraction of gun deaths, so as far as the total is concerned elements (2) and (3) are responsible – you could say they are what is responsible for most gun deaths, if not the actual shooter. If you are really concerned with reducing the total of gun deaths, then they are what must be addressed. If they could be defeated, then mass killings by shooting under element (1) would probably be reduced, although other methods such as bombs and poison have been used by people with racist or other fanatical mentalities (there have been many political bombings in the past, for example by anarchists).

  26. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    As a Skeptic, I do not understand how disagreeing with statements made by President Trump are “Anti-Trump.”

    Also, a good topic for skeptics to discuss is the trickiness of Federal gun laws in America: how do we curb criminal access to guns without infringing on the law-abiding?
    Note: Laws only govern the law-abiding.

    Guns and their ability to kill is not a one-sided issue – as people who live outside of cities are aware. In rural areas, the ability to kill wild animals, such as mountain lions, coyotes, or bear can be a matter of life or death (including the lives of their children, livestock and pets). You cannot call the Police to save your child or pet YOU MUST DO IT.

    Even in cities there are times that being able to kill intruders can save your life. It is unreasonable to expect the police to arrive in time (in a cavalry-esque fashion) or for a Grandpa or Grandma to successfully melee with multiple assailants. The statistics on self-defense with guns are contested so they are small comfort to someone waiting on the inside of a door being battered while holding a machete… I speak from experience.

    Still, with all the anger, fear and hatred sloshing around these days we must do something.

    Everyone has statistics to back up their position. Maybe getting better statistics would be a good first step.

  27. Mike says:

    It seems like the El Paso shooter manifesto was not uploaded by him. According to 8Chan someone else uploaded the manifest and that person has been identified to law enforcement. Another twist on the ‘Twisted’ mind.

  28. Jan Moerman says:

    Maybe I think too much to “recognize” any propaganda in this inspiring commentary here. If people ask me about religion or beliefs I often avoid to oppose them, but just reply that I myself just think too much to believe anyrhing. However, occasionally I keep up that joke, that o.k. then, if that satisfies you, I believe I will have another beer.

  29. Chuck says:

    Thank you for the article.
    Unfortunately, beliefs are almost impossible to change. People identify viscerally with their beliefs and tend to “double-down” when faced with non-supporting evidence.
    On the other hand, social and conventional media are now full of content that supports, encourages and vindicates the beliefs of people like white supremacists

    I believe you are correct in your premise that beliefs are the basic root of the problem. I just cannot imagine how to do anything about it.

  30. SSG says:

    The comparison with Nietzsche is unwarranted, since he despised antisemitism, but it’s refreshing to read a reaction to a mass-shooting that deviates from the usual script: “It’s all Trump’s fault!” or “We need stronger gun control laws!”.

  31. Bernard Glos, Ph.D. says:

    As a psychologist who does violence risk and threat assessments, I findthe article to be right on target and in line with research findings in the area.

  32. Chris Rich says:

    Great take underscoring the problem with the political hijacking of every important social issue and narrative. If you’re a Republican you want to destroy the environment. If you’re a Democrat you must be a socialist. Hyper-politics promotes stereotyping as a common practice. It also preaches moral validity so pretty much ticks off all Micheal’s boxes.

    Vilification of undocumented people is a mistake. But the underlying problem is immigration anarchy. Rules and enforcement of them is fundamental to social stability and democracy. We vote on the people who make our laws. If the law means nothing then what is left? If laws are abused and go for too long without amendment then things feel unjust and out of control. If as a nation we can support greater numbers or immigrants great. Open the doors. Manage the flow with the needs of the economy. But do it like responsible grown-ups and with an accounting of who’s here. Legal immigration is the core American DNA.

    Donald Trump needs to reign in the rhetoric big time, but so do the Democrats. Vilifying law enforcement is no better than vilifying the undocumented.

  33. Troy Jordan says:

    Come on, man. Surely you are not so obtuse as to believe enforcing immigration laws which even once was considered an obligation of the government by Democrats is xenophobic. Common sense dictates the control of our borders for numerous valid reasons. Does it not bother you that Trump’s critics advocate violating the laws of this country? Which do you think is more important to our country – racist and xenophobic comments and actions by a few obviously deranged extremists or the complete loss of our sovereignty?

  34. Jeannette says:

    The shooter’s manifesto: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

    As a non-American, I don’t know a lot of American history but I was aware that Texas was originally settled/invaded by the Spanish, became part of Mexico, then seceded from Mexico, was annexed by the United States, then seceded during the Civil War.

