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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Looking for fixes (in all the wrong places)

In the children's movie 'Shark Tale' there is a telling exchange between two sibling sharks:

Lenny: Mom says it's not okay to hit!

Frankie [slapping Lennie on the back of the head]: Mom's not here!

In Jewish law there are two forms of stealing; G'neivah and G'zeilah. One is stealing secretly and the other is robbing openly. Interestingly, Judaism, which is marginally more concerned with judgement in the world to come, views the secretive theft as the more serious offense since it presumes the thief is more concerned with man's judgement than with G-d's.

There is something to that if you assume that fear of an all knowing G-d will keep people in line (and the lack of said fear will lead to chaos and anarchy).

But when trying to come up with a Utopian model for our society (i.e. one with the perfect balance between freedoms and protections), we immediately see that an individual who is unconcerned with how society views him/her is much scarier to contemplate than a crimnal who at least fears the scorn of his fellow man.

An extreme example would be suicide bombers, against whom there seems to be no effective protection.

But we don't have to go nearly that far for the sake of this discussion. The events of this weekend provide a perfect example: one or more gunmen going on a public rampage. How can a healthy, open society protect itself from someone (or several someones) who are willing to break the law with impunity?

Like most law abiding, peace-loving people, I was horrified to read the news about the shooting of over a dozen innocent individuals in Arizona.

I won't go into too much detail about the attack itself because, unless you are living under a rock, you have access to the same media sources that I do.

What I do want to talk about today is the natural, albeit disturbing, progression from rage to blame in the public discourse in the wake of these tragedies... and how our first (IMHO unhealthy) instinct when faced with these attacks, is to try to tinker with the delicately balanced organism that is our society.

As civilized beings it is perfectly natural to be outraged when anyone, or anything, rends the fabric of our safe, predictable existence. But we seem to think that the only thing that can offer us closure and future protection is properly assigned blame and a raft of new legislation.

No matter how senseless and/or horrible the event, it seems we must learn something from it... meaning; we must be able to assign blame to some force over which we can exercise a modicum of control. Otherwise the bogeyman remains at large... resulting in a complete breakdown of society in much the way that (I think it was) Jimmy Breslin once described New York City (in the '70s) as a huge prison where the criminals were locked on the outside and the citizens cowered behind the doors of their cells/apartments.

As a society, our worst case scenario is when the criminals don't care who sees them acting criminally. So since we can't eliminate all criminal behavior, our coping mechanism is to create a threshold below which we can comfortably ignore crimes that don't affect us personally. This would include criminal activity between criminals, and crimes against less, ahem, mainstream members of society (immigrants, minorities, people who have chosen to live in dangerous areas, etc.).

I really don't want to go into why the loss of some lives are more worthy of our outrage than others. Let's just agree that at some point a crime crosses that hard-to-define outrage threshold we all have, and triggers the kind of hand-wringing and calls for someone to 'do something!' we're seeing in the media today.

In the wake of any shooting that targets people of high enough stature, in high enough numbers, or in areas where we're supposed to feel safe (suburban schools, shopping malls, office buildings, etc.), one of the things that can be reliably counted upon is an immediate rush to interview the most strident gun control advocate.

The reasoning goes something like this: We can't effectively legislate or regulate anger, mental illness or hate, so let's re-explore why we aren't legislating/regulating the weapons that people typically reach for when they are angry, mentally unstable or feeling hateful.

But you see the flaw with that, don't you?

I don't have the statistics handy on how many murders (or attempted murders) are committed each year using knives. But given the easy availability of that extremely effective killing tool, I have to believe the numbers are fairly high. Yet we haven't seen a rush to ban Ginsu ads from late night cable TV, or to mandate a 'cooling off period' before someone can purchase a set of high carbon steak knives. And far more innocent people die each year from 'attack' by second hand smoke than guns and knives combined... yet nobody is making noise about outlawing the sale and posession of cigarettes.

True, a gun gives even a lone individual (or small group of people) the ability to kill a lot of their fellow citizens with little effort or training. But by that argument, we should be far more worried about fertilizer transactions than those involving guns, since a well placed barrel of ammonium nitrate can kill an entire building's worth of innocent people, instead of forcing the angry/unbalanced/hateful individuals to shoot their innocent victims one at a time!

While we're at it, perhaps we should consider banning people from giving their children middle names since by my accounting, the people responsible for the most mayhem tend to have multiple names (Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, Mark David Chapman, John Wilkes Booth, Sara Jane Moore, Frank Eugene Corder, Francisco Martin Duran, et al). Or even simpler; looking at the current [alleged] gunman who is named Jared Lee Loughner, maybe we should simply outlaw the use of 'Lee' as a name for anyone not of Korean descent.

