Monday, January 10, 2011

The Tucson Shooting: Plus Ça Change

Instead of my normal Monday Musings, I’m sharing a few thoughts about the Tucson shootings. First, I’ve copied below something I wrote in 2007 on the Virginia Tech massacre. I re-read it yesterday as I grappled to come to terms with the latest insanity. It frightens me how applicable it is today. Just substitute “Tucson Safeway” for “Virginia Tech,” and “Jared Loughner” for “Cho Seung-Hui.” (Hence the title of this piece, part of the French equivalent of “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”)

Second, it’s sad to see people, particularly from the left, immediately condemning specific politicians and media figures for somehow “causing” this tragedy. (Not that I have the slightest ounce of patience for Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and their ilk.) Anything could have set this guy off, even in the most peaceful and civilized environment (which this country is definitely not right now). I write “sad” because this rush to judgment is part and parcel of the same witch’s brew of overreaction, lack of thinking, overheated rhetoric, meeting the 24-hour news cycle, market media, fear, and division that must be dealt with if we’re ever going to make progress on the serious issues we face.

Finally, let's focus on remembering the people who died (brief bios here), people who were just out shopping, doing their duty, and otherwise living their lives.

From April 18, 2007:

Following the horrific events at Virginia Tech on Monday, we'll see a very predictable pattern. In fact, it's already begun. It's the same pattern that follows all of these tragedies but, in the end, nothing will change.

Gun control advocates will lobby for stricter gun control laws. ("Common sense gun laws" is the catchphrase they've taken to using in an attempt to fight the powerful gun lobby.) I'm all for restrictions on handguns and I sure don't like guns in general (although have no problem with hunters and other responsible users, particularly in rural settings) but there are very few laws that could have prevented this. The shooter bought the gun legally and I can't imagine what would have stopped him. A requirement for psychological testing for gun owners might have detected his mental issues and stopped him from purchasing a gun legally but he might have passed such a screening – and such restrictions would likely be unconstitutional (not to mention that it would never pass anyway as the NRA would go crazy). And massacres of this sort have occurred in countries with much stricter gun laws than the U.S.: Canada, Germany and the U.K., to name a few. And, finally, even if legal access to guns was severely restricted, there are so many guns floating around the country that I can't imagine it difficult for a determined individual to get his or her hands on one.
We may hear from the pro-gun lobby as well. They'll oppose any new gun control efforts. After all, "guns don't kill people; people kill people." True but it's sure a lot easier for people to kill people when we're awash in firearms. Given the NRA's success in defeating even the most logical of restrictions (such as the assault weapon ban), I highly doubt anything new will get through, even if I thought it would make a difference in this type of situation.
Some of the more radical gun nuts may even argue that wider access to guns, especially allowing people to carry concealed weapons, could stop this type of thing. "We need to have the ability to defend ourselves. That will stop this kind of attack cold." I don't know about you, but the idea of a bunch of under-trained citizens running around packing heat scares me more than any number of school massacres. I can just see all sorts of tragedies unfolding as people overreact to any perceived threat.
There'll be the predictable hand-wringing about violence in our society, with a particular focus on Hollywood and video-games. Perhaps some deep thinkers will try to look at the broader issues of violence and why it seems more prevalent in the U.S. than in other countries. (People in those other countries will offer condolences while simultaneously decrying, in a slightly smug way, the violence in the U.S. They'll conveniently forget that almost every country – including all the industrialized countries – have long histories of violence, even in the not-too-distant past.) Going down this road might actually result in some changes if we ever come to recognize that the fundamental issues of poverty, race, over-competitiveness, and lifestyle (much derived from our extreme version of the free market) drive much of the violence. But I highly doubt any of these conversations will get too far. People will far too readily return to their regularly scheduled programming of over-consumption and under-thinking.
We're also hearing the predictable and anguished comments as to why no one saw this coming, given now deceased gunman Cho Seung-Hui's odd and sometimes frightening behavior. He avoided all attempts at social interaction and was, by all accounts, a loner. His writings were so violent that his instructor tried to get him counseling. He was referred to the police after two female students accused him of stalking them.
It's so easy to say after the fact that "someone should have seen this coming" but we live in a free society: there are 300 million people in this country. Millions of these people behave in ways that at least some people will find strange. Some of them actually are mentally ill. Very few of them commit mass murder. People are free to act in whatever they choose, so long as they don't break the law. How do we separate those who are truly deranged in a dangerous way (or those who could become truly deranged if pushed in the right direction) from those who aren't dangerous but are simply mentally ill, abnormal or just plain odd? And how do we do so without trampling all over people's individual rights?
I've known plenty of people in my life who behave in ways that may not be socially acceptable (including myself on occasion) and who worried me slightly, to wit:

  • I had a roommate in university who spoke to himself. Not unusual - we all do that at one time or another. But he responded in a different voice. And neither voice was his normal speaking voice.
  • There was someone in a writing workshop I took once who submitted a very graphic story about necrophilia for us to read. We were highly disturbed by the story, although more because it was a badly written story than a story about a deviant sexual act.
As far as I know, the guy who talked to himself never hurt a fly and the woman who wrote about necrophilia didn't have a corpse at home but the point is that if either of them had gone on to commit mass murder, I could have pointed at their behavior and said, "I told you so." One of the glorious things about human beings is our incredible diversity of look, thought, behavior and talents. And one of the glorious things about the U.S. is the level of freedom. Put all that together and it's almost impossible to prevent the occasional tragedy like this from occurring. (In fact, I almost feel like it becomes a sick sort of arms race among those who are prone to this kind of behavior: "Harris and Klebold took out 12 so I'm going to take out more." Now Cho has raised the bar for the next nutcase.)
And that brings me to the last and most annoyingly predictable activity we'll see: the search for blame. After all, someone is always to blame. Things never just happen. The school was wrong for not locking the school down right away. (How exactly do you "lock down" an open and sprawling campus anyway?) The police or school health authorities were wrong for not identifying Cho's mental illness and protecting people from him. The gunshop owner was wrong for selling the gun to Cho. The INS was wrong for letting he and his family into the U.S. in the first place. I suspect the lawyers are lining up already and imagine the first lawsuit will be filed within a month.
But sometimes things DO just happen. Call them acts of God or Mother Nature, happenstance, coincidence, chance, fate - there's a reason why we have so many words for it. And human behavior is one of the most unpredictable things of all. And that's why even if something does change as a result of this massacre, it won't prevent another one from happening.

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