“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
— Joseph Stalin
From time to time, terrible things happen. When the terrible thing is something which no amount of human action could have prevented, such as floods and hurricanes, people tend to blame human action or inaction anyway. Some people use the phrase “god’s judgement”. Other people pray. This is all pointless, but understandable. Humans are irrational.
Sometimes the terrible thing is the result of human action. When this happens, the natural response is to place blame. Because we are people, we are reluctant to place the blame on the person who committed the terrible thing. If that person could do something so terrible, then any person could do a terrible thing. That is unthinkable. So we look for other explanations. The presence or lack of superstitious observance by the criminal or among the victims. The failure of society to ingrain certain individuals with a moral compass. The failure of society to protect the poor, the weak, the oppressed, the powerless. We are too lax, or not lax enough. We are too libertine, or not libertine enough. And so on.
The world is not perfect. It will never be perfect. Terrible things happen. Terrible things will always happen. The world is neither fair nor unfair.
But I am as irrational as everyone else. I want answers. I want to believe that I can prevent the next terrible thing. So I think about terrible things, and what causes them.
I think about firearms. More often than not, when a terrible thing is the result of human action, and people die, firearms are involved. Would the terrible thing have been avoided if our society was willing to restrict firearm ownership? It’s easy to place blame on that. We are told, repeatedly, how violent our society is, that we have too many guns in the hands of too many people. And we do have a lot of firearms. Hundreds of millions, at least. We could outlaw them. Australia did (although Australian firearm ownership was already severely restricted before that happened). Would that reduce the violent crime in this country? Comparing our rates of violent crime and intentional homicide with the rest of the world, most of which has much greater restrictions on firearms than the US, doesn’t seem to support that hope.
What would reduce the amount of violent crime in the USA? According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rates of violent crime have been dropping steadily for decades, up until the past couple of years. Why has it rebounded in the recent couple of years? Could it be the years-long recession which we are still struggling to crawl out of? The double-digit unemployment? It’s said that desperate people do desperate things. Could it be that simple? I don’t know. Even if that were the case, I’m not sure I could do anything about it. I have been consistently outvoted at every presidential election I have ever voted in, at a ratio of at least 99 to 1. The American populace does not share my opinions when it comes to … anything. It’s unlikely any solution I have for our economic problems would be accepted by the hoi polloi.
I think about children. The worst of all terrible things involve children. No one wants bad things to happen to children, aside from the people who do terrible things to them. How can we protect children? Would they be safer if we made schools into armed fortresses? Would children be safer if teachers were armed? That seems to fly in the face of common wisdom. We are ingrained with the story of the careless gun owner who injures himself or others. That’s actually not an accurate picture of the average gun owner, but I confess the idea of children surrounded by armed adults makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Is that rational? I can think of several terrible things that could have been far less terrible had there been armed adults between children and someone who wished them harm. That’s not the picture of the world I want to live in, but unfortunately, the world is not what I would wish it to be.
I think about death. The terrible things that make the most news involve a large number of people being killed at the same time. “Large” is a heavily fraught term. I hear “5” or “15” or “30” and I think that’s a large number. I can picture 30 people being killed, and it’s horrifying. I’m outraged. Other people are outraged. They make their Facebook profile pictures black to express their sorrow. But yesterday, 19,000 children died of preventable illnesses. 19,000 died again today. 19,000 will die again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. 19,000 children, every day. And the handful killed in what is, in reality, an isolated and increasingly rare incident seems… I don’t know. Not trivial. Tragic. Of course it’s tragic. But it’s so small compared to what happens every single day. That 19,000? That’s not the exact number. The number could be 19,030. Those 30 children are just as dead, and we leave them out of the “19,000” because they hardly seem to matter when the number is so unthinkably high. But 30, just 30, makes national news. Vigils are held. Politicians vow action. Activists make accusations, and attack. Other activists declare innocence, and attack right back. Meanwhile, 19,000 other children have died, and no one seems to care.
But that’s world wide. Maybe that’s too big. I can’t do anything to protect children in the Saharan desert. Okay, so what about the USA? Five children die every day in the USA of abuse and neglect. Five yesterday. Five today. Five tomorrow. And honestly, while I don’t think there is anything that will prevent one terrible person from doing one terrible thing (such as the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, including 19 children under the age of 6), I think we can probably make a difference when it comes to the five children who die every day from abuse and neglect. Better programs for at-risk children. Better training for social workers. More money. (Yes, libertarians do see a role for government when it comes to protecting the life and liberty of nonconsenting others. If you thought otherwise, now you know better.) If that number could be reduced just 20%, from five per day to four per day, that would be 365 children alive at the end of the year who might not have been otherwise. So maybe I could focus on that? Would that be a worthwhile use of my time and outrage?
I think about accidents. More children die in accidents in the USA than from any other cause. Could we make their world safer? It already seems so much safer than the world I grew up with. Fewer adults smoke. Everyone uses seat belts. The dangerous toys I grew up with are no longer available. What is left to endanger children in today’s round-edged, non-toxic, car-seated world? And yet, the rate of accidental deaths among children in the USA is one of the highest in the developed world despite the fact that it’s dropped by a third in the past ten years: roughly 24 a day, every day. 24. Every. Day. Most of those children die in automobile accidents. That’s horrifying, but honestly, I don’t see how I could do anything about that. Maybe that’s why I don’t see people on Facebook calling for the abolition of private vehicle ownership. But people do call for the abolition of privately owned firearms, which do far less damage (and which may in fact do some good).
I really don’t blame people for that. It’s well-intentioned, and I think good intentions are too rare in this world to condemn anyone for it, misguided or not. But we aren’t good at setting priorities. I’m not any better at it than anyone else. I am as heartbroken by a single, senseless act of violence as anyone else is. I’d like to find answers. I’d like to make sense of the senseless. I’d like to know how to keep terrible things from happening. But we aren’t primates screeching at shadows. We know that some things are more terrible than others. We can measure cause and effect. We can measure the relative danger of different things. We can focus on the terrible things with the highest body count. We can focus our efforts where they will have the greatest effect.
Or we can screech at shadows. And with as much disdain as I say that, I know that most of the time, I am right there, screeching along with the other primates.
P.S. These are worth reading: