On Monday morning Sho Seung-Hui went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with his Glock 9mm and Walther .22 pistols, killing 32.
Since then legislators, lobbyists, and pundits have pointed fingers at firearms, violent movies, and video games as likely causes. We need to avoid the temptation to make knee-jerk policy changes that aren’t grounded in reason or statistical evidence. Sometimes people freak out and do stupid things and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do to prevent it. It’s going to happen. Expect it. And there doesn’t always have to be a simplistic tidy little answer to make everyone feel better. We don’t have to hastily point fingers of blame at anything besides the deranged perpetrator of the heinous act.
In their best selling book Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explain that we are generally poor at assessing risk:
But fear best thrives in the present tense. That is why experts rely on it; in a world that is increasingly impatient with long-term processes, fear is a potent short-term play. Imagine that you are a government official charged with procuring the funds to fight one of two proven killers: terrorist attacks and heart disease. Which cause do you think the members of Congress will open up the coffers for? The likelihood of any given person being killed in a terrorist attack are infinitesimally smaller than the likelihood that the same person will clog up his arteries with fatty food and die of heart disease. But a terrorist attack happens now; death by heart disease is some distant, quiet catastrophe. Terrorist acts lie beyond our control; french fries do not. Just as important as the control factor is what Peter Sandman calls the dread factor. Death by terrorist attack (or mad-cow disease) is considered wholly dreadful; death by heart disease is, for some reason, not.
So let’s take a collective deep breath and let emotion die down before figuring out what to do in response to this brutal attack. Let’s not rush to take guns away from law-abiding citizens, quarantine Korean-Americans, spy on every quiet kid, or expel every student who writes disturbing stories in creative writing class. Let’s avoid looking back to affix blame and instead review our action plans and engage in meaningful and rational discussions on how to prevent and respond to these types of situations. Occasionally these things will happen. It’s guaranteed. The sky is not falling.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment.