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(PHOTO: CHARLES KRUPA/AP)

Why Do We Hurt Each Other?

• April 15, 2013 • 3:09 PM

(PHOTO: CHARLES KRUPA/AP)

Struggling to understand the Boston Marathon explosions.

Shortly after reports started coming out—from professional journalists and citizen reporters alike—that two explosions had gone off in downtown Boston this afternoon near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon and one of the most high-profile road-racing events anywhere in the world, my friend and former colleague, Max Fisher, now the foreign affairs blogger for The Washington Post, tweeted out a message from his sister, a runner, that got me thinking.

“I have been running long distance events for many years and every time I go by a crowd I get that thought, someone could hurt me right now, this is just such a vulnerable position,” she wrote.

I get that thought a lot.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a little frightened by dark streets or unfamiliar places. When my mother told me about the neighborhood friend of hers who had to hold an intruder—drunk and shirtless, he broke through her basement window in the middle of the night before ascending the stairs toward her bedroom—at gunpoint until the cops showed up, I added my own home, at least when empty except for myself, to the list of scary places. And even in broad daylight, at least since that time I was mugged on the streets of Washington, D.C., at 6 p.m. by three men, I’m not particularly fond of passing someone I don’t already know on the sidewalk.

Some might say I’m not a very trusting person. But you guys haven’t given me a lot of reason to be. We hurt each other, all the time. The biggest predator of humans? Other humans.

Since the explosions were first reported, I haven’t been able to turn myself away from Twitter. It’s important to remember, as Charlie Pierce was quick to point out, that “nobody knows anything yet.” (And credit to Jake Tapper for noting, on CNN, that initial reports are almost always wrong—or at least not fully right.) Small details are starting to be verified (or at least corroborated) as the afternoon wears on—a couple dead, spectators near the finish line giving up their belts to staunch the flow of blood from missing limbs, dozens injured, the first explosion was probably a small homemade bomb placed in a trash can—but I’m interested in the bigger details. The small details will get sorted out, as they always do; the sidewalks will be cleaned; and we will mourn, as we should.

But just as many hoped the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting that left 26 dead in Newtown, Connecticut, would be a catalyst for a larger discussion about gun violence, I’m left sitting here wondering how things like this happen in the first place. (Citing a “special significance” to the fact that the number of people killed in Newtown matched the number of miles in a marathon, Boston Athletic Association president Joanne Flaminio announced last week that the city would honor the victims with a special mile marker—the city’s seal surrounded by 26 stars, one commemorating each life lost—at the end of the race’s 26th mile. Eight people from the community participated in the race, while a family from Newtown sat in the VIP section near the finish line. Reports say none were injured.)

Set aside the possibility of a police scan of every garbage can within a 10-mile radius of upcoming major events. Or the idea that we can put an end to violence by adding more metal detectors to the entrances of public buildings or scanners to our nation’s airports. (As far as I know, my muggers in D.C. didn’t have a knife or a gun, nothing that could have been taken or confiscated; a surprise attack and a couple of big boots to the back of the head is enough to convince just about anyone to give up his or her wallet.) We’re too often focused on technological solutions to stopping individual acts of crime, instead of attempting to identify—and fix—underlying societal problems. I want to know this: Why do we hurt each other?

It’s not a new question, of course. In fact, it’s a question with more answers to it than any other I can think of right now (though, admittedly, it’s hard to think of much else at the moment), a question that will be answered over and over again. It’s a question that experts across all disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences are studying—historians, criminologists, psychologists, and more—and we’ll continue to showcase their latest research and findings every day here at Pacific Standard as we seek to shed light on (and, when possible, propose solutions for) society’s biggest problems. And it’s a question that requires lots of answers, because, let’s not forget, all violence is not equal. Our courts make that clear. A violent action is the result of a complex cocktail of circumstances, and can be influenced by mental illness, drugs, feelings of revenge or retribution—or something else entirely.

Given all of that, physicists will probably reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity long before social scientists are able to boil down the nature of violence into a couple of neat takeaways—but I thought I would try by starting with a quick survey of some of the things we know we know. Because today, I need some answers.

ALCOHOL AND VIOLENCE
More than probably anything else, alcohol has been closely tied to violence. Not only are people who consume alcohol more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior, but people who are the victims of violence are more likely to consume alcohol in excessive amounts. That’s true, too, for children and young adults. A report released in the U.K. found that “around half of violent crimes [in 2004] were thought to be committed while under the influence,” according to The Guardian. And almost 25 percent of assaults took place in or close to bars and pubs.

DESENSITIZATION AND VIOLENCE
Even if you’ve never fought in a war, you know the sound an automatic weapon makes. I suspect you would even be able to figure out how to load and shoot one if the need arose. Numerous studies—conducted by the Surgeon General, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institutes of Health, and most often cited by those making the case that violent video games are damaging our fragile children—have shown that a desensitization to violence (by the time a child in the United States reaches the age of 18, he or she will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence on television or in the movies, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics) makes us perceive actual violence as more acceptable.

DETACHMENT AND VIOLENCE
We know this instinctively—perhaps because almost all of the recent media-covered perpetrators of violence (the James Holmeses and Adam Lanzas) fit the stereotype—but studies confirm that those who are marginalized or isolated or otherwise without strong social connections tend to be more violent. When we don’t share ties to others, we care less about their well-being. When we exist as part of a strong social network or community, aggressive thoughts and actions are reduced.

GENETICS AND VIOLENCE
Several studies have tied biological factors to aggressive behavior. A team at the University of North Carolina made headlines back in 2008 when their research found that people with a specific variation of the MAOA gene were far more likely than others to participate in criminal activity. “I don’t want to say it is a crime gene, but one percent of people have it and scored very high in violence and delinquency,” Guang Guo, the sociology professor who led the study, told Reuters. Guo was hesitant to call it a crime gene, because it’s generally understood that neither biological or sociological factors alone can be directly linked to aggressive behavior.

I can go on. There are a lot of studies about the psychology of violence, all of them attempting to push our understanding forward just a little bit further. But no matter how many of them I’ve read—both prior to this afternoon and since the bombing—I keep coming away with the same old adage, a line that has been widely adopted, it seems, by the family therapy crowd: Hurt people hurt people. And any feeling that is felt strongly enough will find a way to be shared—whether we want it to be or not.

It seems too simple—and it is. But for right now, that’s all I need.

The note that Max Fisher posted by his sister, the runner? It ends like this: “Then you remember that marathons are a time of unity and celebration and no one would do that. I have five friends running the Boston right now. I hate having to text them anything but congratulations.”

Nicholas Jackson
Nicholas Jackson is the digital director of Pacific Standard. The former digital editorial director at Outside, he has also worked for The Atlantic, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Texas Monthly, Slate, and other publications, both online and in print. Reach him at njackson@psmag.com. Follow him on Twitter @nbj914.

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