The slaughter in broad daylight of seven individuals on the streets of a busy Tokyo district on Sunday was shocking in the suddenness of the act, a feat as alien to Taiwanese as the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995. What is it that pushes an individual to commit such atrocities against his kin, that compels him to give physical form to madness?
Events such as Sunday’s may be rare, but they do happen — and not only in Japan, whose strict social mores have often been blamed for alienating young people to a combustible extent. The Columbine High School massacre of 1999 in the US, in which 12 students were killed, or the slaying 10 years earlier of 14 women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal are only two examples.
In these cases, the perpetrators had either been bullied at school or felt that society or a specific group — in the Montreal case, women — had rejected them. Even the Tokyo subway attack, launched by the Aum Shinrikyo religious group, which killed 12 people and injured hundreds, would not have happened had the sect’s leaders not been able to exploit a certain social malaise in members of all stripes, including scientists.
There is no sure inoculation against random acts of violence, especially as some of them are the product of mental illness upon which external events can have little or no bearing. But there are things we can do as a society to make it less likely that some individuals will not choose the path of violence to express their angst.
Schools and families must learn to accept difference and create environments that encourage individuals to develop in a manner consistent with their needs. Not all people are cut out to be elite professionals, nor do all children want to grow up to take over their parents’ business. More so in Asia, where the shadow of Confucianism has stigmatized individuals who do not fit the model and which in extreme cases has led to suicide or acts of irrationality.
Beyond this, society as a whole must avoid cultivating fear and despair, a general mood that like radioactive ashes settles on everybody and, in the extreme, could turn susceptible, fragile individuals into people who are a risk to themselves and others.
Wherever we turn, it seems that the end of the world is upon us. From global warming to earthquakes, the threat of war in Iran to looming global recession, record oil prices to the next pandemic, a never-ending “war” on terrorism to rising commodity prices — people are bombarded by a media chorus of imminent doom, and in the electronic age the chorus has become louder than ever.
The youth who slashed seven people to death in Tokyo on Sunday said he was “sick of living.” As police are still trying to find out the motives and reason behind the killings, it is too soon to tell whether mental illness or something else triggered his act. But for those who can be brought back from the edge, it behooves us to take a collective breath and reflect on a world in which people are animated by fear and despair, which can only lead into a constant battle for survival, an endless resistance against an external threat, real or imagined.
This is no way to live. It is insane and makes it likelier that similar acts will be committed in the future.