December 16, 2012 2 Comments
These days, I normally stay away from blogging about societal woes and stick to my core of technical subjects. But there are times when an issue illustrates a problem in our society with such clarity, I feel the need to
In we look at things objectively, the Sandy Hook massacre is an anomaly. While incidents like this are more prevalent than 30 years ago, they are still rare events. Sandy Hook is a horrific anomaly, as it reaches deep inside each of us to a place where the fear stifles our thinking, as nobody wants to think their children are in danger when they go to school.
When something horrific happens, we want a solution, preferably a fast solution. But rather than accept there are multiple ways to attack a problem, we glom onto the first solution that we see as sensible. We ignore the fact that our bias often dictates what is “sensible”. And we start looking for silver bullets, despite the fact silver bullets only kill werewolves and werewolves only exist in the dark corners of our imagination.
But werewolves sell, as the Twilight saga shows (and so do vampires, of course). We all would like to be able to find a beast with an Achilles heal that can be slain with a simple solution. Sandy Hook, and Adam Lanza, are not these mythical, easily identified beasts, however, so any quick solution is more likely to have as many negative consequences as positive outcomes.
Solving the Problem
Thus far, the solutions for this problem have centered around three supposed ills: guns in America, mental health coverage and parenting. While all of these sound good, we have to look at the implications and ensure we are solving the problem in a reasonable manner, both in its effects on liberty and costs, monetary and societal. I will cover each of these topics.
With guns, the belief is more control will solve the problem. But there are gun laws in Connecticut, which leads some to believe an outright gun ban in America is the solution.
Australia has been named as the sterling example of gun control’s effectiveness. People cite reductions in gun suicides and homicides. Examining the Australian statistics, the effect of gun banning has been most effective on suicides. The homicide numbers are down, but not enough to be statistically significant. So Australia is not the sterling example it is paraded to be when we look at homicides. In addition, the culture is different in Australia than it is in America. Even if Australia had statistically significant results, it might not work as effectively here.
We also have an issue with a pesky little thing we call the 2nd Amendment, which states the right to bear arms shall not be infringed. There is an acceptance of regulation in the Amendment, but regulations that ban bearing arms would not pass a Constitutional challenge.
One thing that cannot be argued is guns are very effective killing tools. It is much easier to aim at someone many feet away and pull a trigger than it is to get close enough to kill them with a knife. It is also much easier to kill many people, as it is harder to get close enough to disarm a person with a gun. We also have a psychological factor that perhaps if we keep our distance we won’t get shot, so we do not take the chance.
But if we focus on gun banning to stop another Sandy Hook, we ignore the real problem with guns. Madmen shooting up schools, malls and movie theaters comprise an extremely small portion of the gun homicides in America. The core of the gun problem exists in the inner city and is fueled largely by gang rivalries, drugs and societal unrest. Banning guns does nothing to solve these problems. And while we use the numbers to support stopping another Sandy Hook, the majority of us simply avoid the hot spots and live a very safe life.
Guns deaths are a symptom of a larger disease. We can alleviate the symptom through radical gun control measures, but it will not cure the disease. And disease finds a way to spread. As examples, think of ATM robberies, carjackings and armed robberies of convenience stores, all of which are far more common than Sandy Hook type incidents. A large reason why ATM robberies, carjackings and convenience store robberies are more common is the likelihood of engaging with an armed populace is very low. While a gun ban may reduce Sandy Hook type incidents, as the weapons were all legally obtained, it will also create opportunities for the spread of the larger disease.
We also have to take in account that without guns people still find a way. Adam Lanza killed 26 people with a few guns. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 using a bomb made of fertilizer and kerosene. Jim Jones killed 914 people by convincing them to drink cyanide laced grape kool aid. On 9/11, boxcutters were used to hijack planes, which were used to kill over 2,000 people. All far more horrific, and yet still anomalies.
