Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's Not A Hardware Problem (on Sandy Hook)

Well here we are, the Monday after the tragic child-murders in Newtown Connecticut. The nation has been twisted into a turmoil unparalleled since the 9/11 attacks. In a way this feels even worse.  That the victims were mostly children tears at the heart in a way no other killing can. That they were massacred in the season that we set aside for particular expressions of kindness and love - especially toward children - adds a confounding layer to our grief. And that this act of evil was not perpetrated by fanatics with beliefs and traditions different than ours, but by one of our own, makes it particularly terrifying. Because we know it will happen again. And that we will not see it coming. So now, as the shocked silence gives way to angry rhetoric, I thought that I would add my voice.

I won't emote further about the incident itself. That has been done much and much-better by others. But I would like to offer my insights as to what might be the underlying causes for this lengthening string of mass murders, and what - if anything - might be done to prevent those that wait just beyond the horizon of time. The arguments this time are much the same as they've been in times past. They break down into four basic conversations, and are as follows.

1. We need more gun control.

2. We need to re-introduce moral training into our schools.

3. We need to increase school security.

4. We need to better care for the mentally ill.

The first position is the one that usually hits the airwaves first. This is the go-to for all the usual suspects on the left side of the politi-cultural spectrum. The argument is made that nobody needs guns other than ones specifically meant for game-hunting, and that if we gradually eliminate assault-weapons and even hand-guns, there will eventually be much fewer of them in homes across the country. And that when one of these angry youngsters snaps, there will likely be no light, easily concealable weapon handy. This anti-gun call to action invariably brings quick response from those who distrust big government, doubt its ability to protect us, and suspect that it might itself become that from which we need protecting. This is the argument from the 2nd Amendment. Both sides of this debate have been honed to a fine edge, and neither will vanquish the other any time soon. I see value in both positions, and problems with each.

The second conversation has to do with what we are teaching our kids. The shooters in these school and theater attacks are young people. In this debate, we hear voices from the Right calling out for 'God' to return to our schools. They point out that without the moral imperatives traditionally provided by the belief in an all-seeing God, a human will sometimes not develop a conscience. And that when twisted by stress, bullying, rejection, or failed parenting, a young person can easily slide into dark obsession centered on punishing the world which has hurt him. Without 'God', it is argued, what prevents the youngster from acting upon these urges?  The counter-arguments come mainly from the Left, and usually involve statistics showing that gun-violence is markedly less prevalent in the most secular countries. As a grace note, it will often be remarked that religion did little to halt the inquisition or the trajectories of four hi-jacked airliners eleven years ago. Again ... a debate that has produced more seasoned debaters than solutions.

We've been adding security measures to schools for a long time. Many campuses that were once wide open are now fully fenced, with entrants funneled through a metal detector. Zero-tolerance laws regarding weapons on campus are not new. Attack-drills are joining fire-drills on the list of prudent precautions. Sandy Hook Elementary had all of these measures in place to little avail. What do we do? Keep layering on the security until schools resemble medium-security prisons with razor-wire encircling the ball-fields and snipers watching from guard towers? Or do we have one faculty member or several who carry handguns and are trained to use them? These are unattractive ideas for all of us ... yet we fear that without them we leave kids vulnerable. 

The discussion about mental illness is not specific to school shootings, but rears its head every time one of these attacks sends us searching for something, ANYTHING that might prevent the next one. It's seldom entirely clear that these shooters are actually mentally ill. The Tucson and Georgia Tech gunmen seem to be the clearest examples of an identifiable break with reality. The Aurora shooter and those at Columbine are harder to peg as sick in the traditional sense. The jury is out, of course, on the most recent killer. This is a tough nut to crack. Schizophrenia often waits to appear until early adulthood. Who wants to admit that his or her beloved child is coming unraveled? And at a time in life when many kids pass through dark periods to emerge as normal, can any of us be sure we would spot the onset of serious mental illness in a child we love?

So these are the ideas that most often get kicked around in the aftermath of one of these tragic attacks. I want to come at it from another angle. I'll make my case and then draw from all of the above in my suggestions for preventive action.

Those who know me well know that I am a staunch proponent of evolution. As far as I am concerned, we are Homo Sapiens. We are a particularly intelligent species of primate. This is - for me - beyond the point where it can be denied. And though I have great respect for my religious friends, and am perfectly willing to have them set God as the designer of evolution ... I always refer back to my knowledge of human origins much in the way they refer to scripture. 

As far as we know, we are the most intellectually advanced species that has ever lived on planet Earth. No other species can do what I am doing right now, or would even be able to imagine wanting to do it. That you can read this for its meaning is akin to a miracle. And it may be one. But our fantastic abilities do not come unalloyed. Our massive cerebral cortex - where all the goodies are born - is built upon an older, more primitive mammalian brain. And beneath that, closely linked to our central nervous system, an even older 'lizard' brain. And these old brains are still influencing us. It's a little bit like putting a Ferrari engine into an old Studebaker pickup truck. The marvels of the new engine are seriously limited by the capabilities of the chassis that supports it.

