• April 20, 2014

Seeing Past the Blame Game

Seeing Past the Blame Game 1

Tom Willett, Getty Images

A vigil for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of the shootings was held in Tucson.

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Tom Willett, Getty Images

A vigil for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of the shootings was held in Tucson.

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.


1. fortysomethingprof - January 13, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I'm not really seeing why this essay should be in the Chronicle. Because it was written by an academic and mentions a couple of academics briefly? This should have been sent to the author's local newspaper for publication on the op-ed page.

2. postdoc09 - January 14, 2011 at 12:17 am

It's difficult, actually, to see the world as a fundamentally different place with rationale people thinking before they act. I get the general point of this article.

However, and much to the chagrin of many complainers towards the Pima County Sheriff, Arizona IS the eye of contentious focus: illegal residents, Mexican drug cartel killings, and an almost slain Congresswoman (not to mention a nine-year old). Was the Berkeley Chancellor myopically reaching a bit far in his rhetoric? Perhaps. But, like it not Arizona is a hot spot and the Sarah Palin's of the wolrd don't, in all honesty, really help the problem with a gunsight target aimed directly over the Gifford's political district. . .

3. washingtonwarrior - January 14, 2011 at 08:31 am

Who is to blame? Republicans.

4. dank48 - January 14, 2011 at 08:32 am

Great article. The problem is more complex and harder to fix than we'd like. Society would like life to be as simple as a video game, with quick, easy, cheap solutions, and with no fallout, downside, or unanticipated consequences.

Too bad; it isn't. All the facile commentary, all the demonizing, and all the talking-head punditry comes down to waving magic wands and chanting spells. Works like magic.

Of course the salient characteristic of magic is that in fact it doesn't work at all, except in the sense of providing an illusion. To accomplish anything is going to be harder. And ignoring the realities in favor of canned ideological kneejerking isn't going to help a bit.

5. ambrit92 - January 14, 2011 at 09:42 am

I think that people are too quick to try and "analyze" what happened in Tucson before all of the facts are known. I found this article / blog to actually be the most articulate and reasoned of anything my colleagues, or I, have seen regarding this entire tragedy. http://truthinthelaw.blogspot.com/2011/01/tucson-blame-game-time-to-dial-back.html

6. sisgett - January 14, 2011 at 09:58 am

While Ferguson's article is generally correct in its analysis of this problem, it misses one important point. Though "libertarian and humanistic elements" were certainly part of deinstitutionalization a generation ago, so was a deliberate effort to cut services at all levels for the mentally ill. As institutions were emptied out, homeless shelters and jails were filled up. Unfortunately, a segment of the population cannot live outside of institutional care without becoming dangerous to themselves (the most likely scenario) or to others. Many of those who can live outside can only do so if appropriate services are provided. And Ferguson is quite correct that attending to the problem of mental illness in society will be "messy ... imperfect ... and prone to abuses." That doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

7. sms23 - January 14, 2011 at 10:04 am

One thing we could fix immediately is the control of gun sales. There is no legitimate justification for selling automatic weapons with clips of 30 shells to ordinary citizens. Most politicians have been bought off by the NRA, so there is very little rational discussion of responsible limits on the right to bear arms.

8. redweather - January 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

If you've been to a movie theater lately in the U. S. and sat through the coming attractions, you may have noticed that firearms of all kinds are conspicuously on display. Add to that the relative ease with which people in this country, both those arguably sane and those probably not, can obtain high powered firearms. Add to that nutball websites contending that, for instance, grammar rules are part of a vast government mind-control conspiracy. Add to that political speech of the "reload" and "crosshairs" variety mentioned in this column. In short, there is no shortage of contributing factors that might explain a politically motivated homicide like the one in Tucson. The good news is that all of these contributing factors can be dealt with; the bad news is that dealing with them will in some instances involve some infringement on personal freedom. The choice, as always, is ours.

9. gbra8441 - January 14, 2011 at 11:07 am

Sisgett makes a very good point about deinstitutionalization, which went hand in hand with deregulation. Whatever we do (or don't do) will have unintended, unforeseeable consequences. When has anything ever worked out exactly as planned and expected? Furthermore, neither left nor right is totally to blame for the situation, and neither left nor right is totally blameless. We are not a race of geniuses, and our ability to see into the future is, to put it mildly, limited.

10. gailmm - January 14, 2011 at 11:28 am

There are some other commonalities in many recent mass shootings. Often, there is inadequate communication among law enforcement or mental health agencies and a failure to get eligible individuals into the instant gun background check system(NICS); congress passed an act improving NICS in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy but has yet to fully fund this urgently needed legislation.

Also, most of these killers are seeking fame which they receive from our media culture as their incoherent internet postings become news, their images are everywhere,and even messages deliberately sent by a killer to the media are widely circulated. I fear we are inspiring the next mass shooting every time we focus on the killer as much,or more, than the victims. We must create a media culture where the focus is on the victims and only the most basic facts are released regarding the killer if we are to break this cycle of mass murders.

