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I waited an entire day to write this post, because every time I thought of it, I found myself getting more and more angry, and more and more incoherent.

So let me take a deep breath here, and I’ll try to stay calm enough here to make sense.

First, I need to tell you that Newtown, Connecticut is a place I know well, and have known well, all my life.

In my early childhood, I lived right next to Newtown, just over the town line into Bethel.  My first ever best friend moved to Newtown when we were both ten, and for a while I made regular visits out to the house her father had bought so that she could have a horse.

Going from our house then to visit relatives in New Haven, we passed right through the center of Sandy Hook. During that period, on those drives that were almost daily for a while, I watched the Rose of Lima school being built.  I can still remember first realizing that it was open, when I saw a nun in full habit standing in the parking lot waiting for the school buses to unload.

Sandy Hook has also been a common destination from where I live now, because it has a number of different shops that sell what I can’t get elsewhere.

I am very grateful that I didn’t know any of the people who died in the shooting, or any of the parents who lost children.  But I do know lots of the people who have been interviewed on cable and local news about the shooting, including some of the law enforcement people.  In two cases, these are people I have known since childhood.

All of this is by way of saying that this is not an academic exercise for me, so if I seem a little ticked off–well.

Because I am enormously ticked off.

Not about the shooting, of course, which can only be met with grief.

I’m ticked off about the response to it, on media, on scial  media, everywhere.

Let me dispense, first, with the small scale annoyances–the psychologists and the moralists.

The psychologists tell me that the man who did this might have had a “personality disorder.”  The moralists tell me that the shooter was evil.

Do you know what these two things have in common?

They’re complete gibberish.  “Personality disorder” translates to “this is a guy who behaves in ways we don’t like, so we’re going to label him something that says he really isn’t like the rest of us.”  “Evil” translates to “this is a guy who behaves in ways we don’t like, so we’re going to label him something that says he really isn’t like the rest of us.”

To say that such responses to something like this are not useful ought to be evident.  People use them to give themselves the illusion of an explanation, and then stop their ears and their minds so that they don’t recognize that it is, in fact, only a delusion.

The major annoyance–the thing that gets me really angry–is the horde of people declaring that this means we should have a discussion about guns.

I think I am as angry as I am about this at least in part because the people who are giving me the gun thing are mostly the same people who declare to me that they engage in “critical thinking” and resort to reason and not emotion when they deal with the world, unlike those stupid religious people who are just closed minded and afraid of death or maybe bigots, or–whatever.

I wish these people would apply critical thinking to what they are doing now.

Let’s start with a proposition.

If it is the case that things like this happen because gun control laws are inadequate, then periods in our history when gun control laws are weaker or nonexistent should see more of this kind of thing than periods in which gun control laws are stronger.

Any look at the history of the US in the 20th and 21st century will tell you that several periods in our history when gun control has been weak or nonexistant showed no events of this kind anywhere at all.

In the 1930s, no gun control laws existed at all in most parts of the nation, and serious weaponry could be had for the asking in quite a few states.

Al Capone and his ilk had access to machine guns, actually army grade weapons, but although they were happy to gun down their rivals and friends, not one of them walked into a public school and shot all the children or walked into a movie theater and laid out the patrons.

And neither did anybody else.

Or take the Fifties, when gun control laws were also much weaker than they are now in most of the nation.  My brother got a rifle for  his fourteenth birthday, and nobody seemed to think anything of it.  He certainly wasn’t the only boy his age who had one.

And yet, even thought he was mercilessly bullied in school, he never used that rifle to shoot up his classmates.

And neither did anybody else.

Obviously, the mere ability to get access to guns is not what causes shootings like this. 

In fact, shootings like this are relatively “new.”  One friend of mine said he couldn’t remember one before the 1960s.  I can’t remember one before the 1980s.

Something has surely changed in our recent history, but any look at the actual facts–without the intervening drive of self righteousness and ideological blinders–will find it plain that what didn’t change was gun control laws being weakened.

The subsidiary argument is to demand that we put into place laws that require criminal background checks, registration, mental health histories, and all the rest.

None of that would have done anything to affect this case and all of it is irrelevant to the situation at hand.

Connecticut’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation.  They not only require all of the above, but establish mandatory training for anybody who wants a gun permit.

The guns the shooter used to kill little children were legally registered to his own mother.  In other words, she had already gone through all the hoops–and more–that people are now saying we should install elsewhere.

Another subsidiary argument is that we should ban “assault weapons.”

That doesn’t apply here either.  The shooter didn’t have an AK-47 or an Uzi.  He had a couple of ordinary pistols and a rifle. 

Of course, there are people who just want us to “get rid of all the guns.”  I don’t know if they actually realize they’re suggesting something that is literally impossible, or why they would suggest it if they do. 

