Shortly after I heard that more than 50 people had been massacred at a country music festival in Las Vegas, that hundreds more were injured and that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, was a Caucasian, I found myself wondering what would have happened if the event had been, God forbid, a hip-hop concert.
I share this so that we can see clearly the irrationality of much of the racial unrest gripping our nation: If the victims on October 1 had been mostly black, with Stephen Paddock still the assailant, then the carnage he wrought may well have led to all manner of protests. Las Vegas, rather than being united as never before, might well have been divided as never before. The unsustainable, unnecessary distrust between races in America may well have been inflamed dramatically. And it all would have been based on the actions of one man whose mental stability is very much in doubt and whose motives are, thus far, known to no one.
I am hoping that the fictional scenario I am offering here can lead to moments of pause before assumptions are made, in the future, that hatred of one race by another explains acts of violence. Certainly, that is the case, on some occasions. But on many occasions it may well be irrelevant to motive that an assailant is of one color and victims are of another color. Because the real fuel for the violent act isn’t necessarily racism, it may well be a malignant narcissism or antisocial personality disorder or psychotic depression.
Let’s use the fact that Las Vegas isn’t burning to think about how unnecessary and wrong-minded it would be if the city were set ablaze—whether literally (as in, by fire) or figuratively (as in, by discord and distrust)—after a white man with dozens of guns had fired on a predominantly black crowd.
I would go even further: Even if the white assailant in my fictional scenario had left a note proclaiming his white supremacist ideology, I would say the fuel for his rampage had been mental illness. Why? Because hating a group based on their color may be best understood as a form of paranoia—a delusional disorder.
Seen this way, Hitler may have literally been gripped by a delusion that Jews were ruining Germany.
This is a big idea to present in an Op-Ed, but we should have the discussion, because it could be a way out of the current infighting between black Americans and white Americans. Defining racism as an illness that must be contained, even if some see it as an epidemic, would allow us to look far more deeply at its psychological, and even neurological, underpinnings.
Hatred of a group of people isn’t a rational stance. It isn’t a reasoned political position. Not ever. It is, in fact, always a symptom of mental instability. That should help us see Dylann Roof, the man who opened fire inside a historically black church in South Carolina, as an insane man, not a hateful man. And even if he claimed white skin as superior to black skin, we would hear his words not as hateful, but as paranoid—which, of course, they would be.
I believe Gandhi was right when he wrote these words:
“All criminals should be treated as patients and the jails should be hospitals admitting this class of patients for treatment and cure. No one commits crime for the fun of it. It is a sign of a diseased mind.”
We are very far from seeing this truth in America. But when we do, we will be much further away from holding one another responsible for the sickness of mind actually afflicting those who claim political or racial motives for their violence.
We will, in fact, be free.
Keith Ablow, MD