Reason and Emotion in Newtown

I had prepared a full slate of other news items to cover today, but it doesn’t look like I will be able to talk about anything before addressing yesterday’s massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.

The story is quite emotionally disturbing, even more so than the school shootings we’ve seen in the past because most of the victims are so young, between the ages of 5 and 10. This kind of massacre is usually the work of a disaffected and mentally unstable adolescent who lashes out at his teenaged peers. In this case, the killer was apparently a 20-year-old with a “personality disorder” who shot his mother, then drove to the school where she worked and attacked the faculty and students there.

The emotional impact of this story is both deeply repellent and disturbingly fascinating. On the one hand, especially if you are the parent of young children, as I am, you don’t want to know about it. While you feel deep sympathy for the parents of the children who were killed, you feel too much sympathy. In the back of your mind, the part that can’t help contemplating what it would be like to lose your own children, there is a bottomless pit of horror and despair. Given that there is never any shortage of reasons to worry about your children (What if they’re in a car accident? What if they get a flesh-eating bacteria?), it can be debilitating to dwell too long on detailed stories of tragedy.

On the other hand, we are attracted to the story by disbelief that anyone could commit such an evil act, and we want to know what drove him to it.

Yet there is actually very little mystery on this topic, and here’s where I have no patience for the media frenzy around this tragedy—and the shallow attempts to use it for political advantage. This is an emotionally affecting story, to be sure, but the coverage has been wall-to-wall emotionalism with little or no rational analysis.

There’s not much real suspense about the cause of this shooting. The story is already settling into a well-worn pattern. The cause is a young man, usually somewhere in his teens to early 20s, who was already identified as mentally unbalanced but whose psychological collapse progressed more deeply and quickly than the people around him realized. This seems to the true of the killer in this case, Adam Lanza, who has been described by his older brother as having a “personality disorder.” The same was true of James Holmes, the Colorado movie theater shooter, Jared Loughner, who shot Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and others, Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, and on and on.

So all of the blather you are already hearing about how this can be blamed on the lack of gun control, or on violent movies, or first-person-shooter video games, or on some kind of general cultural malaise (which I have already heard even from Objectivists) is based on a cheap emotional appeal rather than on evidence. On the basis of the evidence, we can look back over decades in which such killings have occurred at a fairly constant rate and in which the cause has usually been the same. We can conclude that in a nation of 300 million people, there will be a certain number of people who become insane. Of those people, there will always be a small number—usually young men, because young men have a natural tendency toward aggression and a fascination with violence—whose insanity drives them to kill, whether to take revenge on society in general, or because of paranoid delusions, or because the voices in their heads tell them to.

This is a basic, predictable fact of life in human society, with no particular political implications and—this is the part that’s hard to accept—no particular solution.

The least ridiculous reaction to this shooting will start from a recognition that its cause is insanity, and some commentators will suggest improved screening for mental illness and faster intervention. There may be some basis for this. (Seung Hui-Cho, for example, was known to be dangerously unstable, but no one seemed to think they had the authority to do anything about it.) But I also fear that a mania for prevention will cause more damage than it prevents—that we risk unnecessarily committing thousands of disturbed or merely eccentric young men on the basis of a hysterical fear that they will become killers.

The most ridiculous reaction to the shooting is the chorus calling for more gun control. This reaction is purely emotionalistic, unscientific, and opportunistic. Any rational discussion of the issue of guns and violence has to begin with the fact that we are on the tail end of a historic, decades-long, nationwide collapse in crime rates, a collapse so broad and rapid that scholars admit they are at a loss to explain it. This sinks any attempt to attribute a particular shooting to cultural causes: America is becoming less violent, not more. It also sinks any attempt to attribute violence to the absence of gun control. The collapse in violent crime has happened while gun control has also retreated nationwide. In fact, some of the argument among scholars is the extent to which increased gun ownership by the law-abiding has deterred criminals—whether, as John Lott argues, more guns mean less crime.

So discouraging gun ownership in a dubious effort to prevent events like the Newtown shooting could end up causing much more harm than good. In seeking to prevent a crime that kills 26 innocent people, you could end up depriving millions of people of the means to protect themselves from violent crime. And that’s not to mention the obvious disaster of attempting to enforce nationwide gun prohibition, in a nation that can’t manage to enforce drug prohibition, or the constitutional crisis of attempting to override the Supreme Court’s recent rulings recognizing the Second Amendment.

The news out of Newtown is wrenching and emotional. Follow as much of it as you feel you need to, or at least as much as you can handle. But after we grieve the death of children, it is our job to act like responsible adults, to elevate reason over emotion, and to put this tragedy in a rational perspective. That will mean dispensing with unfounded, opportunistic assertions about its causes and bogus prescriptions for its prevention.—RWT


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