This violent bullying isn’t just affecting turban-wearing Sikh Americans; it is affecting Muslim Americans too, as a mosque was torched in Missouri this week. And we know from the countless stories of many marginalized American communities – from LGBT communities to Latino immigrants – that bullying is practiced, promulgated and promoted in America. Why are we so good at it?
First, abuse is cyclical. We pass it on. When we are being abused – by a structurally violent socio-economic system or a by an abusive parent, boss or partners – we pass that abuse along to others. There is a reason why the adage, one variation of which has been attributed to Gandhi, notes that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. It’s trickle-down economics’ violent cousin.
In America where income inequality – a measure of an abusive economic system – is highest among rich world countries, you find that this abuse is passed along to fellow Americans, either internally or externally. Because of America’s great gap between its rich and poor, we also have the rich world’s highest rates of internal abuse – e.g. obesity, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide – but also the highest rates of external abuse, that of homicide, violent crime, and incarceration.
That Wade Michael Page was a neo-Nazi extremist and white supremacist – who clearly hadn’t healed from 9/11 and was likely struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from 9/11 and from his time in the Army – is indicative of how abuse gets passed on to others.
Second, people like to have someone below them, someone worse off, someone less popular, either in a befriended or bullied position. Everyone who ever attended high school can attest to this truism. This author certainly can, having attended Central Christian High School, a small Mennonite school in Kidron, Ohio, where even I – as one of the tallest kids in the school – can remember getting bullied by three upperclassmen.
This bully mentality plays out in economic systems as well, where Americans consistently choose economic policies that ensure the “least of these” stay as the least and a rung below on the economic ladder. However poor the voter, and no reminder is needed regarding the record rates of poverty and inequality in this country, it is a salve to the economically abused to have someone even more abused below them.
Third, we watch our government leaders consistently bully other countries. This is what America’s economic sanctioning, “shock and awe” foreign policy and saber-rattling rhetoric is all about. This is what America does well, and has done, to Iran, Iraq, Cuba, China, and the list goes on. These policy approaches are rarely effective in reducing or preventing violence and very effective in creating more extreme behaviors of those bullied, generating more enemies in response, and escalating tensions and, ultimately, the likelihood of deadly violence. Congressional sanctions on Iran, for example, are increasing the likelihood of war, not decreasing it. But that is the intention of many sanctions, to force a country into a corner and provoke a violent response. It works with animals and it works with humans. And how convenient: once the dog, having been cornered into a defensive position, bites back, then it creates a justifiable retaliation by those who cornered it.
How to stop these trends? Beyond ensuring that our economic systems are less abusive, that we’re providing sufficient care for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and that we’re helping to integrate the isolated within our society (from James Holmes to Wade Michael Page), we must make anti-bullying a mainstream message, from our high school hallways to our foreign policy practices. We must build on efforts like U.S. Congressman Honda’s recently founded Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus. And we must be intentional about building social capital in our communities as if our lives depended on it - because they do.
Shank is an adjunct professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.