We were again reminded this week that ignorance can breed misunderstanding and occasionally violence.
We were deeply saddened by the senseless murder of five police officers in Dallas. The young shooter, an African-American, claimed outrage over several earlier shootings of black men by police officers elsewhere. He had no known connections to these men, nor to the police officers he shot.
His motive was based on a logical fallacy to which too many people fall prey.
The human brain is hard-wired to simplify the world to make sense of it. Our brains use schematic reasoning, which creates neural pathways to form associations between certain objects or concepts we perceive to be related. Unfortunately, this natural and generally highly essential process can lead people to group mental concepts together in bizarre oversimplifications.
One example is grouping other humans together into classifications based on physical or other characteristics and then mentally assigning certain traits to the entire group without recognizing important differences among the individuals.
The result is a stereotype. Thinking in stereotypes often leads to poor decision-making. At worst, it descends into misguided tribalism and even violence.
The shooter, Micah Johnson, exhibited both last week. He perceived some identity between himself and men he had never met purely because they were also African-American. He also attributed malice to an entire occupation and to most white people. He then inflicted deadly violence upon innocent people who had no relation to those he perceived to be wrongdoers.
His act was evil, and we do not condone the malicious actions of any individual. It is as inexcusable to us for a police officer to use excessive force or wrongfully kill another person as it is for any civilian to inflict violence on another. Anyone guilty of wrongdoing should be held accountable for their own actions.
Policing is a necessary function of government to uphold the rule of law, protect people and property rights, and ensure that peaceful and productive exchanges can occur in an orderly society comprised of free individuals. We applaud those enrolled in this noble cause and we believe and hope that most officers discharge their duties without bias or ill intent.
We also don’t believe that “a few bad apples spoils the bunch.” That kind of thinking enshrines the primitive tendency of the human mind to create stereotypes. Unfortunately, some individuals break laws and hurt others, but their actions should carry no implications for other folks who might share an occupation or superficial trait.
We are all individuals with unique talents, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses. Fortunately, it is possible to train our minds to overcome primitive stereotypes and to view each other with the individual dignity everyone deserves.
We’re continually disappointed by people in the media who perpetuate primitive notions on behalf of one perceived tribal group or another. We’ve seen much of that in recent days and years. Sensationalism is sadly the currency of the media, and many reporters and pundits tend to stoke those flames.
So, with some happiness and relief we note that the real statistics show senseless violence is on the decline around the world and has been for decades, even though we rarely hear that on TV. Homicide rates in the United States have fallen continuously since 1980. In fact, among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years.
According to international data collected by the Early Warning Project, the prevalence of mass killings has fallen to record lows over the past 20 years. Even rates of sexual assault and victimization of children have been in decline for decades. And armed conflicts between nations have become less frequent and less deadly.
It’s difficult to become aware of these facts without consulting the objective data, because the media doesn’t report on attacks that don’t happen or such trends. But the happy news is that, despite occasional tragedies like we saw last week, the world is safer than it has ever been.
To us this means that the bulk of humanity continues to overcome its most primitive and base instincts. More people today treat each other with dignity and value each other as individuals.
We hope these trends continue.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State Controller. Geoffrey Lawrence is Assistant Controller.