Monday, April 23, 2007

Learning from Virginia Tech? We can always hope

I haven't had much to say about the Virginia Tech shootings, although Wonky Muse and Tankwoman have shared some good thoughts and observations here. I'm working from a couple of notions. One is that the mass murdered problem of the guy (it's almost always a guy) who goes off the tracks and decides to kill a lot of people is to a large extent intractable. Another is that we have such daffy ideas about law enforcement and punishment in America that neither the public nor policymakers are able to focus very well on measures designed to minimize criminal violence.

But neither of those things are excuses for being complacent. Some things can be done. And a lot of them involve awareness by parents, teachers, police officers, medical professionals and others who may be influential in the life of a young person. And though not all such perpetrators are young, to really get a person so inclined on a different track, it has to be done while they are young, if it can really be done at all. Christy Hardin Smith of FireDogLake, who actually has some experienced working with violent youths as a prosecutor, wrote one of the more sensible pieces I've seen on the problem,
Red Flags FireDogLake 04/17/07. She writes:

With years of experience in working with at risk kids, from very young childhood forward to dealing with the parents of these children, the thing which stands out in my mind is how little work we do with abused children at the front end of this cycle the way our criminal system is currently structured – and how much good early intervention can truly do for a child to keep them out of the juvenile and adult criminal system as time goes forward. ... This is a discussion that I desperately want to see happen in this country, because the costs of incarceration - and the horrible impact that violent crime has on the victims who must face it - cannot continue to rise without us examining more effective means to combat these crimes at their root.
In all honesty, there are some offenders who simply cannot be rehabilitated, for whom incarceration is the best means of ensuring safety for the community and for the defendant. But that is not true for all offenders, and that is especially true for younger juveniles for whom effective and immediate psych and educational intervention can make a world of difference. (Not in all cases, but in a lot of them.)
One of the sources of this kind of violence is a feeling of resentment and victimization. Emphasis on the feeling, which may or may not have some rational basis. Since pretty much everybody has some experience of feeling resentment at being badly treated, even if only not getting everything they wanted as a child, but only the tiniest minority become mass murderers, there's some special about the way resentment gets processed with a guy like the Virginia Tech shooter. But what pundit Pete Williams said on Meet the Press on Sunday 04/22/07 was one of the few worthwhile comments on the whole program:

Well, I think the first thing that comes through is that this was obviously a very disturbed young man. He - I think that’s thing one. Thing two is, you know, people sometimes say, “Well, he just snapped.” This is clearly not a person who just snapped. He started buying his first weapon in February. He bought the next one in March. He was practicing at a firing range near the campus. And you clearly see a lifetime of rage, resentment. And, and the other thing that comes through is he specifically refers to the two students who shot their fellow classmates at Columbine. I understand now why the profilers said that he reminded them so much of, of them. He’s someone who felt picked on, abused. It was him against the world. (my emphasis)
And I hate to say it [sound of teeth grinding], but David Brooks, who enjoys the very dubious distinction of having been a better pundit when he was at the Weekly Standard than since he joined the New York Times, was also more-or-less accurate in what he said on the PBS Newshour Friday (President Refutes Reid's Comments That Iraq War Is 'Lost' 04/19/07). Now, Brooks is a Party-line hack, so in the context what he was mainlysaying was, NO GUN CONTROL! But still, you can sometimes be right for the wrong reasons:

Well, I'm thinking about the randomness of it. It's hard to hold this kid responsible for it. I mean, we want to say, you know, there's great forces of evil, Satan acted through him. But when you lack at that young man, he's someone who was mad, who was insane.

And who knows the trivial reason that caused it, whether there was a virus that affected his brain, whether there was isolation, a whole chain of events? But it's the absurdity of it all. Some virus affects his brain. He becomes schizophrenic, whatever he was, and then 32 people die.

And I think it's that absurdity between cause and effect and the sort of amorality of it that is undermining a lot of people's morale, who say there's nothing to be gained from this. Thirty-two people are dead because of who knows what. ...

... I mean, when you look at - we now know a lot about why madness is caused. And for schizophrenia, sometimes there's a virus that gets into a fetal brain, and then it leads to lifelong effects. Sometimes there's an injury to the frontal lobe that leads to hyper-aggression and depression. Sometimes it's inability to process serotonin.

It's all this stuff that can create these horrible effects, and it's trivial little biological and chemical stuff. It's not a great clash of morality or anything.
I have to admit I'm not up on the latest about the fetal schizophrenia virus that Brooks was talking about. But he does have a point. Some people are just screwed up. And while every human action has some biological component, some conditions are so heavily biological determined that it's difficult to do anything about them. Those are pretty rare. But then so are mass murders. (Unless you live in, say, Iraq, where they are a normal part of the day.)

But it's awfully easy to use that as an excuse to avoid action to deal with the problem, which Brooks was clearly doing. And one of the most annoying science stories is the one that pops up every now and then about how somebody says they've discovered a "genetic" basis for violent behavior. That often makes the front page, while the later follow-up studies that fail to replicate the results get buried in a small piece in the back of the paper. In fact, it's still very difficult to pin down the exact genetic basis for particular physical  illnesses. It's effectively impossible at our state of knowledge to determine anything like a genetic basis for complex behaviors, all of which are inevitably affected by social dynamics of some kind.

Which brings us to the American attitudes about crime and violence. Obviously a huge subject. But there are a variety of common assumptions that make it difficult to focus on effective measures to minimize violent crimes. One of the biggest problems is that it became a deeply-embedded assumption of politics in the late 1960s that any talk about "root causes" of crime was automatically processed by many people as being "soft on crime". Which is basically nuts.

