The January 8 shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and over a dozen others, including a 9-year-old girl, in Tucson is a national tragedy. We are learning more about the shooter, Jared Loughner, but the days and weeks following an event like this can be rife with misinformation. Such events are so extreme, so frightening, that they defy society's ability to be patient, to allow the official investigation to run its course. That can take months, and society wants answers today.
Who is to blame? What can we change to prevent these sorts of things from happening in the future? In the past few days, we've heard a lot of talk about the potential impact of vitriolic political speech on the perpetrator. Was he influenced by cross-hair imagery on political maps, or the "reload" type language used more and more in recent years?
I won't rehash all the arguments for and against this notion; suffice to say that without knowing much about the perpetrator, we're putting the cart before the horse. A reaction like this is normal and understandable. If someone goes snorkeling with sharks and gets eaten, sad though that certainly is, the behavior was identifiably risky to begin with. But going to the mall, or to school, or to work, places most of us think as safe, and getting killed by some (usually) man you've never met, never had a quarrel with—that's something else. Essentially a lightning bolt from the sky. People tend to be inordinately afraid of events they can't control (airplane crashes, as opposed to car crashes). Thus the reflexive search for an easy explanation, a boogeyman to hold responsible, is perfectly normal. But also unproductive.
An individual American is about as likely to be killed by an actual lightning bolt as in a mass homicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 82 to 107 Americans die every year in lightning strikes. The criminologist James Alan Fox has estimated that about 100 Americans die annually in mass homicides. Although parceling out the specific number of deaths can be difficult, depending on how one exactly defines "mass murder," I'd agree that this is a sound estimate, so the lightning and mass-homicide figures are about on par. Society, however, doesn't get itself in an uproar over lightning deaths, given the perception that individuals have at least some control over possible victimization. The fear of mass homicide is out of proportion to the actual likelihood of victimization.
Further, mass homicides are not a uniquely American phenomenon (recent incidents have occurred in places as far-flung as Canada, Finland, Germany, China, Nepal, Switzerland, Uganda, Yemen, Iran, and France, including some countries with restrictive gun laws), and it's difficult to parcel out whether the United States has an unusually high number of such events. Perhaps yes in terms of raw numbers, but the United States also has a larger population than most other industrialized nations and may be more forthcoming in reporting them than are closed societies. Generally, the incidence of mass homicides has remained steady over the past few decades, although there can be considerable fluctuation from one year to the next. Perceptions that they are ever increasing in number may have more to do with the availability heuristic (widespread news-media coverage makes unusual events like plane crashes and mass homicides seem more common than they actually are) than with reality.
Nonetheless, the shocking nature of mass homicides gives rise to a demand for easy answers, a target upon which the fear and anger can be focused. "If we could just get rid of X," the thinking goes, "we can prevent these sorts of things from happening again, and my children and I will be safe." Thus, with a congresswoman targeted and the nation already justifiably frustrated with political hyperbole, political speech is easy to blame. Of course, politicians' being targeted for violence is nothing new, nor is it apparently related to the tone of political debate. For example, although no political era is without rancor, the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981, in which four people were shot, had more to do with Jodie Foster than politics. If today's politics seem bloody, at least politicians aren't actually beating one another on the Senate floor, as Sen. Preston Brooks did to Sen. Charles Sumner in 1856.
Political speech is only the latest such scapegoat. In recent cases, the desperate search for answers has focused on radical Islam (the Fort Hood shooting), the tenure system (University of Alabama at Huntsville), video games (particularly embarrassing in 2007 when "Dr. Phil" and other pundits rushed to proclaim the Virginia Tech shooter a gamer, a hypothesis that proved false during the official investigation), or the goth subculture (Columbine High). What is striking is that these explanations involve idiosyncratic elements of individual shootings—that is, elements that are not shared among most perpetrators. In many cases, while the scapegoat may be shared between the perpetrator and many nonviolent members of society, it is not shared among the shooters.
For instance, Amy Bishop (the Huntsville shooter) shares the experience of tenure denial with faculty members who do not respond violently. Most mass killers, however, have never gone up for tenure, let alone been denied it. Some mass murderers have played violent video games, just like most young men and many young women today, but many mass murderers were not identified as gamers (Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Huntsville, the rash of school knifings in China in 2010 committed by middle-aged men, anyone who committed a mass homicide before the 1990s). Now even the state of Arizona seems to be coming under particular scrutiny, presumably for its conservative politics (Ms. Giffords was a Democrat). The chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, foolishly commented, "I believe that it is not a coincidence that this calamity has occurred in a state which has legislated discrimination against undocumented persons." Since when have mass homicides been confined to Arizona?
On the other hand, most analyses of mass murderers find some commonalities. Namely, most such offenders have long-term antisocial traits, suffer from mental illness, and display a tendency to feel persecuted by others. It is not politically correct to link mental illness with violence, and, of course, the vast majority of mentally ill individuals are nonviolent. In focusing on the idiosyncratic elements of individual cases, however, we distract ourselves from what they have in common. This tendency can be damaging. Witness how California has poured more than a million dollars into defending its video-game law while simultaneously cutting funds for education, mental-health services, and services for families and children at risk.
Taking on the issue of mental illness in society would be expensive and imperfect and could potentially roll back some of the libertarian and humanistic elements of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill that began in the mid-20th century. This poses society with difficult questions: Do we raise taxes to pay for mental-health services? Do we beef up the ability to forcibly detain (that is, institutionalize) individuals who appear at risk, knowing we will inevitably mischaracterize some who are perfectly peaceful? Should we focus on prevention during their youth (my preference, actually), a time when such efforts tend to be less intrusive, or on interventions with people who are showing at-risk behavior later in life?
It's easy to say we should help the mentally ill, but any such attempt will be messy, imperfect in reliability, and potentially prone to abuses. Frankly, society doesn't seem to have an appetite for the expense. It's no wonder society so often prefers the nostrums provided by the idiosyncratic explanations, nonsense though they might be. Boogeymen can be slain. Unfortunately, with or without them, mass homicides will continue.
Christopher J. Ferguson is an associate professor of psychology in the department of behavioral sciences and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University.