Wednesday, September 18, 2013

American Exceptionalism

First reports were, as usual wrong.

NBC and CBS identified the wrong person as the gunman.  He did not bring with him a semi-automatic assault weapon.  He had only a shotgun when he arrived.  He left the service with an honorable discharge, not a general discharge.

That's a consequence, at least in part, of the public's perfect willingness to accept rumor as fact and the media's conviction that satisfying the public's thirst for information is as well-satisfied by false information as true.  (And, by the way, I wouldn't guarantee that the current facts as I gave them in the previous paragraph are true. Caveat lector.)

In any case, the errors - careless, dishonest, whatever - aren't really to the point.

The point is that some guy (presumably Aaron Alexis, but I wouldn't bet the farm on it) entered the DC Navy Yard Monday morning and killed 12 people.  And he, himself, was then killed by the police.  Add it to the list.  
  • Sandy Hook elementary school, 27 dead, 2012
  • Aurora, Colorado, 12 dead, 2012
  • Seal Beach, California, 8 dead, 2011
  • Tucson, Arizona, 6 dead, 2011
  • Binghamton, New York, 13 dead, 2009
  • Omaha, Nebraska, 8 dead, 2007
  • Virginia Tech University, 32 dead, 2007
That's just a not-quite-radomly selected list.  And just from the last few years.  And of course doesn't include the wounded who didn't die.  Or the merely terrified.

Someoneorother on the Diane Rehm Show yesterday said that of the 25 deadliest mass shootings of the last 50 years, 15 happened in the U.S.  I don't know if he was right, but nobody disputed the point.

American exceptionalism indeed.

And so 
There are, after all, dozens if not thousands of people in and around DC who are, as I type this, planning to take a shotgun into the Navy Yard and see how many people they can kill before the cops kill them.  Bar the gates!  Protect the women and children!

Put aside the question of guns.  People who want to kill a lot of more-or-less random people regularly find ways to do it.

Put aside the matter of mental illness.  Most people with even serious mental illness aren't dangerous.  And we're not particularly competent at figuring out who actually is dangerous.

Put aside the rush to prevent the last crime.  Mass shootings (mass killings of any sort) grab headlines and attention not because they're common but because they're rare.  Sure, they kill a lot of people at one time, but as anyone who actually looks at the data rather than the headlines knows, your children are a lot safer in school - and were a lot safer in school before the additional security measures following on Columbine and Sandy Hook - than they are going from home to school or school to home.  Military bases in the U.S. are remarkably free of murders despite what happened at Fort Hood.  There's really no need for metal detectors at the entrances to shopping malls even though there was a mass shooting at one. 

Risk assessment folks understand this.  We fear the wrong things, and because we fear the wrong things, those are the ones on which we expend our resources and energy.

That's not to say that we should go around arming the insane.  It's to point out that there's no reason to make me take off my shoes and throw away my bottle of water before passing through security at the airport.  The pretense of security may make a few people feel better, but it's pretense.

Security theater rather than security.

Understand, I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to control the proliferation of guns.  I'm not saying that we shouldn't do a better job of identifying and treating the mentally ill.  I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to implement real security commensurate with the levels of real threat.

What I'm saying is that there's a real question that needs to be addressed - with actual information (which I confess that I don't have) rather than gut feeling or random guesswork:
Why do we have so many people running around who want to kill and hurt other people?  What is it in the DNA of our culture?
When we can answer that, we're on the way to knowing what to do that will really make us safer.

Until then?  

I suggest moving to a cave.

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