If they honestly don’t understand why it wouldn’t work, I’d suggest they do a thought experiement.

Say you live on a ranch of several thousand acres out in Idaho or Montana.  The nearest police station is a hundred miles away, and if you called the police because your home was being invaded it would take an hour for officers to reach you.

Now what?

Some people, of course, don’t think the right to bear arms should be a right at all and suggest repealing the Second Amendment, or suggest other things that they would be furious at if they were applied to things they do accept as rights.  They would not suggest that people who exercise the right to free speech should have it taken away from them if they can’t control NAMBLA and its website.  They get furious when states place procedural restrictions on abortion.

I’ll leave any discussion of the Constitutional problems for another time.

At the moment, I have one large concern.

Not only is the furor over gun control not helpful in this case, it’s actually harmful to any attempt to do anything about the fact that this kind of thing happens.

Because there is certainly a change here.  It’s a very big change, and it seems to be accelerating. 

We are looking at a phenomenon that was literally unheard of before the last half century. 

Something has gone on, and we don’t know what it is.  We never even try to find what it is, because we’re too busy arguing over guns.

What happened in this society that led to people doing this kind of thing?

No, it wasn’t cutbacks to mental health services, because there were no available mental health services in the Thirties and far fewer than there are now in the Fifties. 

We did make it harder to involuntarily commit people–but unless you want to go back to the days when husbands could have their wives committed because the wives wanted a divorce, you’re not going back to that, either.

And even if you did, it wouldn’t have helped with this.  We’re told that the shooter may have had “a mild form of autism.”  You’re not going to get away with committing the one out of a hundred children now defined as “autistic” by our new and much loosened standards. 

And autism has been around all this time without school shootings and mall shootings and theater shootings.

So has bullying, by the way. 

If you want to apply your critical thinking to this, try to answer the real question:

What has changed in this society that makes people want to do these things?

And, very importantly, what has changed in the last decade that has resulted in a near epidemic of mass shootings?

Something very important is going on here, but yelling about guns or disparaging the people who use them or shredding the Bill of Rights will not tell us what it is.

I’m going to go listen to Handel’s Messiah.

It seems to be Christmas.

Written by janeh

December 16th, 2012 at 11:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'Outliers'

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  1. I was figuring from the “Texas Tower” shooting of 1966. Not counting some stories about one of the Princes of Conde in pre-Revolutionary France, it’s the first time I can think of of someone just taking a firearm and plinking away at random strangers. The shooter at least turned out to have a brain tumor. But not counting that one–late 1980’s or early 1990’s, I think: a cafeteria in Kileen Texas in 1991 and the Long Island Railroad Shooting in 1993. Then things pick up to one or two a year even on a strict count. And it’s not just us: Scotland in 1996, Argentina in 2004, Canada in 2006, Finland in 2007 and 2008, Germany in 2002 and 2009–not to mention Brazil, Norway and Azerbaijan. I have a hazy memory of a Swiss incident I can’t track down.

    But unless there’s some skew in the reporting, about 20 years ago, this became an acceptable response to a bad period in one’s life. I do not know why. I wish I did. I think to a degree the thing feeds on itself: reports of one incident make the next incident thinkable to someone. But I wouldn’t put aside the First Amendment even to stop them. There are prices too high to pay.


    16 Dec 12 at 1:45 pm

  2. FYI, I’ve been deliberately NOT viewing any media depictions, reporting or interviewing regarding this shooting. Can’t do it. Won’t do it. Won’t give my energy to the ghouls who make hay out of these incidents. The shooter is dead, so he won’t get any traction out of this, but the surrounding vampires will. So, No.

    Limiting the “change” Jane talked about to the last 10 years pretty clearly brings up the Internet, and the worldwide notoriety possible using it. Social media and instant reportage not even requiring us to wait until “film at 11” to find out the bad shit. Pictures and tweets raw and real, egging the next nutter on to make his splash bigger and better. :/

    I also think there’s an element of taking the constant human habit of de-humanizing other groups and then, realizing that in our smaller globalized world those “other” groups are Right In Your Face, rubbing up against you and ripe for retaliation for all your imagined wrongs. Does that sentence make any sense?

    I too think that all the gun control and mental health thrashing about is both pointless from the aspect of making progress or preventing the next tragegy, and vastly profitable for the ones making the noise. Sad all the way around. It certainly provides a lot of data points on the yappers, though.


    16 Dec 12 at 2:19 pm

  3. Robert, you left Australia out of your list. 35 killed in a shooting in 1996.

    I’m going to ask a really cold blooded question.

    Is there a serious problem?

    If I understand correctly, at least 100 million people in the US have access to firearms. Once every few years, someone runs wild with a gun. 1 in 100 million does not seem like a serious problem. I’m more worried about drunken driving.

    And I have no idea why it seems to have started in recent times.


