Mass Shootings and U.S. Politeness: Does 'Minding Your Own Business' Have Deadly Consequences?

The explanation behind U.S. shooting attacks may have more to do with the lost sense of community than with guns per capita.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
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This file image from video posted on YouTube shows Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter.
This file image from video posted on YouTube shows Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter. Credit: AP
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Yet again, a spate of highly publicized mass murders in the U.S. has lawmakers and citizens scratching their heads. America has the highest rate of guns per capita in the world and our gun-related homicide rate is 15 times higher than average for a wealthy developed nation.

The big question, the one nobody seems to be able to answer, is: why?

It’s too easy to simply argue that only stricter gun control laws, or forced institutionalization of the mentally ill would solve this problem. Not only is it too easy, it might not even be true. The data is inconclusive as to whether stricter gun control would reduce homicide rates. There are strong correlations between increases in gun ownership and homicide rates but a Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy note argued that stricter gun control would not reduce deaths or rates based on international comparisons.

Yet, as President Obama lamented, no other country endures school shootings and mass murder so regularly. A mystery wrapped in an enigma indeed.

There might be a social explanation for America’s woes.

The U.S. has been described as a melting pot since its inception. It is a nation of immigrants. Almost every American citizen has roots somewhere other than America. The oldest communities in the U.S. are at most a couple of centuries old. But by and large, Americans are mobile and transient. Our villages, towns, and cities are relatively new and ever-changing. Very often, residents do not have strong ties to their communities.

In almost every other country in the world, communities have rich and even ancient histories. Neighbors and families share history and experiences that go back generations. Families tell the same legends and folklore as one another, they even have the same superstitions for the same reasons. It’s inevitable that people who live in these small neighborhoods and big metropolis areas have deep ties and relationships that span decades or even centuries. Even if people don’t have personal friendships with one another, they share so much common history and experiences that a close relationship can’t be very far away. It stands to reason that people in these communities have a personal stake in the success and welfare of others in their milieu.

Clearly not every community lives up to this lofty, idealistic version of interconnectivity. But even without it, the presence of long, deep relationships in a particular region simply means that there are fewer people without strong ties to others in their vicinity.

It’s possible that when people feel connected to others, they take an almost nosy interest in the affairs of their friends, neighbors and colleagues. When people are struggling with mental illness or display dangerous tendencies, there is a community ready, willing, and able to care for their ailing friend. Potential murderers and shooters are given the care that they need before it’s too late because others take an interest in their lives.

Americans are notorious for minding their own business. It’s even considered a virtue in most American communities. But it could be that everyone minds their own business, it’s just that everyone has a different definition of “your own business.” To people in loosely connected communities, the extent of “your own business” is one’s own business, literally. Even meddling in family affairs is considered taboo and worthy of condemnation. Is it any wonder that we don’t even pay attention to all the warning signs before people snap? How can we intervene if we don’t even care?

Perhaps if we tried to stimulate and even simulate the kind of relationships found in older, wiser, more established towns and cities, we would butt into our neighbors’ business more often. We can use a definition of "your own business" that is much more expansive and take an active interest in more people. But we won’t meddle or pry because we are gossiping or simply curious for juicy information. We get involved in the lives of others because we care.

From a Jewish perspective, this is the ideal of “kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh” - all of Israel are guarantors for one another. The Jewish people share common ancestry, traditions, foibles, language, legends, superstitions, culture, religion - obviously, and so much more. We have a baseline commonality that can be instantly ignited. Meeting a stranger and discovering they are a fellow Jew can spark a friendship immediately. Our deep, ancient ties to each other are the guarantors that we will be guarantors for one another.

True, it may be impossible to artificially create ‘arvut’ between virtual strangers with little commonality. But Americans can choose to cultivate relationships and we can choose to act as if we have deeper ties to one another as an act of kindness. If we all take responsibility for one another and watch out for our friends, neighbors, and anyone else we encounter, it’s a near-certainty that we could prevent potential tragedy and give people the help and love that they need to live a life of confidence, pride, and success.

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