Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On Death, Risk, and Prevention

We all know that death is inevitable.  Death can be prevented in some situations, or delayed, but death always wins in the end.  However well or poorly we might accept that principle, there are some deaths we find especially difficult to accept.  The horrible shooting of elementary school children in Newtown, CT, has triggered a vast outpouring on the interwebs and in the meda.  Since that day, we've been bombarded with all sorts of commentary on the topic, ranging from profound to ridiculous.  One that I found particularly striking was this one, which begins to address the issue in terms of numbers and priorities.  As a scientist, I always find quantitative analysis to be enlightening, despite the clear dehumanizing aspect of reducing deaths to numbers.

In what follows, I'm trying to stay as objective as possible, but I hope to retain at least some semblance of a human perspective at the same time.  I suppose you'll let me know my failures.  What clearly characterizes a lot of commentary regarding the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre is outrage and sorrow over the utter senselessness and evil nature of murdering young children.  Cutting these innocent lives short seems frighteningly malevolent and shattering in its impact on everyone, particularly so for the victims' friends and families.  I can only hope nothing of the sort ever happens within my family, so for the moment I remain completely unable to imagine the utter devastation over such losses.  The undeniable fact that all these children would have grown old and died eventually seems almost completely irrelevant - no doubt the friends and families are suffering profoundly from having these children taken from them.  The child victims will be forever young - destined never to grow up and become whatever their fate might otherwise have led them to become, had they lived.  Any notions of such unfulfilled destinies are, sadly, only speculation. 

The whole nation seems to be gripped by a collective, convulsive urge to do whatever it takes to prevent any more school massacres.  It's especially troubling that we don't know precisely what to do about the problem.  We wish to understand why someone would perpetrate such a heinous crime, and I believe that's mostly derived from the hope that if we can learn the Why? of it, then perhaps we could do something to prevent future repetitions.

Ive seen a diverse array of suggested explanations for the Why? of this tragedy.  Some have proposed their deity is angry with us for encouraging the teaching of evolution and encouraging the granting of equal rights to the LGBTs within our midst.  Some have suggested it's the loss of "Traditional American Values".  Some have suggested it's video games and other entertainment where violence is so extreme that people become accustomed to thinking of violence as a reasonable solution to their problems.  Some have suggested that our mental health care has deteriorated to the point that criminally insane people are not diagnosed and receive little or no effective treatment, either remaining free to pursue their insane compulsions or being warehoused in prisons for criminal acts they've committed.  Some believe that guns have become so pervasive in our society that gun violence must necessarily follow, proposing various levels of restrictions on gun access.  Some believe that we need more guns in the hands of more people, so that everyone has the ability to protect themselves from others carrying guns (legally or otherwise).  Some have said that we encourage shooters by giving them the fame (or, rather, infamy) they seem to crave.  There are likely many more opinions to be heard, but it's clear to me that there's no single issue among these (or others I may have not mentioned) that represents a place to look for a simple "solution" to the problem of school massacres.  It's a complex problem without obvious easy answers.

Further, if we consider not just school massacres, but all deaths involving firearms for instance, there are about 30,000 firearm deaths in the USA annually.  About 2/3 of them are associated with suicides, and around 1000 accidental shootings.  The rest (roughly 10,000) are either criminal acts or by law enforcement.  As a nation, the USA has many, many millions of guns already out there.   Any attempt to restrict opportunities to purchase guns legally won't affect gun ownership much, for a long time to come.  The constitutional right to bear arms is one of the bulwarks of American freedom - outright banning legal gun ownership is not an option without a Constitutional amendment that would never be ratified, and likely would not represent much of a solution, anyway.  Not for the school massacre problem, nor for the broader problem of any fatalities caused by firearms.  Without a gun, suicidal people would simply find another path to death.  It might make a dent in accidental firearm fatalities, but that;s just a small fraction of the deaths attributed to firearms.  And I have serious doubts that even more widespread gun use is going to represent much of a solution, either - gunfights have a high probability of "collateral damage" to innocent people not engaged in the fight.  Owning a gun and being trained to use it effectively in self-defense are quite different.  It takes far less effort to buy a gun than it does to be a responsible gun owner.  I'm not a gun person, although I own guns - there are reasonable additional restrictions on gun access that are far from a ban on gun ownership.

If we consider death in all its diverse causes (but ignoring deaths from various diseases and physical ailments), there are about as many fatalities annually in the USA from food poisoning as there are crime-related firearm fatalities, for example.  Four times that number are killed in motor vehicle accidents every year.  Smoking kills around 250,000 people per year.  More people die from natural hazards like floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, landslides, etc. than are killed in mass shootings, by far.  Of these much larger numbers of fatalities (compared to school shootings), most are preventable to some degree and so also can be considered "senseless and unnecessary".  Unfortunately, preventing school massacres, even if truly effective measures to do so could be found, are a drop in the bucket compared to the diverse other causes for untimely deaths.

I observe that we're currently spending billions annually to deal with the threat of terrorism. How many American civilians die every year from terrorism?  Since 9/11/2001, a few thousand have been killed, by far the majority of those on that one awful day 9/11/2001.  More American soldiers have died in wars on foreign soil since 9/11/2001 than civilian Americans have been killed by terrorists.  We're so terrified by terrorism, the terrorists are winning their war against us in many ways - we're sacrificing our freedoms for the illusion of security and have disrupted our society spending huge resources in response to our emotional fear, when the real risk from terrorism is far less than widely perceived!

The sad fact is that if we can be objective about the objective risks, and so know where to invest our resources, preventing school massacres should be far lower on our priority list than many other causes of death.  Sorry, but that's a an objective reality.  Should we give in to emotional hysteria about Newtown, CT, and in the process ignore all these other sources for untimely deaths?  Since we presently have no universally accepted "solution(s)" to reduce the frequency of school shootings, it's not even possible to estimate what the price for any proposed solutions might entail.  On the other hand, there are steps we can take to reduce untimely fatalities in other areas.  Should we forget about those measures and focus on school shootings to the exclusion of all else?  No, I just don't think so.  I certainly feel for the families and friends of the Sandy Hook school massacre victims, but should we ignore the feelings of the families and friends of someone who dies from food poisoning, or in a devastating tornado, or in a traffic accident?  Should we not seek to set priorities in a reasonably objective way, rather that allowing our emotions to hold sway?  I believe so.


Jay said...


First let me say that I find your analysis of this situation insightful, and your listing of possible reasons for the massacre is perhaps the most complete and precise list I have yet seen in one place. Additionally, the first link you included does a great job of encapsulating the analytical/numerical aspects of the discussion that are always in the back of my mind, even when my emotions are trying take over. And, in a cool dispassionate sense, I agree with your overall assessment.

One comment I would offer (perhaps it is a rebuttal, but that might be too strong) is that all the other major causes of death you list, and in some way all the other recent massacres, did not directly target the "next generation" in the way this one did. And while I believe it is an entirely rational response, there is a strong biological imperative in most species to give precedence and special consideration to the survival of the next generation. That, in both an emotional sense (as a parent) and in a rational sense (as a scientist) is what I feel distinguishes this event, and the likely response to it, from other recent events and other causes of death.

Whether this is right or wrong in a broader context is another issue. But I suspect it is and will continue to be a major factor in how people respond to it.

--Jay Charney

Jay said...


I made a typo in my last comment. I meant to say, in the 2nd paragraph, "...I believe it is NOT an entirely rational response..."

--Jay Charney