Wednesday, April 18, 2007


"Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live."
-Robert F Kennedy

Virginia Tech logo
As I'm sure everyone who reads this knows, Virginia Tech recently had a terrible incident in which a young man came to the campus with pistols and shot more than thirty people. This is the worst such event in the United States and the worst school tragedy since the Beslan terrorist attack in the Russian Federation.

As the days go by, more information will be made available, letting us have a clearer picture of what happened and why certain things were and were not done. The identity of the murderer is known now, but why exactly he wrote Ismail Ax on his arms and suicide note is not understood. Because we're still finding out details, I want to avoid looking directly at that kind of thing and instead at concepts around the shooting.

Cries of the need for greater gun control arose almost immediately, along with the desperate question: how can we keep this from happening? In an ideal world, nobody would be able to get a gun if they wanted to use it for ill. In a leftist utopian world, guns would be banned from areas and somehow thus not make them into that area. The problem is, we don't live in either of those worlds, so we have to deal with what we have, not what we imagine. Sorry John Lennon.

Eugene Volokh looked at some stats and sources, trying to figure out how many gun attacks there have been at schools and whether this is an increasing trend or not.
In her 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings (pg. 51), Harvard Professor Katherine Newman notes that there was no more than one such case in the entire US for any year between the 1974-1975 and 1991-92 school years. There was a small spike in the 1990s (starting with 2 cases in 1993, and a high of 6 in 1997-98), but falling again to 1 case in 1999-2000 and 0 in 2001-2002. It is likely that there was a brief 1990s spike caused by copycats imitating a few highly publicized cases, such as Columbine.
Professor Volokh points out that on average, college campuses across the United States suffer from 10-20 murders a year, which while tragic is a fairly insignificant number given the amount of people involved. Virginia Tech alone has a population of over ten thousand including faculty and employees. School shootings were almost unheard of for most of the 20th century, but in the 19th would occur on occasion as some feud or angry argument would dissolve into murder - and earlier duels would end with death on occasion. It is the mass murder by a deranged individual or friends that seems different and new at least since the 1990s.

On rare occasions some person would take a gun to school to shoot someone specific, but not to shoot whoever they happen to meet until they finally are taken down. The difference here is how shocking and striking the events are, rather than their raw numbers. 33 people dead is a horrific tragedy for the people involved, and the circumstances shocking, but many times that many died on the same day in Darfur, for example. For that matter, about 4000 babies were murdered in abortions on that day, if it followed the national average for America.

The International Herald Tribune has a list of fatal shootings at college campuses since 1970 (although the Kent State massacre was a different sort of event, so I'm not sure it belongs in this kind of discussion). Excluding the Kent State shootings, there have been 10 such events, including the infamous tower shootings by Charles Whitman at University of Texas.

Whitman and UTIn smaller schools I can only remember a half dozen or so, clustered mostly in the 90s and very early 21st century. Are there more shootings? Depending on how you look at it, yes and no. The Whitman tower shooting was in 1966. Columbine was in 1999. 5 of the 11 listed campus events were from 1990 onward. The events do seem to be more common now than in the past, but still quite rare, if shocking. Your child is almost totally safe from shootings in schools because of the statistical unlikelihood they will ever face one. In fifty years we've seen about two dozen cases in all fifty states.

So the question of what we should do needs to be tempered by two themes: more seem to be happening very lately, but these are rare events even today. Any action we take cannot be disproportionate to the problem and must take into account whatever is making these events more likely today.

Why it is more likely in recent years I cannot say for certainty, but I do think we can point to a few potential causes. First we have a culture in which violence, rather than being portrayed with consequence and serious significance, is portrayed often as entertainment and even glorified by some kinds of music and movies. The cartoon violence of Rambo or Mario Brothers isn't exactly what I have in mind, rather the kind of entertainment where violence is portrayed as a way of showing how tough you are, of attracting women and money, and as a way of life.

GangstaBeing a gangster, rather than ending with tragedy and failure like Scarface (both versions) and other gangland movies, is now regularly portrayed as a terrific lifestyle that ends in piles of naked beautiful women and cash. Shooting your enemy is portrayed as the right thing to do, as proper, even to the extent that not doing so is shameful and weak.

