Friday, 20 July 2012

A Black Night In Denver

As I write this, news is emerging of a mass shooting at a cinema in Denver. Whenever details of such horror come my way I am both surprised and unsurprised. Surprised because I cannot conceive how any human being could want to end the life of another one, and yet unsurprised because I know much about our origins. In so many ways we remain primitive beings, very much in the infancy of our development. Don't be fooled by the technology and the culture and all that we have achieved; inside us remains what Christopher Hitchens once described as the "hallmarks of our lowly origins".
Whether we like it or not we have evolved from more primitive ancestors. Ancestors that routinely  expressed violence as a simple survival tool. We come from hunter gatherer stock, and our ancient ancestors would have been violent on a scale barely comprehensible to us. We existed in small bands, distrusted strangers, and rarely looked beyond close kin. For many years that was the order of things, but as civilisation developed, and as we started to live together in larger groups we found ways to adapt. We began to trade, we began to develop agriculture, which meant we often remained in one place for longer and were surrounded by larger groups of fellow humans. Under these circumstances it made no sense to kill or maim a rival, and over time we see our behaviour, for the most part, moderated and refined.
It may come as a great surprise to some of you to learn that we are, in fact, statistically less violent than at any time in our history. All the pointers indicate this; although in the information age it is forgivable to think otherwise. Yes, I know that violence persists, but it's nowhere near the levels it once stood. Yet within us all remains those features that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce, a violent survival instinct that, whether we are comfortable to admit or not, played a huge part in ensuring that you and I are here to read this. Which is why when I hear cases like Denver I mourn in the knowledge that such instances are isolated and rare. From time to time our deep rooted instincts are going to surface. We all have the capacity for violence; we mostly manage to curb it and listen to those better voices in our head. That's the way mankind appears to be going, so don't be too despondent when we hear the occasional anomaly. The overall trend is in the right direction. That said, clearly our thoughts need to be with the bereaved and those that will survive this terrible ordeal. They will have experienced something nobody should have to and the trauma will run deep. At the end of the day none of us can legislate for the behaviour of other people. We can only take account for our own actions and seek to be better people, wiser people, kinder and warmer people. That's what I'm aiming for. Perhaps we should all do the same?

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