Obviously, these aren't very practical suggestions, for the simple reason that one can't establish any meaningful correlation between limiting name choices and a reduction in violent attacks.

By the same token, gun rights advocates remind anyone who will listen that 'if guns are outlawed... only outlaws will have guns'. Although this is an oversimplification, it doesn't mean it is unworthy of discussion, since illegal drugs are as outlawed and aggressively prosecuted as illegal firearms in most countries... yet both are easily available to anyone who really wants to purchase them illegally. And even the most draconian legislation/enforcement has not been proven effective against either... anywhere in the world.

So that leaves us to contemplate what to do about the people actually perpetrating the violent crimes.

In the reports that are cropping up today, it appears that the [alleged] gunman who opened fire in Arizona had been exhibiting signs of increasing alienation and anti-social behavior for months, or even years, before the attack. Surely it's only a matter of time before someone starts wondering out loud (and in print) why teachers, social services personnel, mental health professionals, or even the police hadn't identified this ticking time bomb before he blew up, and segregated him safely from the people he was (apparently) inevitably going to harm.

Talk about your slippery slope!

Without even making an organized list I can think of two or three dozen fellow travelers I've met on my life's journey (fellow students, co-workers, musicians, etc.) who I've considered unbalanced, anti-social and/or a potential danger to themselves and others.

Think about it... if each of us had the power to turn in our little lists of 'dangerous nut jobs' to 'the athorities', I'm sure we would banish many real threats from our society. But I'm equally sure there wouldn't be many of us left running around free at the end of the process due to the subjective application of who/what constitutes a threat to society.

Here in Israel, following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, there was a call to make all forms of vitriolic speech - which many felt had created an environment ripe for violence - illegal. The only problem with that was/is that, just as security concerns have eroded our freedom from illegal searches and the protections of our overall privacy, legislating certain kinds of speech would, by definition, erode our right to free expression. Where would that end?

Add to that the problem of one side of the political spectrum wanting to use such limitation of free speech to muzzle only the 'hate speech' of the other side... and you can see that the likelihood of finding an equitable remedy via legislation is just about zero.

Yes, there are some forms of speech which everyone can agree are beyond the pale. Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater is an excellent example of speech that most would agree should be regulated, since it would inevitably result in harm. But from there we are faced with yet another slippery slope towards the complete muzzling of free expression... a slope on which there are no graduation marks and few (if any) objective standards for application.

The problem is that, like pornography, everyone has a different idea of what constitutes dangerous speech. And when trying to enshrine such things in law, one can't very well allow those tasked with enforcement to use the old "I'll know it when I see or hear it" standard; Not unless you are willing to abandon the very personal protections you're striving to maintain in the first place.

In my humble opinion, there is nothing that can completely rid a truly open society of these occasional outbursts of senseless violence. Just about any of the well-intended measures floated so far have been proven ineffective, or impose unreasonable limitations on the very freedoms we wish to protect. Removing all tools of violence is impractical, if not impossible... and weeding the violent actors from our Utopian garden would require either a totalitarian regime or a crystal ball.

Getting back to the 'Shark Tales' quote I offered at the start of this rambling tome, we really need to think long and hard about the effectiveness of the laws we have ("Mom says it's not okay to hit..."), and then contemplate how much of our freedom we're willing to give up to mitigate the inevitable danger when 'Mom's not here'.

As usual, I'm simply thinking out loud here. Your mileage may differ.

Posted by David Bogner on January 9, 2011 | Permalink


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A thoughtful piece, but I do have one quibble:

I don't generally consider myself pro-gun or anti-gun, but I don't think you can compare guns to knives, fertilizer, cars, or any other "weapon".

Although cars (and probably even knives) kill many more people than guns, and certainly fertilizer has that potential as well (I don't know it there are statistics on the number of people killed annually by ammonium nitrate), Guns have a unique characteristic that most other readily-available weapons don't have: Guns exist -- and are sold -- for the express purpose of killing/maiming. That's it. Although you *can* kill someone with a knife, you can also use a knife for many other things -- and most knives are sold primarily for other purposes. The same for cars, fertilizer etc.

Anyone possessing a gun is doing so with the intention of using it to kill or hurt another person (or other living creature). Of course, such intent may very well be justified, but let's at least be honest about it.

p.s. I consider cigarettes to be in their own category -- and closer to guns at that. I guess it's easy for me -- as a non-addict -- to be all high-and-mighty about it, but in my mind second hand smoke makes cigarettes a far more dangerous drug than many illicit narcotics.