I can agree with a change in gun policy in the United States, provided we do not trample on the 2nd Amendment (or bring the Amendment up to a vote to abolish it, if you feel that is a better solution). But I also think we have to look at the larger disease and stop tiptoeing around it because parts of the disease may fall on our sacred cows.
The next item on the list is mental health. There are those stating mental health coverage would solve the issue. While we can certainly advocate better mental health coverage and treating mental health diseases in a similar manner as other health concerns, the problem is not that simple.
The first problem is it is hard to single out mental health. We can certainly see that people have certain issues, but the question of whether the issue is enough to warrant treatment is a hard assessment, one which the average citizen is not qualified to make. Can you tell the difference between someone who is having a pity party and someone who is clinically depressed? Perhaps in extreme cases, but even the mild cases can lead to very radical circumstances.
Even trained professionals often have a problem diagnosing when something is a problem. My wife told me about a lady whose husband woke up one morning, reached over like he was getting his slippers, grabbed a gun and shot himself in the head in front of her. She was a trained mental health professional who realized he had some issues, but did not see them as suicidal issues.
So, do we assess everyone? Only people with issues? Only people with severe issues? Adam Lanza’s issues, as described, don’t sound like someone about to go off the deep end and shoot up a school, so this means you have to either assess everyone or at least anyone with any issues, no matter how small, which means nearly everyone. The majority of us will be found fine, even if we have issues, as life presents all of us with issues from time to time.
That leads to the second problem: expense. Now some may say we should not think of costs, but the reality is the bill has to be paid. Unlike most diseases, we don’t have a good grasp on mental illness. There are some illnesses we can medicate, but we don’t have a cure that is even remotely solid. And most of the “cures” we do have rely on the individual to have the discipline to keep up with his medication (using “his” here as most mass murderers are male). Since the medications have side effects, the mentally ill person will often skip meds when he feels good, thinking he will recognize when he is not feeling good. Unfortunately, the very organ that causes his disease is the organ making a decision whether or not he is ill.
The tough reality is even doing the most radical, and expensive, course may not stop these types of incidents from happening. Should we do more? Certainly.
The last area that has been slammed is bad parenting. Of the three, I see bad parenting, or the lack of parenting, as a problem closer to the disease. I am not convinced that bad parenting alone causes mentally ill adults to go on a killing spree, but it can certainly be a cause. I am not sure what to think with Adam Lanza, however, as I currently have low confidence in the reports.
The problem with focusing on parenting, however, is any push we have to protect society takes away parental rights. Worse, we end up with more parents as victims than we do with people who are saved from our actions. In addition, we often give passes to the parents who are the most likely to end up with kids in these situations because they fit another protected class of people. Instead, we focus on smaller groups that are easy political targets.
How did we get here
It is a rather simple formula. First, you have a media hungry for viewers. To get more, you either have to be first or the best. You also have a public hungrily looking for answers and willing to accept the first “reasonable” answer, or one that passes their filter. Add these together with the human desire to make sense of things and wrap bad things up quickly, and we have a knee jerk reaction.
Let’s look first at the media. The media is searching for content to pull people to their site. The money proposition is a bit different for different news organizations, but advertising revenue is the primary focus. More hits equals more money from ads. To get more hits, you have to be the first with the scoop or have the best coverage. It is often easier to “be the first”.
How do you scoop the other media sources? You cull the blogs and look for a story angle that will pull in viewers. How do you know the blogs are reporting valid information? You wait until you find it on more than one blog and then report it.
The problem with this formula is blogs often copy from other blogs, so you may really be talking one source. But the fact that you have multiple websites using that one source, most often without attributing it to the other blog, it appears as if you have multiple sources to confirm. This covers the media, as they can state they have properly vetted the story, but it does not make it true.
Items that were reported in the major media that we now know to be false:
- Adam Lanza’s mother was a teacher at the school – she was unemployed. This does not mean she was never a teacher or a teacher’s aide (as some sites reported), but it appears nobody in the school knew who she was, so this was not recent.
