It’s time to take a look in the mirror

Submitted by Professor David Hyde

Like most people (and as a parent), I was shocked to hear the news of the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary. Most of our immediate reactions understandably involved horror, anger, and confusion. But as time moves on, it becomes important for our society to analyze this and similar tragedies to help reduce the likelihood of their reoccurrence. The unique prevalence of mass murders and school shootings in American society suggests that there are elements of our culture that precipitate these events.

It’s too easy to simply see shooters as disturbed individuals. While that is certainly part of the explanation here, we also need to look in the mirror as a culture and ask ourselves if we are collectively contributing to these kinds of events. A horrible tragedy like the Sandy Hook shooting is really the culmination of multiple factors. Yes, mental health issues and the availability of adequate mental health services play a role, but so do handgun and semi-automatic weapons availability, media attention, a cultural focus on toughness and hyper-masculinity, a culture that has become callous and non-empathetic, social isolation and alienation, and many other societal factors. Events like this are complex.

While it might be possible to determine the specific sequence of events that led one person to become a mass murderer, it doesn’t tell us much about the next potential shooter. Mass murders occur because of a broad array of cultural factors, neither easily diagnosed nor remedied. There are no simple answers here. Without firsthand acquaintance with the shooter, I’d be skeptical of anyone who offers much expertise into this one person’s mental state.

That said, there are important issues and questions here for American society to address.

The gun issue is more complex than either gun proponents or gun control advocates acknowledge. There is little evidence to suggest that wider gun ownership increases crime. Likewise, there is little evidence that wider gun ownership decreases crime. What does seem to be the case is that wider handgun ownership in particular increases the lethality of crime. That is, a simple assault might turn into a murder if a handgun is present. There is little statistical effect of other types of guns, including rifles, shotguns, and even assault rifles. While these may play some role in specific crimes, broadly speaking, only handguns have much effect on the U.S. murder rate.

On the other hand, gun control advocates also miss an important point. Handguns and other guns are so widely available at this point in American society that any attempt to restrict them would likely have little immediate effect. Perhaps gun control today would stop some shootings in 20 or 40 years, but it would have little or no effect on the likelihood of these shootings today. The genie is out of the bottle.

Some have called for armed guards at schools or even arming teachers. This is unlikely to have much effect either. Almost by definition, mass murderers are not thinking rationally. Attempts to deter those with little regard for their own lives are unlikely to work. Beyond that, I’m skeptical that armed guards or teachers would be very effective in stopping shootings in progress. Columbine high school had two armed security guards when the shootings occurred there. More recently, four well-armed and trained police officers were shot and killed at a coffee shop in Lakewood. If trained, armed, prepared officers can’t stop an active shooter; it’s unlikely a second grade music teacher could.

In reality, when shooting starts, it isn’t like the movies. People — all people — get scared. Reactions get blurred. Sometimes, as happened recently in New York, even law enforcement can lose their cool and accidentally shoot innocent bystanders. Ask any combat veteran about what happens when the shooting starts. All bets are off. Beyond that, armed schools raise other questions about financial costs and sending our kids to schools that look like prisons. Armed schools might make us feel safer, but we wouldn’t actually be safer.

It’s also important to put these shootings in context. Every day about eight children are murdered and another five commit suicide using firearms in the U.S. Another five die from abuse. That’s like Sandy Hook happening every day. It doesn’t get as much media attention, but for the families involved it is just as tragic.

Sadly, school massacres are nothing new. Beware those that say that “our society has fallen apart” or that things like this never happened in the “good old days.” Murder rates in the U.S. were actually much higher 150 years ago, with presumably many of the victims children. In fact, the largest school massacre in U.S. history happened in 1927 in Bath, Michigan, when a disgruntled member of the local school board used dynamite to kill 38 elementary school children and six adults. Despite media attention to the contrary, we actually live in one of the safest times to be alive. Schools are still incredibly safe places. Far more children, for instance, will die at home than at school. While statistics may not be much comfort to parents during a tragedy, the data should reassure us in sending our children off to school.

Americans rightly responded in outrage, fear, and sadness to the terrible tragedy in Newtown. At the same time, I wish we could extend our empathy to other children as well. Each week, as part of the war on terror, drone bombings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere kill more children than died at Sandy Hook. These children are just as innocent…just as loved by their parents…their deaths as tragic. Of course it isn’t done intentionally, but that’s little comfort to the affected families. Americans consume billions of dollars in products each year manufactured in dangerous, slave-like conditions by children working in sweatshops around the globe. Many of these children die as a result of those working conditions.

The difference, of course, is that it’s easy to point the finger at a deranged mass murderer. It’s much harder to look in the mirror and recognize our own roles in the deaths of children. Blaming others is easier than accepting personal responsibility. Perhaps, if we could have more empathy for children on the other side of the globe, or hear the stories of their lives and deaths, or see interviews with their saddened parents, we would have very different foreign policies and consumer habits.

I’m reminded of what former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright said when asked on 60 Minutes about a Red Cross report stating that 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of sanctions imposed on Iraq by the U.S. after the first Gulf War. She said, “Yes, we think the price is worth it.”

That is lack of empathy. That is the moral calculus of mass murder. It is the reasoning of a school shooter. A society that holds such calloused values and lacks empathy will produce at least some citizens who commit terrible atrocities. In that sense, the Newtown shooter was not so much an aberration in our society, but a reflection of some of our worst attributes.

David Hyde, a professor at South Puget Sound Community College, offered his thoughts on the Sandy Hook Massacre. His extensive background in sociology and criminology offer a unique perspective on this tragedy.