Posted by: wogo | Jan 9, 2011 3:08:55 PM

wogo... I would modify your statement that "Guns exist -- and are sold -- for the express purpose of killing/maiming". What about target / sport shooters? Also, I don't agree with your statement "Anyone possessing a gun is doing so with the intention of using it to kill or hurt another person (or other living creature". I own and carry a gun, yet I don't intend to kill or hurt anyone or anything other than paper targets. In fact, I would much prefer to own/carry it for my entire life and never fire it in anger. Other people's intentions and actions may influence whether my stated desire never to maim/kill is realized. In that respect, learning a martial art and walking around with the ability to kill does not mean that is one's intention. Quite the opposite is true of many of the black belts I've encountered.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 9, 2011 3:37:15 PM

A very thoughtful and challenging piece. Something you don't mention, (so I will), is the exposure that people have to violent media (movies particularly). I am REALLY alarmed at what passes for entertainment on TV and at the cinema. The message that being a super hero involves shooting, maiming, killing people is TERRIBLE. The role models that many are being spoon fed in the name of entertainment makes me shudder. Now OK, I know that if you are a balanced individual, it is possible to step back a bit and view some of this stuff with an objectivity that doesn't make you smell blood and want to do the same. But what about those who aren't able to do that? I find when I walk into a video store to rent a film to watch, I have to walk past probably 85% of the boxes. I wouldn't bring them across my threshold.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I pray for the full recovery of all those injured in the latest insane attack. May God have mercy.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | Jan 9, 2011 7:35:06 PM

The suspect is you typical loner, kept to himself, creepy, blah, blah, blah. I don't see how you keep guns out of the hands of guys ranting about the gold standard and the English language. In some circles he could run for congress.

I support hunters and target shooters right to bear arms, but I don't see how you compare this with knives and ANFO. The problem is that very few hand gun owners are using them for target shooting or hunting. Most want them for defense. Most, unlike hunters, are grossly incompetent to use a weapon. That is why there is a grain of truth that handguns are used mostly for crime.By that I mean used not intended for crime.

Posted by: lrg | Jan 9, 2011 7:58:13 PM

I think that the media needs to change how they cover these incidents. Too many of the whackjobs who act out think that they will gain a platform for their message.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 9, 2011 8:29:03 PM

Yeah Trep, I figured you'd say that...

To address your second point first: I very deliberately qualified my "intent to kill/maim" statement by saying that the intent may well be justified. I'm not talking about preferences. You would certainly *prefer* to "own/carry (a gun) for (your) entire life and never fire it in anger", but the only reason you own and carry one is for the situations where it would be necessary to use it for its intended purpose.

If someone doesn't have the ability and the *will* to shoot to kill, then they should not carry a gun. period.

However, you have the means, the ability, and (I hope) the will to kill another human being *if the situation demands it*... well, that's called "owning a gun with intent to kill".

Regarding martial arts: I trained in martial arts for many years, although I never made it to black belt. Martial arts are not a good parallel to guns for a variety of reasons. For starters, there is the "alternate utility" aspect. Just like a knife, martial arts training serves many purposes other than learning to hurt people. It's great exercise, it builds confidence and teaches mental focus. In some styles it is a competitive sport with limited (or no) emphasis on "real" fighting. Most people who take martial arts (like, say, your son Gilad) will probably never reach the skill level where they could kill a man with their bare hands. Yet, they will likely benefit in many other ways. I know I did.

Additionally, in the systems where they do teach real self defense, it's usually just that -- self defense. The fighting skills are taught in parallel with meditation and self control. As you learn how to fight you also learn how *not* to fight.

Finally, to whatever extent that martial arts is similar to guns, I'm sure the black belts you've encountered would agree that as much as they would *prefer* not to hurt or kill anyone, they are *prepared* to do so if necessary.

Getting back to your first point, I actually thought of the "sport/target" angle after I hit "publish", but I'm not entirely convinced that argument changes anything. For the record, I think that *killing* for sport is repulsive. I don't see any justification for killing one of of G-d's creatures unless a) you're going to eat it, or b) it's about to eat you. And even if you are going to eat it it, we're back at my original premise: Guns are meant exclusively for killing (including justified killing).

If, however, we're talking about pure sport/target shooting, for its own sake, with no killing intent, just as an alternative to stamp collecting or golf... Well, I'm willing to bet that the number of people with that attitude who own real guns is small enough to be a statistical rounding error. At the very least, the gun *manufacturers* are not targeting that demographic.