So when I see an aberrant behavior such as the shootings in Connecticut, and as I watch a nation grope for understanding, I ask myself different questions than others might. When many ask plaintively, "How could this happen?", it's a rhetorical question. They don't really expect an answer. They don't believe that an answer is possible. So they reach for explanations outside the confines of the human being who produced the act. It must be evil itself, they say, a power outside of us that roams the world looking for outlet. Or it's the guns themselves. If we could eliminate guns, we would eliminate the urge to shoot. Could it be that he 'snapped', and from that came an impulse foreign to the rest of us? Or if it's a form of mental sickness might we effectively treat or quarantine those similarly stricken? Aren't people basically good? And if so, what can cause such a terrible act?

First I want to disabuse you of that one assumption, if in fact you assume it. People are NOT basically good. Nor are they basically bad. People are - like all organisms - driven by the need to survive. And having accomplished that, the organism wants to replicate itself. All of the wonderful things we modern humans do are grafted onto the ancient drives - a pre-existing condition, if you will -  and therefore our sophisticated modern selves are forever embarrassed by the primitives in the baesment.

More 'enlightened' goals are suggested and promoted through culture. This is the primary role of religion and the arts. And the preference for religion-based morality co-exists nicely with the conservative's desire for less government, whereas the Left believes moral accountability is best done through law and policy. Whatever the truth, be certain that humans are not automatically moral, though empathy and compassion are also part of the survival package stowed away in our genes. We have goodness in us as potential. But it must be nurtured and strengthened. Particularly in men.

All of these shooters are male, and all are young. It is my belief that the whole of every moral system ever devised is primarily designed for the control of one sub-set of humans: the young male. Mostly it is young males who commit acts of violence. Sure there are some instances where females kill or older people kill, but by shear numbers, it is overwhelmingly young males who commit murder. If you asked me what drives them to it, I'd have to say this: 


You're thinking that I've lost my train of thought. You're thinking that I have brought you this far only to deliver an anti-climax worthy of a 'Ghost-Hunters' TV episode, or an Evil Knevel canyon-jump. But stay with me. Think for a second about why - apart from immediate need - men do anything. They want money or power or a beautiful woman or more land or an Olympic medal or to write a symphony or cure a disease, because the getting of it or doing of it is something others have failed at. The tribal urge within us bids us to best one another. That's how the organism survives and manages to reproduce. It wins at one contest or another. And the only thing that grants it a bit of peace is to be given some acknowledgment of having won.

The Alpha wins the fight, and then is mostly free of the fighting. He only has to defend once in a while. His position is semi-permanent. And that is called status.

If you look past the gilded surfaces and the self-congratulatory explanations, all male human behavior is driven by the need for status. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. A man might be driven to do tremendous good if he has become focused on others who have done good. If Gandhi is his hero, he will try to out-Gandhi Gandhi. He will work tirelessly to be as humble as the most humble. Status isn't tied to any one type of accomplishment, but it is tied to accomplishment of some type. 

And there is this too: because our atavistic instincts evolved in small groups with limited resources, status is perceived as a zero-sum game. It's not enough, in other words, to succeed - it's also necessary that my counterpart fail. If anybody thinks that being smart and educated relieves one of the need to conquer, I ask you to visit my Facebook Timeline and read some of the threads. 

Has anybody else noticed that these school shooters are not athletes? Are there any mass killers who excelled at sports? I doubt it. Because team-sports exist to channel this need for status-seeking conquest among young males into an acceptable behavior. It's here one can learn that through cooperation all members of a group can win. Of course that can only be done by defeating another team, but that's the other guys' problem. Besides, losing together teaches its own lessons.

These shooters are not successful in the social pressure-cooker of high school or college. They are the guys who would historically have been the nerds, accepting their low status as a fact of miserable life. And then, having passed through adolescence and young adulthood, would wake to find that much of what cost them socially in school serves them in later life. And since the geeks were generally meek, it was not such a concern to give them a status-boost akin to a football player's letter. They wouldn't do much damage if denied. 

Kids running in gangs are just the dark version of a sports team. Young males taking territory by force from other young males (or defending it) is exactly the thing to which the analogous rules of football refer. If you think about it, you'll see how the game of Chess is just football for weaklings. It's all about using what you have to defeat an opponent and seize some status.

