Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Responding to Virginia Tech

Some of what you're about to read will initially appear wacko. Stick with it; it makes more sense after a bit. Also, I'm going to use masculine pronouns, because this is one case where the stereotype fits.

Statistics show that 19 out of 20 mass shooters are male. Since this single factor is the best predictor of who a mass shooter will be, what should we do about it? Well, one possible solution is to lock up all boys at age 13 and not let them out again until they're, say, 45. Too expensive? Then let's just pick out a few choice specimens to keep as breeding stock, keep them properly penned up, and shoot the rest.

OK, clearly such a "cure" would be worse than the "disease". Get ready for more of the same. Stirring about in the woodwork even as I write are a bunch of instant experts who are getting set to burst forth with THE reason that drives people to mass shootings, followed shortly thereafter by THE solution to it. And, of course, they'll all disagree with each other.

I take the exact opposite viewpoint. I contend that we already live in the best of all possible worlds (or pretty close to it) when it comes to mass shootings.

On April 16 — the very day on which Cho Seung-Hui gunned down 32 Virginia Tech classmates and faculty members, then took his own life — statistics show that we probably lost 120 people in traffic accidents, 90 due to bad drug prescriptions (no, not illegal drugs: legal medicines prescribed by licensed doctors but misdiagnosed, misfilled, or misapplied), 60 due to poisoning, 45 in falls, 20 on the job, and 20 due to aspirin. These just deal with SUDDEN deaths, not counting the 1200 (yes, per day) who died as a result of smoking, or the dozen who succumbed to asthma aggravated by particulate matter from coal-fired electrical plants and gasoline-powered motor vehicles, or thousands of others who met ends that they could see coming and get prepared for.

The main difference between the 33 dead at Virginia Tech and, say, the 20 killed at work? There were also 20 job-related deaths the day before, on April 15, and another 20 the day after, on April 17, and another 20 EVERY DAY THRUOUT THE ENTIRE YEAR!

So, are you snoozing off yet? Have you reached the point where you're throwing up your hands, shrugging your shoulders, rolling your eyes, and wondering "So what?"?

Look, it's not my intention to be callous, but don't YOU be callous, either. Every one of those deaths in car crashes or falls or aspirin poisoning took a real, living, breathing, aspiring human being away from the world prematurely. Every one of those deaths robbed society of somebody's talents. Every one was shocking and unexpected. Every one left behind grieving friends and relatives. Every one was a tragedy. Just like the 33 at Virginia Tech.

But we don't hear about those "routine" deaths. Why? Because they ARE routine. They're so common that, unless one of them touches us personally, we just don't care. We don't have the emotional strength to empathize with them all, so we tune them out. We even have names for the phenomenon: compassion fatigue, grief overload, or outrage burnout.

And, from the perspective of the media, they're just not news. Happened yesterday. Will happen again tomoro. Ho-hum.

The shootings at Virginia Tech, however, ARE news. Why? Precisely because they're so unusual, so rare. If we lived in, say, Baghdad, where ONLY 33 bullet-riddled corpses makes it a GOOD day, we'd be taking it in stride, just as we do traffic accidents.

So what SHOULD we do about sociopaths like Cho Seung-Hui?

My answer: Nothing.

We already have a bunch of alert systems, safeguards, and intervention strategies in place which are working pretty much the way they're supposed to. Cho had been taken under the wing of the VT English Department chair so he wouldn't scare the daylights out of his classmates any more. He'd been referred for psychiatric counseling. He'd been involuntarily (if temporarily) committed to a mental institution. The system was aware of him and was trying to deal with him.

Could it have done better? Probably. Nothing's perfect.

But could it have done worse? Oh, yeah! And we're about to be deluged with all sorts of proposed "improvements" to the system that would guarantee exactly that outcome.

Let's look at just one of those "improvements": the idea that Virginia Tech should have expelled Cho when it became aware of his problems.

This one, like the vast majority of "cures" you're soon going to hear about, would have exacerbated things. Expel someone only half as nuts as Cho and, in addition to having a disturbed psychopath, you've given him evidence that people really are out to get him AND instilled a grudge against the university AND robbed him of his support system. In short, you may have pushed him from resentful asshole to homicidal maniac.

And that doesn't even get at the "false positive" problem, which is the main downfall of almost all the "cures". The best example of the "false positive" problem is undoubtedly Prohibition, which was designed to address problem drinking by stopping ALL drinking. As it played out, Prohibition had the opposite effect. It swept up in its net people who were no problem or threat to society at all, while driving casual, responsible drinkers underground, incidentally making booze glamorous, crooks rich, politicians and cops corrupt, and the law an object of derision.

So what would be the "false positive" drawback to expelling problem students? Frankly, the sheer mass of people who would need to be expelled for exhibiting symptoms like Cho's. College is loaded with stressors: classes, labs, deadlines, relationship problems, hormones, lack of sleep, poverty, annoying roommates, poor nutrition, distractions, family expectations, and so on. Plus it's a place where young adults get to experiment with who they are and who they'd like to be.

Cho apparently was kind of weird, dressed funny, had poor social skills, and wrote bizarre stories. Hey, I'm a science-fiction fan. That description fits half of my best friends.

If colleges started kicking out everyone who was a little odd and reacted poorly to stressful situations, they'd be ghost towns.

A lot of the proposed "fixes" for mass murders will have something to say about guns. They will all have the same "false positive" problem as the above. 99.9% of the guns in America (and there are something like 220 million of them in civilian hands) will never be used to commit a crime of ANY kind, let alone mass murder. So any proposed "solution" to the problem of mass shootings that restricts firearms will invariably penalize way, WAY more innocent citizens than prospective lunatics.

I can pretty well guarantee you that people who focus on guns will spend a lot of time reciting deaths DUE to guns. What they will conveniently omit are the tales of the stressed-out mothers who drowned their kids in the bathtub, or who locked them in the car and pushed it into the lake, or cut off their arms on the advice of the voices. They'll fail to mention Julio Gonzalez, who had a grudge against an ex-girlfriend, set fire to the Happy Land nightclub where she worked, and did indeed get the intended victim -- along with 86 others. They'll overlook guys like Jeffrey Dahmer (strangled his victims), Ted Bundy (preferred a good whack upside the head with a blunt instrument), Richard Speck (kitchen knife), and Timothy McVeigh (fertilizer and fuel oil).

In short, the anti-gun people have got their favorite drum, and they're gonna keep beating on it, while ignoring the obvious fact that anyone bent on wreaking mass havoc has a world of tools at his disposal.

And how about the "causes" of violence? During my 6+ decades on the planet, I've heard blame placed on a lot of different things: the Commie menace, rock'n'roll, those long-haired hippie anarchists, violent movies, Dungeons and Dragons, video games, rap lyrics, and pretty much anything else young people are doing to piss off the older generation. The blame game continues unabated, with the blame-meisters apparently completely oblivious to the fact that, for every participant in the dreaded seductive behavior who goes off the deep end, there are a million more who not only don't but never commit a crime of ANY kind and end up as sober, respectable, responsible, productive, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

In sum, the "causes" of mass murder are as varied, and unpredictable, as the tools.

Clearly what's needed is some kind of system that allows us to identify ONLY the prospective lunatics and precisely target exactly appropriate interventions at them and them alone. Ain't gonna happen. We're already doing about as well as can be expected, as evidenced by the remarkably low, low, low, low rate of deaths due to mass murderers. Further fiddling with the system will only make things worse.

Now, you wanna talk about a problem we CAN do something about, let's take a look at those deaths on the job, or from prescription drugs.

Oh, excuse me, did I wake you?


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