I think it has been plausibly demonstrated that people who witness the violent and traumatic death of other people may experience adverse psychological consequences as a result.
It’s hard to interpret the significance of that in the present era, or more so in the case of my own life. Ignoring early childhood, I don’t think I witnessed any violence which produced a deep psychological effect until 2001-09-11. People have subsequently told me that they don’t believe me, but this was my first day of university classes at the University of British Columbia. I don’t remember what woke me up, but I walked down to the end of the hall and saw World Trade Center CNN footage, went to the dining hall for breakfast and saw more of the same, and then went to my first ever university class where we discussed what happened, who might be responsible, and what American response might be justified.
In terms of personal experiences, there have been other cases where mass violence reported through mass media could have involved friends of mine.
I also once saw a man crushed to death in front of me by collapsing scaffolding, no more than 50 metres from where I stood.
Still, I think the phenomenon of the violence-induced trauma affecting many people alive today is a broader issue. I was born in 1983, and have never lived in a time when nuclear war wasn’t a plausible possibility. I have seen personal and media responses to dozens of acts of political violence, from professors discussing thwarted bomb plots in Toronto to dear friends mourning from mass shootings near their homes. One close friend of mine, whose wedding I attended, decided to propose because of how close their partner came to dying in the London bus/tube bombings of 2005/07/07.
Aside from that, I have been traumatized by potential violence. I have read dozens of books about the history of nuclear weapons, great power war, the risks of accidental or unauthorized nuclear launch, etc. I certainly cannot comment about whether the terror and helpless feelings associated with these possibilities have anything to do with the experiences of people who have seen violence first-hand and directly. I do think there is a better-than-even chance that nuclear weapons will be used in war again during my life, and some of these possibilities and their ramifications impress themselves on me every day.
Mass shootings have been traumatizing: Columbine when I was 16; the attack on a Norwegian summer camp when I was 28; the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting when I was 29; Orlando just weeks ago.
I don’t believe that humans were divinely created. We’re just long-term consequences of physics and chemistry. Not long ago in evolutionary time no single human was capable of killing a lot of other primates, even if the aggressor was strong and intent on murder. Perhaps more importantly from a psychological perspective, none of us had any idea about what was going on 1,000 km away, much less across the world.
My intention here is not to comment on political violence or to suggest how we ought to deal with it. If anything, my intent is to suggest that our biological makeup and history do not prepare us for a world with accurate rifles and nuclear weapons, and to raise the question of whether people educated about the world wars and other modern conflicts, and who have also been exposed across their lives to graphic and traumatizing coverage of acts of political violence, can reasonably expect to not be traumatized in a way that would be unfamiliar to most of our human ancestors across tens or hundreds of thousands of years.
And if we’re all traumatized, what do we do now?