So what of young people today? Society has made a great effort to deny the inherent differences between boys and girls. It is the prevailing belief among the academic elite that men and women are more-or-less interchangeable. Many young men now have no male role-model close at hand, and societal rights-of-passage are considered passe. (interestingly not among Jews who are vastly under-represented in prisons). So how does a boy who feels an inner rage to compete and win - but is not athletic - ease into a comfortable manhood? Well often they simply do not. Many turn to video games. And there - in the world made by nerds for nerds - they compete in first-person shooter games. These are the games where the action is viewed from behind the eyes of the guy doing all the killing. And the killing is bloody and realistic and the win is linked to body-count. Some young guys play these games for hours every night. How can this possibly have no effect? If people are not influenced by what they take in, then what the hell is advertising all about? Of course we are affected by what we see ... but much more so by what we do. I'm willing to bet that before the Columbine killers donned their gear and went a-murdering, each had 'virtually' killed many thousands.

Of course it is true that most young people who play these games never commit mass murder. Of course. But is it not time to ask ourselves what the net gain is to society that thousands of young men spend their spare time practicing murder simulations in the same way that a pilot might work at a flight simulator? If the pilot can become accustomed to landing a plane thusly, why would a young man not become more ready for an actual killing spree?

But how does this relate to the seeking of status? Well, monkey see, monkey do. These murderers are covered by the media for months, and never go away entirely. Do you remember the names of the Columbine victims? Even one? But though I am purposely not mentioning the shooters' names, you know them. You also know of their struggles and successes. You may have read their writings, or seen videos of them. They are - for want of a better word - celebrities. And in our world, celebrity is status. So a boy who feels weak and powerless, and soothes that with violent wish-fulfillment games, knows one sure-fire way to knock us all to our knees.

Many people are now calling for much greater restrictions on firearms. Some - like a friend of mine - are demanding the confiscation and destruction of all guns. These people are not concerned with the rights of law-abiding adults. They are understandably terrified at the thought of more children being slaughtered to give some twisted jerk a win. 

I have another idea. I think that we ought to outlaw first-person shooter video games for people under the age of 21. Is this an abridgment of rights? Damn straight. But as a society we have long believed that we are duty-bound to inhibit the behaviors of young people. Could it be done? It would be difficult. Perhaps there is a way that a small scanner could be sold by game manufacturers, and unless a player could produce a valid ID, the game would not operate. Let the free market address the problem. They'll find a way.

Next, I think that we ought to make sure that every boy has contact with male teachers in school, and that the subject of male human nature be discussed in all-male settings with honesty and a disregard for political-correctness. Boys need male role models who will be frank with them about what it is they are feeling. There are men's groups all over the country of the 'Iron John' variety. I'm sure that many of these men would volunteer to speak candidly in high schools. 

Bring back the chess club. Bring back the debate club. Let the scrawny kids get their mojo workin'. Again ... this is not a girls issue. Boys are slipping badly in many areas of society. Let's drop the unisex B.S. and let boys be boys. 

In the meantime, I would put one well-trained faculty member into every school, who is permitted and required to carry a lethal weapon. The police and the NRA would be happy to train such people. The identity of this person would be a secret, like the air-marshals. I think it would be prudent, and would pose no danger to students.

We must take another look at dealing with mental-illness. Would it be too much to have screenings in the same way that students are checked for disease? It would surely be largely ineffective, but even if we never know it, we might save lives and head off some non-violent mental illness as well.

Next, I believe that gun restrictions must be consistent from state to state. Dealers require background-checks and register every gun purchase. That's appropriate. And I think that a gun-safety exam ought to be given and trigger locks required for every gun kept in a home. All out-of-store gun purchases whether at gun shows or between private parties ought to carry a registration requirement just like the dealers have. This could be done with smart-phone apps direct to government data-bases. I don't see how any of this would negatively impact the rights of gun owners. Guns are - like cars - potentially deadly devices and should be as track-able as a car.

I agree that faith-based moral training is effective. But many Americans no longer believe in a god. This will not change, most likely, except to become more pronounced. But that doesn't mean that moral training does not belong in schools. We should be teaching societal morals in a formal way, basing them on which codes of behavior have produced good societies historically. Additionally, empathy training should be at least an occasional part of early education. Empathy is just the ability to vividly imagine the pain of others. If this was openly encouraged - perhaps through verbal exercises or play-acting - a child's natural ability to empathize might be brought out. Also this would be helpful in identifying children with a deficit in this area so that they might get special attention.

And it is time for Hollywood to accept their role in the culture. Any hyper-violent film ought to receive a rating that would help parents avoid it. And we, as consumers, ought to do just that.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. These are just my own opinions, based on my own perceptions. Feel free to share yours with me, or mine with others.

