For most Americans, watching the Las Vegas massacre unfold was horrifying and surreal. For me, however, it felt familiar. Rapid gunfire. Mass panic. Making the potentially life-or-death decision between running or taking cover.
On several occasions, I’ve found myself in similar situations. I have been living and working in war zones for the past eight years. The Vegas shooting bore a remarkable resemblance to war’s banal realities.
The danger of war is not limited to bombs and direct combat, as we often imagine. War’s inevitable side effects- lawlessness, chaos, the proliferation of automatic guns- can result in even more substantial insecurity. As a result, an estimated 80-90% of casualties in war are civilians- ordinary mothers, husbands and children. As a former UN Peacekeeping Operation commander explained, “It is now more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in modern conflicts.”
Why is this comparison relevant in the wake of tragedy? Because millions of Americans are at risk of experiencing similar tragedy in the not-so-distant future.
At this point, it is difficult to deny that there is a legitimate risk of war with North Korea. Top psychiatrists are warning that Trump is “extremely dangerous” and could “order missiles fired at a nation because of his…personal distress.” While there are a variety of possible scenarios, attacks on American soil are likely, and experts warn that escalation into world war is a real possibility.
By comparison: if a credible authority had told Las Vegas concert-goers that a mass shooting might occur, most of them would have undoubtedly left the venue. Yet, most Americans are going about their daily lives as if nothing is amiss. There is more chatter about kneeling than nuclear bombs. Why?
It seems to be a universal human phenomenon: no one thinks that their neighborhood will become a war zone until they hear the first gunshots. I’ve met dozens of Syrian lawyers, doctors and business executives who are now destitute because they didn’t take measures to protect themselves. During the Sri Lankan civil war, an activist told me he wasn’t worried about his safety because he “had been fine so far.” He disappeared the next day. A South Sudanese tribal chief once told me his community was safe because “God would protect them.” A few weeks later, his town was burned to the ground.
This phenomenon: can be attributed to four main causes:
1. Boiled frogs. According to a popular allegory, if you throw a frog into a pot of boiling water, its survival instinct kicks in, and it will jump out immediately, saving itself. However, if you put the frog in some nice cool water and then slowly turn up the heat, the frog will sit back, relax, and you’ll end up with frog soup.
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Likewise, human beings’ survival instincts kick in with sudden disasters (such as hurricanes), but we often fail to notice equally dangerous situations when the level of risk has escalated gradually- such as in the lead up to armed conflict. As psychologist Robert Ornstein and Biologist Paul Ehlrich explain, “the human brain operates in the same general way as that of a frog, but frogs are a long way from building thermonuclear weapons.”
2. Denial: even if we intellectually acknowledge the possibility of war, we rarely conceptualize the ground reality. Our imaginations are clouded by the sanitized portrayals we see on TV. To put it bluntly: the nightly news doesn’t show images of the dead, dismembered children that litter the street in conflict zones.
3. A sort of a meta-level bystander effect: when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, we are unsure how to react, so observe other people’s behavior for guidance. Unfortunately, in emergencies, everyone else does the same thing, so we all end up just looking around at each other, and nobody actually does anything.
4. Obedience. Stanley Milligram’s landmark obedience experiments showed that about 2/3 of ordinary Americans would electrocute an innocent person rather than disobey authority. Right now, we are continuing to obey authority despite the risk to our own lives. We may rant, protest and even write testy articles (like this one) - but all of these actions are within the confines of political and social normality, and none of them provide sufficient political pressure to extract the nuclear football from Trump’s hands.
What to Do?
In order to extricate ourselves from the brink of nuclear war, we are going to have to muster the courage to engage in collective acts of disobedience that exert real political pressure on politicians to remove Trump immediately. A general strike would be a fantastic start.
Every person - regardless of political affiliation, race or religion - should be part of such a movement. It is in the interest of every person who cares about their family’s safety, or who wants to prevent mass suffering and death.
The good news is that war with North Korea is not inevitable- at least not yet. We can’t prevent hurricanes, and we can’t go back in time to prevent the Las Vegas shooting. But we still have the power to prevent another tragedy of potentially astronomical proportions.