The on-campus shooting at the Clayton Station apartments of a person reported to be a relative of a Clayton State student was initially the week’s most shocking news, but before we had time to process that horror, our minds continued reeling from the news of the bombings and shootings in France. Shooting deaths occur in the Atlanta region frequently, but rarely happen in our backyard. Terrorism exists the world over, but rarely occurs in restaurants and sports stadiums in major European cities. Proximity and familiarity evoke fear. We think: it could have been us or a loved one! France is far away, but the stress and sadness are palpable because of the large numbers of victims involved. Innocents are dead for no apparent reason. Had we been there, we would have suffered. Actually, we are just as safe as we were a week ago, but some of our innocence was stolen and we’ll be more wary.
Interpersonal communication seeks to understand the causes of violence. It focuses on the violence that occurs in relationships, most often examining romantic relationships where emotions are often strongest. Emotions at their most powerful can force commonsense and reason to sit in the backseat of an out-of-control car fueled by passion and driven without regard for the rules of the road. But violence, as we all know too well, occurs in the workplace, between former friends, and in families. The answers about the causes of violence in relationships are rarely satisfying. Violence also occurs outside of relationships; these are acts perpetrated through a more abstract passion: religious zealotry, sociopathic personality, extreme nationalism, personal prejudice, and warfare. There seems to be no escaping it.
As we try to comprehend these senseless deaths, our anxiety shifts from the brain–which tries to rationalize things by surmising that the Clayton State shooting couldn’t happen to us because the victim probably died due to involvement with drugs or some other illegal activity we aren’t involved in–to the gut where we harden ourselves to the presumed out-of-our control fate that await us all. But our heightened anxiety is not simply the result of our fear of arbitrary outside forces; its roots are buried deeply in our subconscious, which recognizes that we too could be perpetrators of violence in the right–make that the wrong–circumstances. Both the spur of the moment passionate killings and the cold calculated murders are possibilities we can imagine in ourselves because we share a common humanity not only with the angels of mercy, but also with the devils of destruction.
Preventing violence is not easy. When we do not truly understand the causes of a problem, our fix will only be temporary. The starting point may be the recognition that “it could have been us” means that we could have been, given the right/wrong set of circumstances, either the victim or the perpetrator. While we like to cocoon ourselves in the safety of the thought that we and those we know are good people, we have to try to understand what goes wrong in all kinds of relationships. Common sense often helps us to recognize violence-prone people and avoid circumstances (or even our own actions) that escalate tensions, increasing the odds of violent actions, but reason and common sense may turn tail when we need them the most. Count to ten, count to a hundred, or take a long timeout when tensions escalate in a relationship. Alter the circumstances. A little planning can save a lot of regret. If reason and commonsense turn tail, wait until they find their way home. Then decide upon the wisdom of continuing that “discussion” in the same way. Consider whether the relationship should continue. Seek help if you fear being the victim; seek help if you fear being the perpetrator.