Dave Morrison ... December 17, 2012


  1. This is a thoughtful essay addressing the horrific school shootings. First of all, I want to say that I am amused and not so surprised that Dave and I have been on the same wavelength concerning the reasons and motives behind the tragedies. I very strongly believe that the emergence and acceptance of violent video games has led to these types of incidents. It has not so much to do with gun control and accessibility, or school security. It goes much deeper than that. Dave brings in a very interesting aspect - that of "status". And I think it's right on. When young troubled men feel that they cannot get ahead in any acceptable way, the door opens mentally for them to do the unacceptable. And if they have spent hours playing shoot-em-up, murderous video games, and have felt satifaction because they can do this one thing very well - then it's not hard to extrapolate that even more glorious for them would be to take their skill into real life. Try it out on real people. See how many they can take down, then go out in a blaze of glory. Except it's not a game, and they will not be ressurected to play another round.

  2. Dave, I agree with 90 % of your solutions... I agree with your insights into the nature of the trouble young males are having with the largely fatherless culture they live in. i am afraid first person shooter games are absolutely not as innocuous as many guys fervently wish. I don’t agree at all with your evolutionaly assumptions, but you knew that. I hope you get this piece out there... it’s practical applications are really valid.

  3. Very thoughtful. Agreed on the psycho killer simulator training games. Also, the Hays Office and code were not the great evil that is portrayed. There are lessons to be drawn from such cultural experiments. And there is a sort of Daoistic Tango that must be performed between what is incompletely termed the right and left so that they keep each other from veering off the path of "what works" and into the meandering morass of "righteousness". By all that I mean, keep it up, Dave, cause there is not enough thoughtful discussion goin on out there. Psychological screening by the "state" is, unfortunately, quite frightening. Who owns the state these days, and that is who will be served by the process that will be put in place to do that? Opening up more avenues for achievement, recognition and behavior modeling would be a great thing. I don't think that any separate programs for young men will be allowed to exist, as righteous women will crash and destroy such programs. Happens every time.

  4. Very thoughtful and insightful piece, Dave. Most of your points are spot on. I would quibble with your designating the shooters as "nerds" - my experience is that nerds are driven, be it by computers - by music - writing - science - academic pursuits. They may be social outsiders but have their own network of high achievers. The violence level in nerds is way below the norm, part of what makes them nerds and easy to be physically bullied.

    However, your point that the shooters are all young males is one that makes me wonder why the observation is not in the headlines. I agree that STATUS is a motivation that goes to our base roots. At a young age, emotion rules the thought process [why 19 is the ideal age for military] and propensity for risk. Also, your idea that young males should be paired with a male model is important. When peers are the sole model in the teenage years, there is no experienced perspective for the teens. And yes, bring back chess, debate, photo, band, etc. - athletics (which I love) should not be the defining activity and is limited to a few with unique skills.

    I strongly agree that video game, television, and movie "shooter" violence is a real issue. Let these kids go into combat and see the true damage as opposed to the bloodless non-maiming images they game. Let them carry injured and dead buddies out of the battle, often under fire. It's a real nightmare not a fantasy world.

    Regarding gun control, I agree with everything you've said about registration and sharing of the information across the states. Some intriguing ideas I've heard (not saying I agree with them, just intrigued) are insurance requirements for gun owners and "gun education" both in parallel with automobile licensing.

    I strongly believe that all guns should have gunlocks. There is not-so-new technology that would put an indicator on the firearm as to whether or not the firearm is loaded - and would disable firing if the clip is out of the firearm. These seem to be reasonable ideas, like seat belts and air bags. My taxes pay the often long term health care for people in auto accidents and shooting accidents who are not insured.

  5. Part II:

    I don't advocate gun control but do advocate gun regulation. Other potentially dangerous activities which require education and licensing are similarly regulated. Firearms are American and part of our culture. They are tools for hunting and sport. I draw the line at tools for killing and support the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban and high capacity clip ban. Historically, automatic weapons have been illegal for those not in the military or law enforcement - starting in the days of the Thompson submachine gun. Government and the military viewed them as too dangerous for public use. Why - again education, the purpose and destructive capability of the weapon, but also the skills and training needed to operate these weapons. We license doctors, lawyers, etc. where knowledge and training is paramount for safety. Both law enforcement and military are schooled and live daily fire control discipline. Friendly fire is just as deadly and law enforcement/military are trained extensively to not kill their own. Even with the best training, friendly fire happens. The weird thing is that the NRA until the 1980's supported the assault weapon/high capacity clip ban and many of the proposed registration requirements. The NRA's central goal was gun safety. Something began happening in the country in the 1980's culturally. We've become more (across all spectrums) like the Middle East instead of visa-versa. But that's a whole nuther discussion.

    I am uncertain about having an armed individual in all schools. It certainly is effective on El Al (as is the military training of all the flight attendants) but I'm not sure what that says about our country. Have much thinking to do on this point.

    The mental health issue is quite complicated. I only ask that our legislators seek the advice of experts and not make laws based on instinct and public opinion.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful and well conceived missive.