Emotions and Policy by The Fringe 12/19/12


The deaths of 20 children and six adults last Friday have lifted a collective wave of grief for those little people who scarcely got to taste life.  Our national sorrow speaks well of us as a society.  It signifies a nation that is compassionate, empathetic, and socially cohesive.

Those keen in the understanding of humans know that for most people thought follows emotion.  For most of us, perhaps almost all of us, we start from the “gut”, what we feel, and proceed to explanations and rationalizations from there, justifying our emotion.  If you want to move people, a lot of people, throw a boy down a well.  Like fish in a school or iron filings following a magnet, people motivated by emotion will act together, though usually only for a short while.  Again, our desire to care for others, particularly those least able to defend themselves, speaks well of us as social beings.

The national dismay about the murders and the suicide of the shooter has fueled a lot of activity.  People are moving to try to do something about the tragedy, to make sure it doesn’t happen any more.

The simplest explanation, or at least the one that seems simplest to many people, is to eliminate guns, restrict guns, and so on.  The anti-2nd Amendment movement has gained considerable strength, enjoying the benefit of the 20 murdered children.  Petitions have been created, money has flowed to anti-gun nonprofit corporations, and people have taken sides.  Politicians, never ones to let such a moment of public attention pass, have made moving speeches and promises they probably won’t be able to keep.

In the effort to add rationale to what people feel, statistics have been quoted as though they are rooted in the bedrock of truth.  Those who know even a little bit about statistics know that one of the statistician’s favorite lines is “statistics means never having to say you’re certain.”  Simple numbers rarely tell the complete truth, and far from being rooted in bedrock, all statistics fall prey to inevitable problems of data gathering and interpretation.

When viewing any crime statistics, it’s important to keep in mind that people have to decide what crime took place and enter it on a form.   Social science evidence demonstrates that not only do different law enforcement agencies assign different charges for similar crimes, but also charges for similar crimes vary across time as public opinion, and especially funding, changes.  This “definition error” is especially acute when comparing numbers from different cultures or nations.

In addition, statistics on large, complex populations are always easier to measure than they are to explain.  It’s easy to explain a system that derives its behavior through simple linear cause and effect relationships.  Social phenomena are several scales of complexity beyond a linear system; crime statistic rise and fall according to many things, including the average age of the population.  Crime data is also very local.  A few places in the U.S. dramatically increase the crime rates for the nation as a whole.

Even if the numbers are accurate, they don’t always mean what they seem to.  A most obvious example is the number of something.  Raw numbers have no context; saying “there are more dogs in the U.S. than in any other industrial nation” doesn’t give us much information because the U.S. is larger than any other industrialized nation by far.  Americans may or may not own more dogs than the people of other nations, we can’t tell from the statistic.  Incidentally, it takes the populations of Japan, France, Germany, Italy and the UK to equal the population of the U.S.  A more meaningful statistic would be the “rate” or number per 100,000 people.  Even that might be misleading, though.

Another kind of spurious comparison is to compare the U.S. with other nations, as though all nations were twins.  It is momentarily popular to compare the U.S. with Australia and Japan, both of which have imposed gun bans.  Japan has always had weapons control, even before guns were available.  In Japan, and everywhere, those in power preferred a docile, defenseless population.  Furthermore, even though Japan has high population density, its a very homogenous population, and the differences between the very wealthy and the very poor are not nearly as great as in the U.S.  All those factors make Japan very unlike the U.S.  Like the Japanese, Australians have never had the right to own firearms; it is very difficult to conclusively say if the ban has saved many, or any, lives in Australia, though there was a decrease in suicides.  I’ll suggest suicide is a separate issue, though it is certainly credible to consider many mass murderers as suicides who determined to take others along.

In the discussion of 2nd Amendment rights, or in any such discussion, statistics may or may not clarify the issue.  Even if it does, the next step in the discussion is evaluation.

Another issue the event has highlighted is that of mental health.  As with the issue of 2nd Amendment rights, simplifying the issue of mental health is not useful.  There is no special pill (might we say “magic bullet”) which bestows mental health; if there were we would all be required to take one every day.  Medication plays a part, no doubt, but meds wear off, they have unintended consequences (like suicidal tendencies) and patients go off their meds sometimes.

An important part of mental health treatment has to include oversight with a therapist, to help the client and his or her family understand how the therapy is going, and to check the effect of the medication over time.  But, even clinical time isn’t without iatrogenic effects, (unintended consequences as a result of the method of treatment).  People become institutionalized, or socialized to rely on clinicians.  There is a stigma attached to mental health care that can add to the burden of mental illness.  Indeed, there is very real concern that students who are termed “weird” or “not right” might suffer the kind of isolation which Adam Lanza clearly did.  Now, teachers and students might begin to treat kids with Asperger’s syndrome and similar “syndromes” differently.  The great majority of people with mental health and developmental issues aren’t going to harm anyone, and if they do it is often themselves.  That treatment of the “odd kid” can only increase suffering and actually encourage the kind of de-linking from the greater community which causes individuals to take lives.

While we do need to have a discussion about the availability of mental health services, we have to consider the limitations of even that.

Another current debate refers to the schools.  Adam Lanza apparently killed his mother, and then the class of children who daily got her attention.  Something has to be done about making schools safer.

But, here the suggestions divide.  One perspective wants to be certain that no weapons find their way to school.  Part of that is “gun free school zones” which usually permit security staff and cops to carry guns.  It doesn’t take much thought to realize that it’s impossible to prevent kids from getting into school with drugs or porn, or guns.  Our schools already look like prisons; more metal detectors and more security staff won’t make school any easier to bear, though it will teach our kids how to live in a police state.

The other perspective goes the other way: qualify teachers and arm them.  This flies in the eyes of “no guns means safety”, but let’s look at the places mass killers go to kill: they are places where no one can be expected to have a gun.  Adam Lanza knew he’d face no challenges at an elementary school.  Teaching willing school staff to shoot and allowing them to be armed might also have unintended consequences, but it might have saved lives at Sandy Hook school.  If cops with guns in school prepare us for living in a police state, do teachers with guns legitimize carrying a gun?  It might bear discussion.  After all, hundreds of thousands of Americans do use a firearm for self defense every year, it doesn’t take a trained cop.

But teachers with guns are response, not prevention.  The trouble is, there is every reason to believe that nothing could prevent Adam Lanza from killing.  That is a hard fact, a fact of the sort Americans don’t accept well.  We have such faith in science and in the power of government we typically overlook the complicated problems our simple solutions engender.

It turns out, using statistics again, that relatively few people die from mass murderers.  It is a mass murder this time, which draws our national attention to the issues of mental health and gun control.  Really successful mass murderers often don’t use guns.  Adam Lanza might have benefited from more mental health treatment, but it is also possible nothing was going to stop him.  A certain number of us are going to get drunk and get angry.  Some of us are going to go crazy.  A few of us feel isolated and unimportant and are literally willing to kill and die to get that attention.

But, only a few.  Instead of branding every weird kid a potential killer, or insisting that law abiding gun owners give up liberty to salve the conscience of the nation over the tragic deaths, we should realize that very few of us will be killed by a mass murderer.  Very few of us will be killed at all, about 1 in 240 of us, whereas 1 in 6 of us will die from bad tickers; 1 in 7 from cancer, and so on.  We could reduce our social violence by reducing the discrepancy of rich to poor, and by devaluing violence in our entertainment, and by expressing a value for human life.

Even then, a nation with so many people should include in its discussion that in the real world, people, even little people, will die sometimes.

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