Friday, April 20, 2007

What Can We Say About and Learn from the Virginia Tech Shootings?

I've avoided writing anything about the Virginia Tech shootings because I haven't really had anything to say. I've thought about why this is - not having anything to say - but I hadn't even really come up with a good reason for the silence nor for why I really should say anything at all. Saying something about how tragic it is, especially after viewing photos and bios of the victims, seemed pretty pointless. We know it's tragic. You don't need me to say that again. Wouldn't I just be saying something more about myself (that I'm sympathetic and thus a decent person)?

How about the so-called "politicization" of the event that the talking heads get all ruffled about? Yeah, so what. The politicization is flying from all political sides.

Charles Krauthammer starts his WaPo piece today on the right note, saying that only silence is appropriate, not "political gain." He then immediately says that the only important questions regard "divine justice," and then spends the rest of the piece trashing gun control advocates and Barack Obama (but not the tough-guy victim-blamers or lock-em-all-up-before-they-kill proponents, such as Krauthammer himself). So much for the silence. Another case of pundit bloat, but a particularly hypocritical and stupid one in which Krauthammer, as usual, views himself as immune from even his own criticisms. The one thing he's right about is that it's an exercise in reductive futility to search for the one true cause of such tragedies. Bobby Lightfoot's screed is more interesting than Krauthammer's.

Before Krauthammer came along, silence seemed the right approach. The only other thing I could muster would be to make reference to the hundreds of people killed in Iraq this week, reported by the same news sources that have been splashing the Virginia Tech case all over the place as another day in the life of Iraq. How about Congo too? Mexico? Nigeria? Yet, the people suffering in Blacksburg are reasonably focused on their own tragedy and so, living a couple hundred miles away, it seemed a bit crass to point out other tragedies, as if this would be a way of saying "get over it."

Or how about the emphasis on the shooter being Korean, a "loner," a fan of violent video games, guns, and a movie I'm also a big fan of, Chan-Wook Park's "Old Boy"? These are all contingent features of this particular killer. They don't explain anything more generally; they simply generate more hatred and more fear of yet more things.

But Peter Levine's post helped me out today. I'll let him do the speaking, but I think he has it - that is, what I've wanted to say.
One reason to tell the Virginia Tech story in detail is to provide us with the information we might need to act as voters and members of various communities. For instance, I work at a university much like Virginia Tech and could agitate for new policies in my institution. But it is generally a bad idea to act on the basis of extremely rare events. There have been about 40 mass shootings in the USA. During the period when those crimes have occurred, something like half a billion total people have been alive in America. That means that 0.000008 percent of the population commits mass shootings. There cannot be a general circumstance that explains why someone does something so rare. The availability of weapons, mental illness, video games--none of these prevalent factors can "explain" something that in 99.999992 percent of cases does not happen. (Bayes' theorem seems relevant here, but I cannot precisely say why.)

It is foolish to use such rare events to make policy at any level--from federal laws to school rules. For instance, if lots of people carried concealed weapons, there is some chance that the next mass killer would be stopped after he had shot some of his victims. But millions of people would have to carry guns, and that would cause all kinds of other consequences. The day after the Blacksburg killings, two highly trained Secret Service officers were injured on the White House grounds because one of them accidentally discharged his gun. Imagine how many times such accidents would happen per year if most ordinary college students packed weapons in order to prevent the next Blacksburg.

The last paragraph was a rebuttal to those who want to use Cho Seung-hui as an argument for carrying concealed weapons. But it would be equally mistaken to favor gun control because it might prevent mass shootings. Maybe gun control is a good idea, but not because it would somewhat lower the probability of staggeringly rare events. Its other consequences (both positive and negative) are much more significant.

If obsessive coverage of a particular tragedy does not help us to govern ourselves or make wise policies, it does reduce our sense of security and trust. It reinforces our belief that "current events" and "public affairs" are mostly about senseless acts of violence. It plants the idea that one can become spectacularly famous by killing other people. These are not positive consequences.


Unknown said...

Amen, I have been making this argument since this thing started. When I saw the Krauthammer headline I though, wow, do he and I actually totally agree on something? The answer, as you well know, was yes, but not at all.

Anne Rettenberg LCSW said...

re "It is foolish to use such rare events to make policy at any level--from federal laws to school rules."

We use rare events to make public policy ALL THE TIME. After all, most disasters are rare events. By your reasoning, we should never prepare or try to prevent disasters through policy, since they are rare events.

troutsky said...

Elizabeth makes a point.At what statistical point does something become common enough to devise policy around? There is a qualitative as well as quantitative aspect.As for myself ,all i could do was cry.

MT said...

I don't believe I know anybody at Virginia Tech, have never been there, and I haven't been very interested in the story. Maybe I don't connect as deeply with NPR announcers as I ought to.

helmut said...

Yes, we make policy decisions on relatively rare events, but do we ever make policy decisions based on events of such rarity as these shootings? Yeah, maybe sometimes. But that does seem foolish to me. Natural disaster planning isn't. Florida is hit by hurricanes pretty often, so it makes sense to have disaster policy for Florida at the least.

But to take this event and say either that we need stricter gun control or, conversely, we ought to allow bloody everybody to carry a gun is indeed foolish. I think we do need stricter gun control, but not based on this kind of event because the social consequences of allowing everyone to carry a gun would be overwhelmingly negative. This event simply doesn't say anything one way or the other about policy.