Another is the notion that longer jail sentences and more severe punishments are being "tough on crime". The result is that much of our approach to criminal justice is faith-based rather than reality-based.

It's been well known for a long time that the law can deter crimes. But the most important effect is not the type or severity of the penalty. It's the liklihood of getting caught. Failing to recognize this leads to some bizarre results.

Back in the 1990s, Calfornia passed a "three-strikes" law (by both legislative action and by statewide initiative) that mandated long prison sentences for third-time felong convictions, meaning that someone who had a record of two felonies and then got caught kiting a check would have a longer mandated sentence that a murdered whose killing was a first offense. The immediate event that gave it particular emotional appeal statewide was the well-publicized murder of a girl named Polly Klass, who was kidnapped from her home, sexually abused and murdered.

I thought at the time, and think even more so now, it just makes no sense to pass a law like that which isn't targeted toward violent crimes. My priority would be to reduce violent crime, in particular.

And two factors about the Polly Klass case stood out for me in the context of the three-strikes law. One was that the police actually pulled over the kidnapper on the night he snatched the girl on some traffice violation. At the time, she was probably alive and hidden nearby. But because the computer systems of the various police departments had a significant delay in communicating with each other, the officers that pulled him over hadn't gotten word about the kidnapping yet.

The other thing that struck me is that the capture ratefor child kidnappings at the time was about 5%. Which means that the deterrent effect of the law was virtually non-existent.

To me, the obvious implications of that would be that investing in more efficient computer and communications systems for the police across the state, and maybe mandating that local governments establish standardized computer protocols, would be something that might actually make a difference in circumstances like that. Also, a more explicit focus on increasing the arrest rate for these types of crimes would increase the deterrent value of the law in a significant way.

Instead, we passed a three-strikes law that has helped fill the state prison system to the bursting point with drug-related and property-crime offenders. Gov. Schwarzenegger has been at least making a show of trying to find solutions for the problem, including sending some of California's prisoners to other states. Great. We're going to turn warehousing California's prison population into a valuable source of outsourcing revenue for other states. Brilliant.

Using our heads and not panicking and being stampeded into approving stupid and counterproductive laws would be a much better approach.

Then there's the advice of expert criminologists like Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich: more guns! Now, it seems to me that anyone who ever spent five minutes on a college campus can see the flaw in this thinking. You've got a large population of people in a relatively small area, mostly in an age bracket of 18-23 or so, a time in life when most people feel immortal or at least have the notion that old age and death are almost unimaginably far away. Then give everybody a gun to carry around all the time. What happens at the drunken frat parties? Or when some guy decides his girlfriend is dong the Wild Thang with somebody else? Get real. You have to wonder if these people are consciously thinking, "I want to see mass violence and chaos." Or maybe they just like the idea of college kids getting shot all the time. Who knows?

But since there are a lot of gun-loving white folks who think this is at least a respectable option, it's a good thing that people like Cynthia Tucker are pointing out what a [Cheney]ing crazy idea this is. Speaking of Cheney, he's a walking, snarling, shooting-in-the-face advertisement for more effective gun laws. But I digress. In
In Pushing guns for all students cartoonish idea Atlanta Journal-Costitution 04/22/07, Tucker writes that it's normal for kids to be fond of superhero stories:

But it's more than a little disconcerting to hear that so many adults also believe in superheroes. They must. Why else would they insist that the best way to prevent carnage of the sort that occurred last week at Virginia Tech is to put guns into every available hand? They're indulging their childhood fantasies, remembering the movies in which the Caped Crusader or John Wayne instantly dispatched the bad guy.

In real life, police officers - trained to fire in the heat of battle - hit their intended targets only about 40 percent of the time, according to University of South Carolina criminologist Geoffrey Alpert, an expert in police shootings.

"You can train all day in simulated situations ... and you think you can hit a target. But it comes right down to it and someone is pointing a gun at you, and it just doesn't happen," he said. (my emphasis)
The kinds of interventions that have the potential to minimize events like the Columbine or Virginia Tech killings are the kind of practical things that Hardin discusses in her blog post. Things like waiting periods on gun purchases, preventing online purchases of guns or ammo, more effective background checks for people with particular mental health records before selling them a gun, all those could help. The Columbine killings also drew attention to the seriousness of bullying in elementary, middle and high schools. This article from the Focus on Prevention Newsletter (CA Attorney General's Office) Spring 2003, hyperbolically titled, Bullying: Terrorist Threat That Most Frightens U.S. Teens:

Six out of ten American teenagers witness bullying in school once a day or even more frequently, reported the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). The national group recently released findings from a survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide that show that bullying is the terrorist threat that most frightens America’s teenagers and interferes with their education.

The survey of 512 youth ages 12 to 17 revealed that young peopleare far less concerned about external terrorist attacks on their schools and communities than they are about the bully terrorizing them and their classmates in the hallways and classrooms of their schools. Just 34 percent of teens surveyed stated active concern over another terrorist attack in the U.S.

For several years, particularly since Columbine, educators and policy makers have been concerned about bullying as a contributor to youth violence in our schools. Their concern was well founded and it does not appear that things are improving. More than half of the teens polled said they could identify a student at school who they feel could cause harm to another student, an increase of six percentage points (a 15 percent increase) over last year’s response to the same question — from 46 percent to 52 percent. The increase here was accounted for by more boys reporting that they personally know a student who could harm others (from 48 percent in 2001 to 57 percent in 2002).

Parent involvement and strong policies at schools are key to getting the attention, commitment, and resources needed to reduce and prevent bullying and the fear and other problems it brings.
Not nearly as dramatic as teen-aged fantasies about gunning down the bad guys. But reality-based ideas have the advantages of having some effect in the real world.

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