    So hasn’t the population of Texas been Hispanic from the 1500s? And if Hispanics are moving from Mexico into Texas, couldn’t this be seen as taking back what was rightfully theirs by original colonisation (or as ‘rightfully’ as any European occupation of the Americas can be)?

    In all the news coverage we get elsewhere in the world about the Wall and the Hispanic migration/invasion (and, believe me, we get a LOT) this history is rarely mentioned. Is this because Americans don’t know or learn about it? (I learnt it as a child from American movies.)

  35. sittingbytheriver says:

    excellent article. thanks for writing it.

  36. Tom Halla says:

    The legacy media (network news and most newspaper web sites) tend to be rather lazy as far as making fine political distinctions. Lumping everyone not supporting the current Democratic Party gets lumped into “the Right”, so neo-volkish persons like the El Paso shooter get lumped in with Libertarians and Country Club Republicans.

  37. john sullivan says:

    All well and good but to put it crudely some people are crazy and need to be kept away from machines that can be used to harm others, especially machines that are specifically designed to kill. Most of the world, and some part of the US (for example NYC, where I live) resolve this problem by keeping guns away from the general population. Large chunks of the US resolve this problem by making guns freely available and then, when a crazy person uses a gun for exactly the purpose for which it was very carefully designed, blaming everything except that guns are freely available .

  38. John Edwards says:

    “undocumented immigrants”? Oh, I think you are mistaken, Mr. Shermer. The individuals you are referring to are in fact Illegal Aliens (criminals by definition) according to our nation’s laws – which you and your ilk are so happily willing to flout in furtherance of your goals.. whatever those goals might be, of course.

  39. Os says:

    This is lame anti Trump, anti-wall crap. You try to blame the president for this? Are you an idiot?

    Thanks for writing this slanted article against the president. Now I know not to read this sites future propaganda.


  40. js says:

    In this piece, I think you’ve nailed the problem, and why it will only get worse. “Guns don’t kill people, beliefs do”….great meme. If only more people would stop and think about the contents of your article, we might stand a chance. They won’t.

    In the coming weeks, I predict more calls for gun control (which is basically impossible in our political system at this point), more garbage about prayer and remembering the victims, more people talking (yelling mostly) past each other about the same, and then a brief quiet period before some more nutjobs come out of the woodwork with their machine guns and pull the same thing all over again.

  41. Os says:

    This is lame anti Trump, anti-wall crap. You try to blame the president? Are you an idiot?

    Thanks for righting this slanted article against the president. Know I know not to to read this sites future propaganda.


  42. Steve says:

    Thanks for writing this article. It is the first article written on the topic that I have read that is insightful and maybe provides a direction away from the violence we are experiencing. Hopefully it can reach a larger audience outside the skeptic readers- maybe a NY Times or other newspaper. It is surely one of your best.

  43. Brian says:

    Great article.

    Would love a next step to be an investigation into the role of Social Media as a driver for this. Intuitively, and based on a sampling of information, it feels like some of the dynamics in certain social media platforms may be contributing to this, or may even be purposefully manipulated by bad guys to create this.

    But I’m not aware of more definitive statistics or broader information that would help lead to an objective conclusion.

  44. Michael A Smith says:

    While I generally agree with your observations, I take umbrage with the positive association of Nietzsche with the quote of “Might is Right”. Just one example of the deep differences between the two is…

    … Mediocrity is needed before there can be exceptions: it is the condition for a high culture. When an exceptional person treats a mediocre one more delicately than he treats himself and his equals, this is not just courtesy of the heart, – it is his duty …

    The Anti-Christ (57)

    One of Nietzsche’s greatest fears was the stupid and weak uncritically using his writing to justify their lack of taste and style. If the author of “Might is Right” was using Nietzsche to justify the quote in your article, then Nietzsche’s fear appears prophetic.

    When we draw parallels between the two, a great disservice is done to both. We elevate one of the rabble to the status of thinker and we deprecate a thinker to the status of dunderhead.

    While I confess I have not read “Might is Right”, if it is anything close to your short assessment, I think Nietzsche’s appraisal would be the continuation of the above quote.

    … What is bad? But I have already said it: everything that comes from weakness, from jealousy, from revenge. – The anarchist and the Christian are descended from the same lineage …

    The Anti-Christ (57)


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