December 18, 2012

Newtown, CT: Latest massacre brings more hand-wringing

Our nation's collective inertia surrounding mass killings is perhaps best illustrated in a YouTube clip splicing together speeches by Presidents Obama, Bush (II) and Clinton. Lots of hand-wringing and calls for prayer. Little in the way of concrete strategies.

Not that there is any simple fix. The causes are complex and additive: Easy access to super-lethal weapons, inadequate treatment resources for the mentally ill, and -- perhaps most of all -- a culture that glorifies violence.

Children in Karachi, Pakistan commiserate over shared pain
We are, after all, the world's leading imperial power. We aren't surprised at the spectacles of violence in Imperial Rome. Yet are we that different? We exert global control largely through military might, and celebrate violence in the service of a righteous cause. Where is the outrage over our country's slaughter of at least 176 children (almost 10 times the number killed in Newtown) by unmanned drone strikes in Pakistan over the past seven years? Those children are considered expendable, "collateral damage" in pursuit of a legitimate, larger goal. As rabble-rousing filmmaker and author Michael Moore Tweeted, "A county that officially sanctions horrific violence is surprised when a 20-year-old joins in?" Yet, amazingly, children on the other side of the world, in Karachi, Pakistan, held a candlelight vigil in solidarity with the children of Sandy Hook.

Untreated mental illness

As shown in a Mother Jones interactive map of 65 mass murders since 1962, a majority of the killers were mentally ill, and displayed signs of such before their rampages. High-quality, affordable, dependable and stable treatment, in which the clinician forges a real human connection with the patient, can save lives. And the great thing is, prevention does not necessitate prediction. We don't need to be able to do the impossible, and pinpoint which depressed, psychotic, manic, alienated or socially withdrawn man (yes, the shooters are overwhelmingly male) might have become the next Adam Lanza. Or the next suicide, an act twice as prevalent as homicide. Yet, high-quality treatment is scarce, and getting scarcer. Instead, jails and prisons are primary sites for the impersonal medication maintenance that passes for treatment these days.

Misplaced emphasis?

Back-to-back slaughters at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the shopping mall in Portland, Oregon and now Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut -- among others -- give an impression of an alarming rise in mass shootings in the United States. Surprisingly, that perception may be inaccurate.

Tracking murders in which four or more people were killed in one incident, criminologist James Alan Fox found that the numbers rise and fall from year to year, but without trending in any direction. On average, there are about 20 mass murders per year in the United States, bringing the deaths of about 100 people, according to an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. The deadliest in U.S. history, by the way, was way back in 1927, when a 55-year-old school board treasurer in Michigan set off dynamite that killed 38 elementary school children and six adults.That paled in comparison to Anders Breivik's 2011 bombing and shooting attacks in Norway, which killed 77 people, most of them teenagers.

Another prominent criminologist, Jack Levin, agrees with Fox that the focus on mass murder is misplaced, especially vis-à-vis the gun control debate. The broad majority of the 8,000+ people killed by guns in the U.S. each year die singly, often at the hands of family members or due to interpersonal disputes or drug-related conflicts. One-off incidents notwithstanding, schools remain far safer statistically than homes, streets or roadways.

Blaming "the media"

If the attention is being misfocused, that brings us to the role of "the media" in mass violence. It is certainly plausible that the media frenzy surrounding each new outbreak contributes to copycat crimes. If you are angry and alienated, why not go out in a blaze of glory rather than with a silent whimper. Teach society a lesson; be remembered.

Yet I cringe when I hear blame heaped at the feet of "the media." As a former daily newspaper journalist I can attest to the fact that "the media" as a monolithic, all-powerful entity is a fiction. Sure, over-the-top TV news crews (who hardly merit the title of journalist) mercilessly badger victims' families in the interest of titillating viewers. But despite increasingly narrow ownership of the major news outlets by a handful of enormous conglomerates, newspapers, magazines, and even blogs still feature plenty of thoughtful analyses and investigative reports. And although these narratives have some influence in shaping public perceptions, they ultimately reflect more than construct the larger realities in which they are embedded. "They," in other words, are us.

The half-life of vigorous public discourse seems to be roughly a month. Then, another event generates headlines, and we're spastically chasing that thread. Until another tragedy strikes, and the spiral starts over. All the while, there is so much noise (to use Nate Silver's terminology) that the signal can be hard to detect. As Ohio public defender Jeff Gamso muses,
People will speak of evil. They will talk about gun control and how this proves we need more -- or less -- of it. They will talk about security, as if wrapping ourselves in plastic will keep us all safe when all it will really do is suffocate us.... If you would hate, hate the fact that we are reactive, always trying desperately to prevent what happened yesterday. And doing it badly. 
Perhaps this time will be different. Perhaps this latest in a string of rampages represents a tipping point. But I kind of doubt it. It's far easier to propose arming school teachers than to directly challenge the culturally embedded fermentation of entitlement and alienation that kindles rageful violence that gives no quarter.

Further resources:

My NPR commentary after the Aurora massacre can be heard online or by downloading the MP3 podcast HERE.

For you Twitter folks, I've Tweeted a series of media analyses on Sandy Hook that I found particularly insightful. You can find them at my Twitter site or in the Twitter feed in the right-hand column of my blog's home page.

My blog posts after previous mass shootings include:
And here, finally, is an oldie but goodie on the futility of trying to predict rare events:

Systems failure or black swan? New frame needed to stop memorial crime control frenzy (Oct. 19, 2010)


bob silver said...

Thoughtful analysis by a respected professional.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks very much, Mr. Silver.

Andrew Ursino said...

I'm hoping some large media outlet will pick you to replace the "former FBI profiler" contingent they trot out to. comment on such events. Your journalism is remarkable for its acuity, broad relevance, and clear prose style.

Andrew Ursino PhD
New york

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Dr. Ursino. I just turned down a Clear Channel solicitation. ;-}