- The principle buzzed Adam Lanza into the building (recognizing him, since his mother was a teacher) – Police have now reported he blew out the security glass with gunfire.
- Victoria Soto had a conversation with the gunman, telling him her students were in the gym, and he shot her in the face – This is much like the Cassie “she said yes” Bernall myth from the Columbine massacre. It does appear Soto tried to protect her students, but the story here has reach legendary proportions.
This problem is exacerbated when we can further link the story to our perception of ills in society. The Duke Lacrosse team and George Zimmerman come to mind. If the evil was perpetuated due to racism, we have an even bigger story. The Duke Lacrosse team case has now been shown to be a complete fraud perpetuated both by the woman accusing them of rape and the district attorney using the team as a means to get re-elected (he was, in the end, jailed for hiding evidence). Looking the latest evidence in the Zimmerman case, it appears he is telling the truth, after a rush to judgment.
We, the public, want Adam Lanza to be a weird loner who is insane, because that makes us feel safer. We want a teacher who was a hero of legendary proportions, because that makes us feel better about people. But we also want an immediate solution that stops the problem from every rearing its ugly head again. And these desires fuel the media.
I am not certain there is one solution. The core problem is a societal issues that runs much deeper than a single point solution.
Attacking the problem from the gun direction may reduce the likelihood of another Sandy Hook, but as a single solution it will restrict freedoms and reduce the likelihood law abiding citizens will be able to protect themselves in adverse situations. We can outlaw “assault weapons” again, but assault weapons were not used in this tragedy. Gun control may be part of a solution, but it is focused more on symptoms than the disease, so I would not expect gun control, as a total solution, will work.
Attacking the problem from a mental health direction will most likely be either expensive and/or ineffective. As a society, we should do something about mental illness, but we should do it because it is the right thing to do, not to solve problems like Sandy Hook. If we are looking at mental health as the silver bullet to stop these mass murders, we are more likely to find it solves nothing.
Attacking the problem from the parenting aspect will be slow and we will have to get beyond our sacred cows. We have to start regarding the family as a very important aspect of parenting and work to avoid single parent situations, as there are ample studies to show the correlation of societal problems and single parent homes. This is not stating single parents are bad, as that is not the case, but rather that we, as a society, need to do something to strengthen the family. The problem here is we don’t want to touch the single parent problem, as it is more common in the inner city, and we don’t want to appear racist. But, this is where a great majority of our problems exist. Until we are willing to identify the problem, we won’t solve it.
There are a couple of things to consider.
- Mass murders of this type are the exception, rather than the rule. We should focus on the rule, not the exception, as societal sickness is a bigger problem than a set of events.
- There are no silver bullets, as there are no werewolves. Focusing on a single problem in society often fails to solve both the problem and the disease.
- We have to take in account the effects of any changes we feel might solve a problem, to ensure we are not creating other problems.
Sandy Hook was a tragedy. As the father of four girls, I am heartbroken for the parents of the children who were murdered in cold blood. I also feel heartbreak for the father of the murderer, who must be agonizing over how his child got to this point. And I feel for people all over America who are in shock and want the problem resolve.
But I also realize we cannot completely prevent these types of incidents, no matter how much we spend to try. I know that removing guns from everyone is an unrealistic goal and most of the people who would give up their guns are not the problem. I see that mental health is a certain need, but there is no plan that would be feasible that can solve the problem. And I see that parenting, while an issue, must be addressed in light of the complete picture.
We live in a society that has illnesses we don’t want to address, as we fear the backlash. We live in a society where reasoning skills and compromise are neither taught nor lauded. We live in a society where we value our bias so deeply we are unwilling to see people with a different set of thoughts and beliefs as anything other than wrong. And we live in a society that wants instance solutions.
We need to take a deep breath and look at the entire problem. We also need to mourn with the people in Sandy Hook and give them our support and look at the problem when the grief is over.
Peace and Grace,