    16 Dec 12 at 5:00 pm

  4. What has changed in this society that makes people want to do these things?

    I can only answer this question with more questions :
    whatever happened to being nice and considerate of others, even if we don’t really feel like being nice or considerate ?

    When did ” me first ” prevail over other people ?

    When did television entertainment produce programming to show “life” as writers thought it should be ie “real life documentaries” or movies that depict horror and bloodshed as normal and entertaining ?

    When did parents lose control over their children’s lives and morals ?

    When did parents become afraid of being parents ?

    Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s , the only thing I can remember worrying about was the atom bomb and “duck and cover” at school and what would my parents say if I ever received an “F” on my report card.

    Do children even read books any more ? Real books ? Do they play outside with neighbor kids ? Or is all play now confined to organized activities ?


    16 Dec 12 at 5:44 pm

  5. texaspurl, you are a generation behind me. I graduated from high school in 1954.

    What I remember of the 60s is the utter pointlessness of the student protest movement. The students didn’t like the Vietnam war. Fair enough. But the riots and disruption of the universities made no sense. The universities did not set or control government policy so why protest there?

    Yet society tolerated it. And the students of the 60s are now the grandparents of people in their 20s.


    16 Dec 12 at 5:58 pm

  6. jd, in a way it’s not–but then neither is terrorism. I used to work next to the Army Terrorism Watch, and back then, even taking a broad definition of terrorism, the terrorists’ “best” year was under 300, and drunk drivers were killing about 12,000 a year. Even in 2001, the drunk drivers took a vastly greater toll. But 30 people killed today in a dozen separate drunk driving incidents won’t make the evening news, any more than 100 people killed today by individual medical mistakes, which is also true.

    That said, it’s one thing to kill through carelessness and indifference–even sloppy handwriting on prescriptions or not reading the file–and another to go out with a lethal weapon looking for total strangers who are sure to be unarmed. I understand carelessness and disregard. What causes these people, I have no idea. I’d really like to know.


    16 Dec 12 at 6:03 pm

  7. jd … I am 66 years old and graduated from high school in 1964 .. I clearly remember war demonstrations and I even burned my bra with my two year old wrapped around my legs.

    I guess my parents taught me and my siblings : do no harm… not only physically but mentally as well.

    I in turn have taught my four children the same and I see them instilling this in their children.


    16 Dec 12 at 6:18 pm

  8. I think Jane is right when she titled this post “Outliers”. I take that to mean events at the far end of the distribution curve.

    The US has well over 100 million people over 18. 1 of them shot 20 children.

    Norway has a total population of about 5 million. 1 of them shot 65 young people.

    Australia has a total population of about 20 million. 1 of them shot 35 tourists.

    I doubt that any conclusions can be drawn about the societies involved.


    16 Dec 12 at 7:10 pm

  9. The sheer hypocrisy of the media and politicians when events like this occur is what disgusts me almost as much as the killings themselves. Orchestrated hysteria works well for them. For the media, it boosts sales. For the politicians, it deflects attention from the problems caused or exacerbated by their corruption and incompetence. Obama, who condoned if he did not actually personally start Operation Fast and Furious, must be chortling behind his mask of sympathy for the victims and their families.

    Having taken no action whatsoever during his first term to limit gun-ownership, he can hardly exploit this disaster without confirming himself as just another opportunist. None of this is to suggest that any other president of either party would have acted any differently, but it goes to contradict the myth that Obama is something special and above and beyond such gutter politics.

    The Texas Tower incident was the first that I can recall too. Mercifully, Australia has been relatively free of such atrocities, but we’ve had our share with the Port Arthur massacre setting the world record until it was recently surpassed by the Swedish bloodbath. Our so-called Hoddle Street massacre in Melbourne, Vic, in 1987 killed 7 and seriously wounded 19 others. There have been several others in recent times.

    Why is it so? Surely, it’s worth finding out, and the last thing that should be considered, if it should be considered at all, is the availability of high-powered weaponry – none of which jumps up and kills people on by itself. It’s what’s gone wrong with people and the way they relate to each other that seems to me to be the root of the problem, and on present indications, eg the recent disgraceful presidential campaigns in the US and similarly foul political bickering elsewhere in the western world, seems likely to get much worse before it gets any better.

    Hopefully, I won’t be around to see it when it reaches its nadir.


    16 Dec 12 at 7:31 pm

  10. If you expand the MO from shooting, the first mass school murder in the US was in 1927, the Bath School disaster, which involved a bomb. 38 children and 6 adults were killed; I’m not sure if the adult numbers include the killer, who also blew himself up. He appears to have been motivated by severe financial troubles which he blamed on the higher taxes imposed in order to build the school.

    I don’t have any answers, any more than anyone else does. I find the media coverage appalling, especially the ‘interviews’ with some of the young children who survived.