And now it looks like my comment is almost as long as your original post... I'll shut up now.

Posted by: wogo | Jan 9, 2011 9:04:55 PM


But we aren't talking about killing, we are talking about the specific case of murdering which is a quite different case (and a subset of killing). Most of this confusion arose when Christians (and others) mistranslated a word in the Torah.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 9, 2011 10:10:54 PM

That is why there is a grain of truth that handguns are used mostly for crime.

There is not even a grain of truth to this statement. There are many guns (more than there are cars) in the USA and only an infinitesimal percentage of them are used for the purposes of crime.

Every person I know that owns a gun (or two or more of them) has never used it for the purposes of crime, nor would they ever even consider using it for such a purpose.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 9, 2011 10:16:22 PM

@ Mark:

Who was your "killing" comment directed at and what was the context?

Posted by: wogo | Jan 9, 2011 10:47:31 PM

"maybe we should simply outlaw the use of 'Lee' as a name for anyone not of Korean descent."

In fact, Lee is a Romanization of a Chinese name (Li) and a Chinese unit of distance. The Korean name Yee (more precisely rendered 'Ee') was incorrectly Romanized as Lee. There is no beginning-consonant-L word in the Korean language.

Posted by: antares | Jan 9, 2011 11:30:08 PM

Who was your "killing" comment directed at and what was the context?

That guns exist solely for killing. That's pretty much a true statement. It's murder that's evil, not killing.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 10, 2011 4:58:23 AM

Yes, an infinitesimal percentage are used for crime. I was responding to Trep's point about target shooting and hunting, which I agree with. However, only a small percentage of handguns are used for target shooting and hunting. Most are owned for "defense". Most of those who own handguns for defense never used. This is a good thing, because unlike hunters most handgun owners are are grossly incompetent to use them for that purpose. Even with specialized training it is a difficult thing to do. My only point is that most handguns that are **used** as opposed to passively owned are used for crime. If you think the vast majority are being **used** for target shooting and hunting, then you are kidding yourself. As I said above, I have no solution to this case in particular or for that matter the general problem of handguns used in crime (and many other problems)

Posted by: lrg | Jan 10, 2011 5:38:33 AM

Agree that banning firearms or prohibiting free speech is impractical or even undesirable. But I think that many who do seek change are pleading for great societal sensitivity, not draconian legal measures. Airline security is a case in point. Terrorists will always find a workaround to technology. The best defense isn't metal detectors; it is personnel with sensitive sociological and political antennae. Similarly, society's best defense against provocateurs is to develop sensitivity to inflammatory rhetoric and to marginalize those who preach it....to make it socially unacceptable. As for zealots or the mentally ill individuals, we, as a society, need to feel a greater responsibility to give them the help they need, whether they seek it or not.

Posted by: Ari | Jan 10, 2011 6:11:21 AM

I understand your point of view on guns, David, especially given that you live where you do. I honestly can't say how I'd feel walking in your shoes (or scootering). But in this particular case, easy access to a high-capacity handgun enabled this kid to kill 6 people and seriously wound over a dozen more in mere seconds. There's simply no way that a single individual armed with a single knife could come even close to those horrifying numbers. To avoid a knife, except if it's thrown, all you have to do is move more than arm's length away.

But we're never going to agree on the guns, so what I hope happens in the wake of this is that pressure is brought to bear on those who have engaged in the most poisonous political rhetoric lately. Politicians who have "target lists" and speak approvingly about citizens feeling that they have to seek out "Second Amendment remedies" among them. I despair of this actually happening, of course. We're so desensitized to trollish language online that we mostly haven't noticed the temperature rising gradually in real life, like the apocryphal frog who gets placed in water which is then gradually warmed to the boiling point, and dies without ever realizing what was happening.

Posted by: bratschegirl | Jan 10, 2011 9:32:23 AM

I oughta weigh in with an opinion. I really should.

I grew up with guns. Got my first rifle when I was 8, and my father showed me how to care for it and how to use it and expected I would do both. 'Course I grew up on a ranch. See a snake? Shoot it and identify the corpse. (There were 5 big snakes common to the area where I grew up; 4 of them were venomous; the 5th ate eggs, so it was a varmint.) See a skunk in the daytime? It's rabid. DO NOT APPROACH! I learned to zero skunks from a distance of 300 meters. I buried them as far down as I could dig with post-hole diggers so the dogs would not dig them up.

My opinion about guns? Them as know 'em are no danger to me. Them as don't -- city born and raised -- are a danger to everybody, gun or no gun. Kinda like statistics.