Another possible cause is that the response that we are taught and encouraged to violence is to seek legal redress, to avoid violence in return, and to cower rather than fight back. This is an odd contrast with the previously listed trend, creating an odd clash. Some few kids hear the clarion call of murder and violence, while most are taught a different lesson. Most people have ingrained in them that violence is necessarily a failure, they are taught that fighting is wrong, always, and that masculine images like John Wayne socking some guy in the snoot are horrible and anachronistic. In the past, you could reliably expect that someone would fight back, today there's not such an expectation.

In Springfield, Oregon when Kip Kinkle shot several young people at school, he was finally rushed and beat up by fellow students, he was tackled and taken out. This lack of any drive or willingness to fight back is problematic when confronted with real evil. Violence has been treated as the worst possible thing you can do in our society, while suing someone and ruining their life is acceptable, even preferable. Imagine if, when the gunman had shot at several students, the rest had rushed him when he was out of ammunition, rather than hiding as he reloaded and came back in. Imagine if every student in the room threw a textbook at the guy.

Sure, it's an easy thing to say, I don't know how I'd respond in such a situation, but having an entire generation or more trained to never do such a thing is not going to exactly make it more likely.

A third potential cause is the tendency to avoid dealing with problematic people until its too late. When a group of teenagers gathered in a garage filled with guns, Nazi paraphernalia, and talked about how they'll kill their enemies, their parents look the other way, the school kids figure they're joking, the teachers don't care to damage their fragile self esteem, and the problem festers. In the past, when you did something wrong, any nearby adult would deal with it, then refer you to your parents for another whupping. Trust me.

Today? We might refer them to a counselor, who listens deeply and sincerely then prescribes a pill (more on that in a moment), but does anyone do something to stop their behavior? Psychiatry can be useful, but not only is it by definition a long-term solution, it cannot possibly deal with some truly insane behavior. And let's be honest, anyone who kills another person in cold blood is at least a little insane at that moment.

Criminal profiler Brown was at CBS and he had this to say about this trend:
"In our society, we've accepted a lot of very bizarre and bad behavior. That violent (tendency) doesn't seem to catch people's attention as much as it should, where people go, 'Whoah – what is he saying?' Kind of like, if you're in an airport and you say, 'I have a bomb in my suitcase,' that will get you nailed right to the floor, right then. But, if you're someplace else and you say that, a lot of times, people just shrug their shoulders and say, 'Oh, yeah, he's talking about guns, he's talking about this, he's talking about that.' Parents ignore it. Their friends just say, 'Oh, well, he's just being weird.' Even teachers sometimes will say, 'He should just talk to a counselor.'

"This is serious. When they start talking about it, we ought to be paying attention."
In the specific example of Virginia Tech, this student wrote plays so disturbing that his fellow students feared him. Students in his class described him as the typical lone shooter:
When I first heard about the multiple shootings at Virginia Tech yesterday, my first thought was about my friends, and my second thought was "I bet it was Seung Cho."
He made other students nervous, they could tell something was distinctly wrong with him.
When the students gave reviews of his play in class, we were very careful with our words in case he decided to snap. Even the professor didn't pressure him to give closing comments.
One of the students admits he thought about some kind of warning or talking to someone about this guy, but there was simply no way to do so, no one to turn to or to deal with this kind of thing. He was so creepy even the profs knew something was bad here, yet he was left essentially alone with no steps taken.

The trend is basically to avoid hurting the feelings or damaging the egos and self esteem of young people, we avoid helping them or stopping them from committing great evil as well. That clearly is not a healthy trend.

PillsWhen we do try to help, most often the solution is a pill, medicine. I know this is a painful area for some and I'm treading very fragile eggshells here, but bear with me. There have been several studies and several examples of people taking anti-depressants who snap and go berserk when they were previously bummed out but otherwise sane and fine people. Even Prozac lists these side effects as potential for those using the medicine:

apathy; hallucinations; hostility; irrational ideas; and paranoid reactions, antisocial behavior; hysteria; and suicidal thoughts.

That means even the makers of the drug recognize at least the potential that this can happen. I have a theory about why and how this takes place, and it has little to do with the actual medicine.

Antidepressant drugs such as Prozac were developed after a study done that discovered that when depressed, people tend to have a higher than normal level of Monoamine Oxidase in their spinal fluid. Certain drugs tend to reduce this level, and as a result many of the physical symptoms that depression can cause like listlessness, lack of appetite, and so on.

