Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mass shootings: try not to read about them

You know this interesting term that people use sometimes to describe legal persecution of cannabis: victimless crimes, they call it? From this point of view, mass murders lie on the exactly opposite end of the spectrum: they are, in most cases, criminalless. Because usually the perpetrator dies in the process, either because they are shot by police, or because they commit suicide. But in any case, they usually die by choice, as their own death is a part of the plan.

And my feeling is that this strange feature of mass murders and shooting sprees contributes to the discomfort, almost panic that the public feels about them. Because now a judicial system that is based on concepts of punishment and isolation suddenly finds itself totally helpless in the face of these crimes, as they kind of have an embedded "capital punishment" as their constituent part. When there's nobody to blame, nobody to pay retribution to; nobody to put on trial, nobody to put in prison, what do you even do?

Suddenly the only thing you can possibly do is to try to prevent new, similar tragedies from happening. But working on prevention is uncomfortable. It requires too much effort, and also this effort is totally counter-intuitive (more about it later). We want a quick solution, we want to blame somebody: the schools, the parents, the doctors. Or guns laws, maybe. But the trick is: none of this blame works. None of it.

Availability of mental health care is very important, but no mental health system, even the most involuntary draconian one, will ever be able to prevent mass shootings from happening. A good affordable psychiatric care will surely improve things to some extent, especially for those mass murderers who are not psychopaths (the guy who shot people in the University of Texas in 1966, for example, had a tumor in his brain, and has even sought medical help voluntarily at some point, but never got enough of it). Good mental care will help, but there is no test, either psychological or neurological, that would tell you if somebody is a future murderer, or whether they are just strange. This just doesn't work! And therefore, while psychiatric care is important, it can never guarantee that "future shooters" will be identified preemptively. Don't blame it on the medical system.

A side note here: not only psychiatrists will never be able to tell you if your neighbor will ever turn into a murderer or not, but it's probably not even a good idea to link mental health to mass murders for purely political reasons. I mean, shooting sprees may seem like a good opportunity to improve psychiatric medical system, but actually it's not, and for two different reasons. One: as discussed, on its own medical system can't prevent new shootings from happening, which means that sooner or later you would be asked to answer for your promises, and you won't be able to give a good answer. Another, more important, is that linking asocial behaviors to mental health issues stigmatizes mental disorders in a really weird and dangerous way. You may remember how after the Sandy Hook tragedy the rumor have spread that the criminal might have been autistic. The results of this rumor were that some people with autistic kids found themselves in all sort of subtle trouble, just because in the public subconsciousness autism was suddenly linked to violence (a notion that, of course, has no psychiatric basis whatsoever). You don't want kids with autism being abandoned or stigmatized by the society, and you definitely don't want people with schizophrenia to be harmed just because they have a diagnosis, so we'd better not perpetuate the myth that the problem of mass shootings is solely a mental health problem.

Similarly, it doesn't help if we blame it on parents, or on schools. All these zero tolerance policies, armed security officers, and prison-like bullet-proof doors just make school kids miserable. They won't be able to prevent anything, because there will always be a workaround for a truly dedicated psychopath. They only complicate things for the majority of population, creating a sense of fear, and making everybody's lives harder and sadder. Now not only several people have died, but also millions live in constant fear and distress. It doesn't help anything at all.

Same is actually true for gun laws: while reducing guns availability could help, the only truly effective way to do it would be to ban automatic firearms altogether, and this is not going to happen. All other measures are likely to be either futile (as there will be workarounds), or outright dangerous. For example, it totally would not help if you disqualify people with a history of mental illness from ever owning guns, because in a society where guns are valued it will only cause people with mental problems to hide these problems from doctors. And it is not a good outcome! As soon as having hallucinations would mean a ban on hunting and range shooting, people would stop reporting hallucinations to mental health professionals. Which is really not a situation you want to have on your hands.

What could help? Well, one obvious thing would help immensely, and that is: we should stop reporting details of mass shootings, and we should stop popular investigations of the "hidden motives" of those criminals that committed these crimes. For years by now it is known that public attention, even if posthumous, is exactly what these people seek. They want their blog posts to be read and cited, their youtube channels to be linked to, and their names to be immortalized on Wikipedia. That's their goal! They want their pathetic worthless "manifestos" to make you shiver, and they know that they will never achieve it without cheating, so they go and kill somebody. As, unfortunately, this works. That's the kind of sick social reinforcement they are looking for. And because of that, every news article that mentions a name of a shooter, and then goes deep into their troubled childhood; every news report that shows their face on the screen, all become a part of a "success story" for those violent sociopathic people. Every web link to the online diary of a shooter makes this world a worse place, as it makes it more probable that murders like that would be repeated. Covering this tragedies with attention on the murderer, reposting and linking these news stories, makes us share in the crime: not the one that was just committed, but the one that is now to come.

When you Google for "Sandy Hook", and the first thing you see is the face of the murderer, do you know how it is called? Freaking shame. Irresponsibility. Free advertisement.

Let us start from ourselves. Let's forget the names of those guys. Stop watching the news, don't google the stories. There are some psychiatrists, criminologists, and other professionals out there, who need to know the details, but you and me, we don't need to know them! It's not gonna help us, or anybody, in any conceivable way. People are weak and weird, and we feel somehow more alive when we read about a mother who killed her baby, or a boy who shoot his teacher. But it's a bad thing to do. By seeking these kind of news we are creating the market, and thus are encouraging news outlets to cover these stories in all the useless senseless detail they can manage. Which perpetuates the cycle.

That's about all that I have to say on this subject.