A personal note: I am the parent a physically uninjured survivor of the second floor Norris Hall VT 4/16/07 shooting- I can not feel that the risk of being a victim of lightening is equivalent to being struck by lightening no matter what the statistics may be.The "collateral" damage done to survivors of mass shootings and their families, as well as the unimaginable aftermath for the families and friends of the slain should be incorporated into any risk analysis.

11. 12080243 - January 14, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful article, Mr. Ferguson. Let me emphasize a few of your ideas and add a few, too.

No competent heath care professional will advise that s/he can predict who will commit a Virginia Tech slaughter. As noted by the the author, after the fact, it's easy to find reasons that the slaughter should have been prevented/predicted. If you believe you've identified the "signs" of a mass murder, then apply you knowledge before hand and see how successful you are.

We often forget that human nature exhibits another side to this problem, which Mr. Ferguson alludes to: abuse of mental illness accusations. Officials, administrators, and others with power use accusations of insanity to banish/discredit people whose ideas they don't like. If you don't believe it, visit http://www.psychologistethics.net/. Now put yourself in the position of someone who is falsely accused of being a "nutcase". We think it's impossible in this day and age that administrators and officials would apply a Soviet Union approach to dealing with dissidents. (Catch one of them lying, cheating, or stealing and watch how they protect themselves.) There isn't a Gulag in the US, but banishment from school and marking someone as insane has the same effect. Try to get a job under that cloud. And the compelling issue for us is that not one shred of evidence has to be put forward. Just the feelings of the accusers is required. The community is primed to believe and hypersensitive given what's happened at Tucson, Virginia Tech, etc. A perfect environment to apply a false accusation. All to often, colleagues who know better will actually participate or worse, be silent. Furthermore, what mental health professional will go out on a limb and put their reputation on the line by claiming that an accused will not be violent? (Except one employed by the state and protected with immunity from liability. Unfortunately, they will probably participate in the mobbing--see the website given above.)

Essential questions for us include: What do after-the-fact glib diagnoses and legal opinions contribute to prevent the next slaughter? What do we know that will help predict the next slaughter?

12. iancdris - January 14, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Aren't we all to blame?

Have we not trained politicians not mention raising taxes? Do we support the local mental health, or MHMR, clinics by voting to support social programs? Do we encourage politicians to tackle the big, difficult questions, or do we only respond to vitriolic sound bites?

Until we change our own priorities and put others before ourselves: Why do we expect others too?

13. dave_p - January 14, 2011 at 04:14 pm

Thank you, Professor Ferguson, for a clear, insightful essay. I respectfully disagree with a poster above who thought it did not belong in this journal. As a Tucsonan, UA faculty member, and constituent and supporter of Gabrielle Giffords, I am particularly grateful that the author criticized the Berkeley chancellor's remarks. I cannot tell you how damaging such a misassignment of blame by a prominent out-of-state academic is to us academics in Arizona. People who are anti-education will use poorly-thought-out assertions such as were made by the chancellor and others against our community of educators. They already have, in online forums.

In public debate, especially on political issues, academics seem to be held in higher standards in public forums. When we make unfounded or illogical remarks, the fallout can be especially severe. I don't have a problem with that. We are trained to think logically, we are training young people to think logically. We need to get it right in the public arena, or pay the consequences.

14. gbra8441 - January 14, 2011 at 04:29 pm

Has anyone else noticed the sharp contrast between the medical personnel on the one hand and the journalists on the other? It's heartening to hear the doctors, surgeons, and other medical people sticking to the point, observing confidentiality appropriately, and steadfastly refusing to be prompted to say what the journalist would like them to say. For example, earlier in the week Wolf Blitzer, who imo is among the better, more responsible TV journalists, was talking with one of the doctors about Giffords's sedation. The doctor explained well what was being done. For some damn reason, Blitzer was trying to get the doctor to say that Gifford had been put in "an induced coma." Maybe he learned the term on an episode of House, M.D. and liked it. The doctor patiently went over the process of administering sedatives and waking up the patient hourly to check on progress. Blitzer kept trying to feed him "induced coma," and the doctor kept saying "sedation," politely but firmly resisting the repeated nudge toward journalistic cliche-mongering. Blitzer was just doing a riff on the old "Would you say you were in a state of shock?" BS familiar from a zillion post-accident/crime interviews. I think journalists who try to treat the people they're interviewing as if they were ventriloquists' dummies should be recycled as street-sweepers or something else more suited to their abilities and ethics.

15. duchess_of_malfi - January 15, 2011 at 03:10 pm

Thank you for this excellent explanation of what we know and don't know about mass homicide, and for reminding us to use caution in generalizing from very rare events.

I agree with the previous poster that high-pressure news situations such as this one reveal some journalists' bad reporting habits. But there has also been some good reporting of the suspect's history, including the ways in which his behavior created further isolation.

I have taught many more students who have suffered from serious mental illness than I have taught students who threatened me with violence, but there has been an overlap between the categories. If and when you are in that situation, your institution's and colleagues' response can confirm that you are part of a community, or tell you that you are on your own. I am impressed by Pima CC.

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