The problem, I believe, is that while this is actually treating the symptom, it's not treating the cause and the actual problem. It's like taking a powerful medication for a broken leg, then walking around. You might not feel the pain, but you're doing terrible damage to yourself and not addressing the real problem. Most medicine we take is like this: it fixes the symptoms but not the cause.

So what happens to someone who is depressed but doesn't feel like it and never deals with the depression? What happens mentally and psychologically to someone like that? Some might recover because they can face life without the dark cloud of misery over them. Some? Might crack, their brains simply taking too much pain and damage without being attended to until something goes wrong.

I've no proof or evidence, no clinical studies or information to support this theory. It just seems reasonable and is based on rational analysis. Could this be part of the problem? According to one study, as many as 1.5% of children between 2 and 4 years old were receiving stimulants, anti-depressants or anti-psychotic drugs. In 1995 a study found that about 11 of every 1,000 children between 2 and 4 years old in the Midwestern Medicaid program received Ritalin. In the last fifteen years, the use of drugs to calm and control rambunctious children has increased by two to three fold. That's since 1992.

Is this drugging children actually causing them to not deal with why they feel and act the way they do? Is this simply shunting the responsibility of parents and teachers to channel and help the children learn tactics and habits that help them face their behavior to a pill, leaving it untreated and festering? Children are supposed to be rambunctious and loud, energetic and boisterous. That's part of being a child, and drugging them instead of teaching them when to stop doing so and be calm, and when to play and have fun.

I understand that some children are genuinely wild and uncontrollable, that they have actual physical problems - but I also understand that the great majority of "Attention Deficit Disorder" kids are just normal kids. We're drugging the hell out of our youth and ought not be surprised when there are drawbacks to this - most of which I doubt we're even aware of yet.

These causes give us some sort of concept of what we can do to try to prevent another such occurrence, other than the obvious security measures. Our society, I believe, is actually encouraging these kind of events by the way we approach violence and youth. The glorification of murder, the lack of discipline, the doping up of young people, the opposition to fighting back all combine to make a lethal cocktail. What we can do is to step back and analyze what we've changed in the last 30 years that's good and what we need to reverse or abandon. There were societal devices and structures in the past that kept this from being as likely; I believe it was unwise, at the very least, to abandon them.

Scary Looking GunSome believe that we must remove guns from schools, and from the hands of students to prevent this; but it is already illegal to bring a gun onto school grounds unless you are a specific exemption by law such as a police officer. Virginia Tech, for instance, had a strict no-gun policy, nobody anywhere on campus was allowed to carry guns. In the Columbine murders, the young people were using guns that were illegal for them to even own let alone carry on school grounds. The laws are in place: they aren't valuable.

Some call for a ban on guns entirely, to prevent any guns from getting into the hands of such a killer. The problem is, murder is quite illegal and banned, and these killers do not seem particularly daunted by this technicality. Banning guns quite simply is unconstitutional and further leaves law abiding citizens at the mercy of those who do not care to be so. It is impossible to eliminate all guns in America and keep them from ever popping up again. We can't even keep human beings from flooding in the country, let alone gadgets.

In a way, the Virginia Tech tragedy is a perfect example of the flaws in the gun control argument: if at least one student or faculty member had been armed, they might have been able to stop this guy, literally dead, before he killed any more. But Virginia Tech was a publicly and loudly declared gun-free zone, no guns were allowed on campus by anyone except the police. If the murderer had believed there was a reasonable chance he'd face a gun if he tried to attack campus, he might have been less likely to even attempt the attack.

The thing to remember in this tragedy is that isolated, though shocking, events ought not to prompt unreasonable response. This has been the cry of some recently about 9/11 - although it was not isolated - but those same are calling for more gun control. That's not going to work, it is like the drug situation I noted above: you are addressing the symptom, not the cause. You could take all the guns away, and someone this insane and murderous would use a knife or a a bomb or a rock. It is their character and what in society builds up to this that we need to deal with, not the devices used.

In the end, we all need to look at what is going on and consider the possibility, at least, that there really is something basically wrong with human nature, a soul sickness that in varying degrees affects us all. For some it makes us gossip or lie or troll the Internet for pornography. For others it makes us cheat and steal. For some, it makes us kill. But looking in the mirror, if we are honest, we know there's something wrong with all of us, something that psychology can identify portions of, but not address or heal.
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1 comment:

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