There is one thing the Christchurch mosque shootings, the Sri Lanka church bombings, the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, and the Charleston church massacre have in common: those heinous crimes were perpetrated by people who had somehow become convinced that those “other” people, their victims, were enemies who deserved to die. As we all search for answers to the many questions that naturally arise after such incidents, we should step back and consider how our own individual everyday actions help create the environments from which such perpetrators acquire their beliefs.

Sometimes mass atrocities occur following direct incitement to violence. The 1994 Rwandan genocide is a prime example. A group of ethnic Hutus openly encouraged other Hutus to kill Tutsis, who formed the minority population. In the vast majority of incidents, however, those who commit hate crimes are driven by views that have formed over long periods of time.

In our daily conversations within our families and narrow social circles, we often say things about racial, religious, political, and other groups that, although not intentionally malicious, can lead our friends and family members to become suspicious of other people. The vast majority of us do not act on those prejudices to cause harm to others, but when those suspicions morph into either fear or hatred, the effects can be quite as damaging. I am painfully aware of this because of a personal experience I had in my early twenties.     

I was offered an opportunity to attend university in the Soviet Union. Having rarely ventured outside of the remote Ghanaian village where I grew up, I knew almost nothing about the Soviet Union, and didn’t speak a word of Russian, although it would be the medium of instruction. When I began to gather information about the country, everything I learned was horrifying.

The Soviets, according to people I spoke with, were primarily interested in bringing young people from the Third World into their country to indoctrinate them, after which they would return home and help spread communism. I was told I would be spied on constantly by the Soviet authorities while there. That worried me greatly because I didn’t know exactly what they would be looking for, and what the consequences would be if I did something they didn’t like. Due to the many fears I had, I was seriously tempted to forgo the opportunity but I had no other choices so I took it.

One afternoon, a few days after arrival in Kiev, where I would attend language school for a year, a young Soviet gentleman, who appeared to be in his late teens, knocked on my dormitory room door. He carried a suitcase and he gestured to be allowed into the room. I couldn’t communicate with him because of the language barrier, but I instantly assumed he was the spy I had been warned about.

Over the next few months, I steadfastly refused to have anything to do with him, even though he frequently tried to engage me in conversation. Based on what I heard in Ghana, I had decided that all Soviets, whether they were ordinary citizens or members of the intelligence services, were people I should never trust. Simply making eye contact with my roommate caused me to shiver from fear.

A series of events occurred to ultimately make me realize that my suspicions of him were entirely wrong. He turned out to be a genuinely good person who had been assigned to help me acclimate to my new environment. It was a role he fulfilled with genuine enthusiasm after I let my guard down. He helped me every day with my homework and accompanied me everywhere I went. That made my life a lot easier than that of my fellow foreign students, who were not as lucky to have that kind of a gentle soul helping them navigate the difficult landscape.

As a result of that pleasant surprise, I became a lot more open-minded in my dealings with the broader society. I got a lot closer to the people than I would have otherwise. Through those interactions, I realized that much of what I had heard earlier from people in Ghana was largely untrue. The everyday people I met during my six-year stay there were no different from people I knew in Ghana, and in the places I have lived since.

I consider what my roommate’s character taught me to be the best education I received in the Soviet Union. Because of him, I look at the world through a completely different lens now. I think of people as individuals, rather than as members of a particular racial, religious, or other group who should be related to or treated a certain way based on their associations.

The people who carried out the bombings in Sri Lanka were reportedly Muslims who took the Christchurch shootings as an attack on their religion, and were indiscriminately seeking revenge against Christians. In both incidents, a deep hatred for others was the catalyst. Those “others,” sadly, were innocent women, children, and men.

Seeing bloodied victims or the wailing relatives of the dead after such attacks often make me think about my initial relationship with my roommate. I treated him poorly because of fear, inspired by people who knew little about the Soviet Union and its citizens, and were merely repeating things they had heard elsewhere. I have since learned to be extra careful in the expression of my opinions about other people, and also, to take things I hear with some degree of skepticism.