|Dr. Hasan Asif & Dr. Aza Mantashashvili
America has been celebrated as, “The Land of Freedom” and rightly so! Ellis Island still stands proudly facing the sea, reminding countless visitors and commuters every day how Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had opened its doors to millions of Europeans running from the horrors of wars! Since then, the warm hospitality of this generous land has embraced layers of Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Latinos, and so on. Name any ethnicity from anywhere on the world map and you will find its town in the United States. Starting as workers at SevenEleven, new immigrants in one generation have found themselves running huge chunks of franchises sending their kids to the best colleges and producing doctors and MBAs out of them. Following the American dream!
But increasingly a dark, malevolent cloud looms over the horizon, casting a sombre shadow in the form of gun-related violence. America has many failings: senseless wars driven by the military-industrial complex, growing income inequality, violence against the blacks, and bitter racism still lurking in many parts of the South, but nothing makes one more hopeless than the evil of gun violence -especially with its rising footprint across college campuses and elementary schools. What immigrants looked for was a bright future for their children. But what is the definition of the future and dreams with mounting fears of their lives?
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Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals a stark contrast between the United States, with a firearm-related death rate of 14.6 per 100,000 population in 2019, and countries such as Canada, Japan, and Western Europe, which have often less than one fi rearm related death per 100,000 population. The Small Arms Survey, a global research endeavor, paints an equally grim picture, pointing out that the U.S. stands on top with the highest firearm-related homicide rates among affluent countries—an estimated 30 times higher than the average of its prosperous peers. This is akin to the statistics from those countries facing civil wars like Iraq or Syria.
But before rushing to quick judgments, or generalizations of all sorts, it is vitally important to recognize that a plethora of factors, often seemingly contradictory, weave the intricate tapestry of gun violence in the United States. These range from the abundant availability of firearms, cultural attitudes of a nation made of immigrants, a complex mosaic of gun laws, powers of different lobbies, lurking civil war era right of citizens to bear arms making a hash of the concepts of a 21st-century state, broken demise of traditional nuclear family, broken homes, single parents, abuse of hormones, gender confusions and other complex societal threads. Tackling this issue requires a comprehensive, thoughtful approach that considers these intertwining factors before we embark upon creating strategies for prevention and reduction.
While comparing gun violence rates across nations can be a labyrinthine task due to differences in data collection, definitions, and reporting practices, a consistent narrative emerges from multiple studies and data sources: the United States grapples with higher rates of gun-related violence than many other nations on the world stage.
In the intricate fabric of human experience, family connections, love, and belonging are interwoven, offering solace and sustenance in the face of life’s myriad challenges. Yet, for some, less fortunate than others, these threads begin to unravel, leading to isolation, despair, and ultimately self-destruction or violence against others. The mass shootings that have plagued America in recent years are a chilling manifestation of this frayed social fabric, leaving behind shattered lives and anguished hearts.
The factors that provoke this tragic transformation are as varied and complex as the individuals themselves. Mental health issues, for instance, can burden the lives of many, negatively impacting even the most resilient spirits. Psychotropic medications, intended to alleviate their suffering, may instead worsen the turmoil within, distorting their perceptions of reality and fuelling their descent into darkness.
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Technology, despite connecting us across vast distances, can paradoxically exacerbate feelings of isolation. College and career transitions while offering hope can become treacherous waters that wash away familiar anchors of friendship and community. Family life, a blessing for most, can also impact in the development of essential social skills and the ability to forge meaningful bonds. Bullying and peer victimization may offer jokes for tv screens but leave emotional scars. Introversion and distinct personality traits can present unique challenges in the quest for friendship and connection. Physical and cognitive disabilities may erect unseen barriers that hinder the journey toward social integration. And goes without saying that the economic burdens, of living from cheque to cheque, constrain opportunities for social engagement.
As we strive to understand the phenomenon of mass shootings in America, it is essential to consider the intricate interplay of individual, social, and environmental factors that shape the lives and actions of these tragic figures. By recognizing and addressing the multifaceted nature of this problem, we can begin to mend the threads of isolation and despair, creating a new narrative of connection, healing, and hope.
Our typical mass shooter often lurks in the shadows, characterized by a disturbing sense of isolation and disconnection – a detachment eerily similar to the scenario Michael Levin from Tufts University described concerning the fate of cells in the human body that become disconnected from stabilizing feedback loops and their regulatory influences.
In a serendipitous moment, Dr. Pirzada, Editor of Global Village Space, called me while I was watching Michael Levin’s presentation on cell regeneration and regulatory mechanisms. Dr. Pirzada, a long-time friend from my college days, asked for my thoughts on the potential causes of mass shootings in America. And suddenly Levin’s presentation, his question, and the regulatory feedback loop mechanism all converged in a single epiphany. As promised, I began to write, exploring the similarities between these two seemingly unrelated phenomena: one rooted in cell biology and regulation by the body’s stabilizing systems, the other in the lives of vulnerable adolescents and adults who, victimized by disconnection, unleash their fury on those they perceive as estranged.
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Drawing a metaphorical comparison between mass shootings in America and rogue cells becoming cancerous, as described in Michael Levin’s research, sheds light on the issue from a unique perspective. According to Dr. Levin’s latest research from Tufts, cells within a zygote are continuously influenced by a bioelectric field, maintained by the movement of ions across gap junctions. For the zygote to develop normally, it is crucial that all cells interact with each other and the field they collectively create, exemplifying their cooperative existence. As long as they remain an integral part of the whole, they flourish alongside it. However, cells that fail to engage in this harmonious dance often turn rogue, proliferating in response to their own internal demands. When individual needs supersede the collective, disruptions in the form of aberrant cell growth may occur. In some other cases, they may initiate an apoptotic response resulting in their own demise. Just like the cells losing communication with other cells resulting in a lack of feedback loop in the organ they serve to turn rogue and destructive for themselves and the body as a whole; mass shooters experience a breakdown in social connections, leading to isolation and disregard for others’ well-being.
Cancerous cells exhibit uncontrolled growth, disrupting organ function. Similarly, mass shooters may exhibit psychological dysregulation and social maladjustment, resulting in harmful behaviours. Early intervention is crucial in treating cancer and preventing mass shootings. Identifying at-risk individuals and addressing social, environmental, and psychological factors can help avert these incidents. Both, cancerous cell development and mass shootings involve a complex interplay of various factors. In cancer, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors contribute to its development. In mass shootings, individual, social, and environmental factors shape the perpetrator’s behaviour.
A systemic approach is essential: Effective cancer treatments often require multiple therapies, while addressing mass shootings necessitates considering individual, social, and environmental factors, as well as policy and legislative measures.
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Comparing mass shootings and rogue cells serves as a metaphorical framework, highlighting the importance of the multifactorial nature of the challenge, early intervention, and need for a holistic systemic approach. However, this is a metaphorical comparison, not a direct scientific equivalence. But it nevertheless does highlight an important point that is essential to understand for the well-being and safety of our communities: the strength of our society lies in the interconnectedness and mutual support that fosters a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Without this cohesive social foundation, we risk perpetuating a cycle of disconnection, alienation, and violence that undermines the very fabric of our collective existence.
Hasan Asif, MD, founder and medical director of the Brain Wellness Center, is a board-certified psychiatrist who has been in private practice for nearly two decades. As a mental health wellness physician, Dr. Asif offers comprehensive care to patients in Bronxville.
Aza Mantashashvili, MD, MMHC, Neuro-psychotherapist 1997 graduated from Tbilisi State Medical University. Founder and director of Brain wellness center-Georgia 2016 and founder and director of Brain wellness- Manhattan 2023.