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The threat of the 'loner'

  • (M. RYDER / Tribune Media Services)

In seeking to find out what led to the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard, we must ask the right questions. What features of American society make us more prone to mass homicides? Many will focus on the availability of guns. Others will note that mass homicides are overwhelmingly committed by men, or comment on the role that untreated mental illness can play. We must also examine the role of social isolation: It can be a tripwire for violence and mask our ability as a society to see violence coming.

Americans have always had dueling commitments, both in our national mythology and in our everyday lives, to rugged individualism and to civic engagement. We want people to stand alone, but we also want to band together.

Unfortunately, our zest for independence can become something far different: toxic social isolation. And our society doesn't do well at bringing vulnerable people at our margins back into the fold. It's not just for their sake that we should do so, however, but for our own.

In a national sample of Americans that we surveyed annually in collaboration with the Gallup organization, respondents were asked, “Who do you spend free time with?” and “Who do you discuss important issues with?”

The study, published last year, found that U.S. residents identify an average of 4.4 close social contacts. On average, people identified the following contacts: 2.2 friends, 0.76 spouses, 0.28 siblings, 0.44 co-workers and 0.3 neighbors.

At one extreme, 5 percent of Americans had eight such people with whom they were socially intimate. But at the other end of the spectrum, 8 percent of Americans reported having no one with whom they could talk about personal matters or spend free time. (This percentage has stayed relatively constant over time, despite the advent of the Internet and the increase in online and mobile interactions, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.) This isolated minority often suffers in silence.

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