I got an education in statistics. I know when numbers tell the truth and when they lie. Most folks don't. I don't want the ignorant to preach numbers to me. Neither do I want some city-boy to decide for me if I can carry a gun. I don't think he knows enough to have an opinion.

Some people died, and now well-meaning folks want to do somethin'. I suggest you send flowers to the bereaved and shut up.

Posted by: antares | Jan 10, 2011 10:51:40 AM

wogo, what's wrong with killing? Some people need killing. I'll let you fill in the blanks.

By the way, Lee Oswald wasn't known by his middle name. This tendency is probably due to the fact that we first learn of these people in a legal context.

Seriously, though, Oswald was a hard leftist, and the right was blamed for the assassination. This pattern repeats over and over and over again.

Posted by: Nachum | Jan 10, 2011 11:22:21 AM

If reports so far are accurate, Loughner was thrown out of college because he was considered unstable, and turned away by Army recruiters because of drug use. Yet he was able to buy a gun legally.

I don't think one has to be either pro or anti gun control to think there's something wrong with that picture.

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Jan 10, 2011 2:32:17 PM

@ Nachum (and probably @ Antares and @ Mark and @ Trep as well)

I did not say that killing was wrong. I did not say that guns were bad. I personally have no need to carry a gun, but I see how Antares and Trep would have such a need. Given their need, they should have the right to own one. No argument there.

My only issue was the comparison of guns to knives and fertilizer. I don't think it's a fair comparison. That's all.

I'm sorry my "one quibble" with an otherwise thought-provoking and insightful post ended up highjacking the comment thread. That was not my intention.

Posted by: wogo | Jan 10, 2011 2:43:31 PM

Kiwi Noa... You can always vent here. :-)

lrg... I start worring when I see the word 'most' tossed around as often as you have in your comment. If most of the gun owners were as poorly trained as you sate, we would have far more gun related accidnets. Yet the rate of accidents as compared with the number of privately owned guns is extremely low. I'm just saying.

Jack ... That would rquire muzzling the press (something which is done in places like the UK), but which would never fly in the US.

wogo... See today's post.

Mark ... I knew it was only a matter of time before religion would rear its ugly head. :-)

antares... I knew, even as I was writing that, that you would have something to say. :-)

Ari... One man's zealot is another's mainstream.

bratschegirl... I never demand that people agree with me... and certainly wouldn't ask that of so consistantly interesting and thoughtful a commenter as you. But please read today's post. I'm interested to know what you think.

antares ... I can actually hear your spurs jangling. Awesome! :-)

Nachum... Other than murderers, I don't think I can support your statement that 'some people need killing'.

Andy Levy-Stevenson... Who's this Laughner person you mentioned. I thought I read in the NYTimes today that Sarah Palin shot those people!

Wogo... As soon as you have to demonstrate 'need' to an interested person before you can do something, it is no longer a right.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jan 10, 2011 2:46:11 PM

Agreed. A poor choice of words on my part.

I didn't mean it in the the sense of *demonstrating* need, more along the lines of, "If you feel the need..."

p.s. I'm really sorry about all this...

Posted by: wogo | Jan 10, 2011 3:23:43 PM

Trep, murderers are on the list, of course. (Or people who are likely about to murder.) But what about enemies in a battle? I can't say they "need" killing- in any other context (or even in this one, if they surrender), the same exact people *shouldn't* be killed. But there's one. I'm sure there are others.

An oppressive government- which is most likely what the authors of the Second Amendment had in mind- are another.

Please note I am *not* saying that the governments of the US or Israel fall into that category. But I can certainly think of some that do, or did. And most others have the potential to.

Add it all together, and you've got a pretty good reason for an armed populace.

But wogo has a good point about knives and fertilizer.

Posted by: Nachum | Jan 11, 2011 11:40:02 AM

"Surely it's only a matter of time before someone starts wondering out loud (and in print) why teachers, social services personnel, mental health professionals, or even the police hadn't identified this ticking time bomb before he blew up, and segregated him safely from the people he was (apparently) inevitably going to harm."

As we have seen in the last day-or-so's news reports, JL Laughner was not simply an alienated young man. He was kicked out of college for threatening fellow-students, and had been reported to the police (IIRC) at least five or six times for threatening various individuals. Add that to his very-publicly-accessible (and very scary) website, and there wasn't much of a stretch at identifying him as a "ticking time bomb".

Ironic that the most vocal individual in terms of blaming Palin/Limbaugh/etc for the crime was the very same Tucson sheriff who was asleep at the wheel while Laughner was virtually announcing his intentions to the world.

Posted by: psachya | Jan 13, 2011 5:01:51 AM

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