To prevent future violence, we need to learn what’s in us | Whale’s Tales

Fresh pools of blood, tears and fury.

If past is prologue to the future, we are already on the way to forgetting the latest spasms of violence that have rocked and degraded our nation.

Uvalde, Texas. Buffalo, New York.

There will be more.

Clearly, we have to do something. But what? We can make external changes to law creating reasonable gun regulations that the late Justice Antonin Scalia wrote about in the Heller decision. But those would only be a thin bandage over the surface of an enormous human problem.

The deeper issue is this: how and why does our society keep churning out misfits who commit these abominable acts? People cut entirely loose from any moorings?

The killers were all young once. How can we keep our kids from becoming them?

As I recall, at one time our high schools taught a subject called ethics, basic right and wrong, answering the question of how one should behave as a member of society.

Old-timers used to talk about something they called the moral law. That is, the now controversial idea that some principles and values apply universally across cultures. And that these values are in us as members of the human race.

“Two things that fill me with wonder,” said the 18th Century German Philosopher Immanuel Kant. “The starry heavens above, and the moral law within.”

To modern minds, a quaint notion.

As part of the argument he makes in The Abolition of Man, the Oxford Don and Christian writer C.S Lewis tracks the moral law through various cultures. Turns out that some form of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is common to all societies. So, among others, are loyalty to family, bravery and the need for cooperation.

Okay, that’s bookish.

But here’s my twist. I think it’s time we give greater attention to the deep meaning of that old Greek phrase: “Know thyself.” It would teach us about our flash points, acquaint us with how we handle frustration, disappointment, anger.

When I look around, I see too many people who grow up to be inadequate containers for their own anger, and are, as a consequence, capable of any extreme.

Take two guys heading down Interstate 5. One cuts off the other, and it’s “game on.” All sense goes out the window. The two are all fury, bereft of any rational judgement. And in the consequent car smash, people may die. Happens every day.

But what if one of the drivers should find in himself a moment to ask, “Wait a minute, what am I doing here?” and then pull of the road?

What if a woman who has lifted a hand to her child should find in herself that one brief moment of clarity to ask the same question?

Perhaps we cannot inculcate in young people this habit of self-reflection in the heat of the moment. And of course, many just won’t give a damn. But even if a few learn how and care enough to apply it, that split second of reflection could save lives.

We need to cultivate the ability to see ourselves from outside for a moment.

”Every man needs to get downwind of himself from time to time,” said comedian Jeff Allen.

This is hard stuff, but every fresh day presents us with chances to apply it.

Scapegoating is another serious issue. I see this problem playing a key role in many mass shootings, and I believe we pay it too little attention.

Guy fired from a job, blames everyone but himself, goes back and blows people away.

When Germany lost the first World War, it blamed the Jews, screaming, “they stabbed us in the back!” What were the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 but scapegoating? It was the planners and hijackers blaming the West for all the ills of their own failed societies.

Finally, I believe “knowing thyself” means becoming aware of the consequences of making sweeping generalizations about entire classes of people that in no way take into account the complexity and variety of human lives and beliefs. It is much easier to harm others, as the philosopher Martin Buber once wrote, if we make them an “it,” rather than a “thou.”

I see all of these shortcomings as operative in the dulling or eradication of the basic norms that once helped bind us together.

Yeah, you could call me naive and a bit of a Pollyanna for even hoping education in these issues would do much good.

But at the same time, I continue to believe that there are enough good people out there that recognizing and battling the dark tendencies in themselves could make a difference — especially if we learn to do it in our younger years.

Robert Whale can be reached at