    Each society puts extra pressure on particular people, and sometimes they reach the breaking point. It surely can’t help that the ones who feel ineffective and unnoticed know that they can gain worldwide notoriety by killing a lot of other people before they die. And then there’s the incredible popularity of those “reality” shows in which the main point is to treat people like garbage for the audience’s titillation – all that backbiting and nastiness. I confess for a weakness for some of them – I like the ones where they fix houses – but that means I sometimes catch scraps of the ones where Participant Sally lookes into the camera and says the most spiteful things she can think of about Participant Susan. Or someone does it in voiceover. And maybe there’s something about this sort of treating other people as objects for the amusement of others that dehumanizes them. They don’t have to be of a particular nationality or race or religion, they just have to be there, like things, to be made use of for the ends of the developers of the show. That’s dangerous. It’s what happened with that British nurse. Whatever else was going on in her life or her mind, she was caused pain and distress by total strangers who thought it was just fine to manipulate and trick someone for their audience’s amusement. Most of the little comment I read on that situation didn’t tackle that point. It was taken for granted that ‘pranks’ were fun and fair game; the only issue was did this particular one go too far. I don’t agree. Treating people badly shouldn’t be fun, and treating people as though they were characters you were interacting with in a video game is immoral.

    That might be part of it. Being incapable of seeing these children as human individuals, seeing the only as objects with which to make a statement – sane or insane, surely that sort of thinking must be in these killers’ minds.

    Also, someone somewhere must have crunched the numbers to figure out by how much the frequency of these incidents is increasing. We don’t remember any early cases – but the population was smaller then, too.


    16 Dec 12 at 8:19 pm

  11. Mique commented on politicians and the media. I’m tired of seeing pictures of Obama on the TV and NY Times stories about the shooting.


    17 Dec 12 at 3:03 am

  12. And now the inevitable drive to disarm the population to make us safer–well, if not US, exactly, at least the politicians.
    I was reading a short history of the Sten Gun, lately. Devised when the British were hard up in WWII–an automatic weapon with 43 (or 46) parts. It took five and a half hours to make, and cost $10.99 each in 1940 money. Resistance groupd could and did make Sten Guns in bicycle shops. Feinstein can keep onest law-abiding citizens from having weapons. But when you can make them that quickly and easily, I don’t see any way to disarm the criminal and crazy. And imagine what can be done with 3D printing in a few years.

    But why now? What did we start doing different in 1990? Or what did we start doing differently earlier that affected adolescents and up starting abgout 1990?


    17 Dec 12 at 5:36 am

  13. Most sensible essay I’ve read in a long time, and I totally agree with you.

    I spent 40 years teaching (as you know), and that meant that I monitored behavior of kids for 40 years. It’s changed dramatically. Bullying has always been there, but it has achieved a new viciousness in the past 20 years. It has become personal and ugly, and it became harder and harder to deal with. I remember when kids played games at recess; then they pretended they were martial arts experts; then they started ambushing others and beating them up. And, remember, I was teaching in a relatively sane and moral school system. Some of my 8th graders wrote stories about a “lone wolf” who swore vengance and proceeded to blow up cars, buildings, and people. When I talked with them, I asked why they had chosen that particular type of story; the reply was that this is what “cool” people in the world do. It frightened me.

    Add to that that 40 years ago, parents listened to both sides of the story instead of insisting that their children “never lie” and should be believed just because they said whatever it was they said. Rationalization has become a BIG thing! Add to that the demands that the other people involved in the disputed event be brutally punished, that lawsuits are threatened (and often initiated), and that parents get into even uglier bullying than their kids did. Kids learn from parents.

    The world is turning brutal. Football, so-called wrestling, bare-knuckle fighting . . . movie after movie with massive numbers of brutal murders, explosions, torture – – – all in the name of righteousness . . . TV programs filled with insults (in the name of humor) and angry opponents raging at each other, threatening bodily harm – – – Tell me that all of this desensitizing isn’t having an effect on people, especially young people, in our world. For a child who

    Is this the answer? Of course not, but it certainly plays into a new set of circumstances we now live with.

    I also agree with one of your responders who refuses to tune in to what the media is saying. When we went to 24-hour “news” stations, we gave up honest journalism and bought into sensationalizing. My word, some idiot interviewed a 3rd grader, asking that the child describe when he/she saw, heard, felt, etc. This is journalism?

    I am so sorry for the families and friends affected by all of these vicious acts, going all the way back to Bath Twp. in Michigan in the 1930’s. (Funny how that one always gets overlooked; of course, guns weren’t used, so what’s the point?) I wish I had the answer, but I think that even if I did, nobody would listen.


    17 Dec 12 at 7:11 am

  14. Rare common sense from one of the few sensible people going around in the modern print media:



    18 Dec 12 at 3:43 am

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