Monday, December 17, 2012

Tragedies Come in Many Forms

I went through the same reaction process as most of us on Friday — and by most of us, I mean Americans who didn't personally know anybody at Sandy Hook Elementary School or in the community of Newtown, Conn. — a mixture of grief and anguish and disbelief. I asked the same questions my coworkers asked: How do these things keep happening? Why children? What can we do about it? My thoughts moved, dementedly, to the mindset of the killer. What kind of person does one have to be to perform such brutal acts?

By comparison, I thought of all the people that I know that I consider genuinely "bad people." There aren't many, but I know a few. These are bad people because they have no respect for others and they intentionally hurt others' feelings for their own arrogant sense of wellbeing. These bad people would not do what Adam Lanza did on Friday, December 14. Not in a million years.

So how do we identify those that are at-risk of causing great harm without becoming increasingly paranoid, resorting to witch hunts of the mentally ill? The greater question, I now think, is should we?

Let's envision an alternate reality at the moment? Let's imagine that we successfully identified the key elements that caused Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to enter Columbine High School with assault weapons in 1999. Let's assume that we found a way to address those issues — we banned assault rifles, we exponentially increased funding to mental health services, especially for young people. Whatever it is. And let's imagine that we haven't had a mass shooting since.

No Virginia Tech. No Aurora Movie Theater. No Fort Hood. No Sandy Hook Elementary.

We wouldn't know it, of course, but we'd see a decade and a half gone by without one of these tragic incidents. And we'd have saved over 250 lives.

If that number seems low, that's because it is. By comparison, it's lower than the number of Americans who die by taking legally-obtained prescription drugs every day. It's about twice the number of Americans who die every day in car accidents. You get my point.

This is not to say that mass shootings are not a problem. Indeed, they are probably among the most frightening issues we face in the U.S., specifically because they happen so suddenly and are so unpredictable. But, we should recognize that our fear and our dread is why we react the way we do, why we feel the urgent need to take action. We should not pretend that incidents like Sandy Hook are comparable in number to the deaths U.S. families see every day because of cancer, heart disease, medical accidents, poverty and car crashes.

These problems, as deadly and pervasive as they are, happen gradually, and are expected. As Heath Ledger's Joker said in The Dark Knight, "Nobody panics when things go according to plan. Even if the plan is horrifying." Behavioral psychologists will recognize the human ability to fear a mass shooting more than a fatal car accident, even when one is far more likely than the other. If I die in a car crash, my friends and family will no doubt find it tragic, but it will, at least, be "part of the plan." It will be something that happens often, and so not all that surprising.

The Sandy Hook incident is something else entirely. It is senseless, destructive, and has made the entire nation a giant congregation of temporary nihilists. That is why we want to prevent future atrocities so much. That is why the media focuses so much energy on it. It's because it tears us apart to our very cores. It affects the nation mentally in a way that no number of cancer deaths could equal. It makes us doubt the very society we inhabit.

I'm of the mind that we can never eliminate these events from taking place. We can ban assault weapons and provide better mental health and preventative treatment, and we should. But, there are over 300 million of us. People just snap sometimes. It's seemingly random and completely arbitrary. And it will happen again.

What I want is for us to recognize our own limits, recognize that the energy we put into our Sandy Hook response can be utilized to prevent real suffering in a host of other areas. All of us who are now donating to the affected families or sending letters of comfort to the community should remember this feeling every time we read another statistic like the ones I linked to above. The next time you read that preventable medical errors are responsible for 200,000 U.S. deaths every year, divide that by 26 and realize that it's the equivalent of 21 Sandy Hooks every single day.

Fortunately, many of these every day, "part of the plan" crises are preventable. If the grief we feel right now were harnessed for preventable issues across the whole year, imagine what we could accomplish, and the lives we would save.