What We Don’t Know

On a day when no one knows what to say, starting with what we don’t know about guns, rights, and violence.

After the shooting at a Portland mall on Tuesday, a woman told the Oregonian: “People were screaming and pointing and running… it was just like your typical American nightmare.” I thought about that when Jeff Ruby sent me “I Don’t Want to Be Angry.” 

I’m glad he did; I haven’t been able to write, and as someone who’s written a fair amount about guns, violence, and the history, legal framework, and criminal-justice issues surrounding them, at times it’s hard to know what to add, or what can be added. As a friend put it, “at what point do we just leave the flags at half-staff permanently?”

One reason: we know a lot, but what we don’t pales in comparison.

1. We don’t know what we want, more than at any time in the past couple decades.

2. We are learning how to predict violence, but not well enough:

Forensic psychiatry has advanced to the point where the probability of violence can be estimated about 70 percent to 80 percent of the time, wrote Mossman in a 2009 article in the Journal of Legal Medicine. But that isn’t accurate enough to rule out false positives in a random population sample or even among individuals with severe mental illness.

3. We don’t really know what we’re dealing with.

Incidents of mass murder have gained considerable media attention, but are not well understood in behavioral sciences. Current definitions are weak, and may include politically or ideologically motivated phenomenon. Our current understanding of the phenomenon indicates these incidents are not peculiar to only western cultures, and appear to be increasing.

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2 years ago
Posted by Blockquote

Jeff Ruby pleads to keep the conversation from descending once again into wonk-porn, and you, Whet, plow right into opinion polls on the political viability of gun control legislation and questionably scientific studies on the psychology of mass murder. Fascinating, as it always is, and entirely beside the point. The point being that, this morning, in the space of about an hour, twenty-eight human lives ceased by simple and violent means.

What I'd like to know is how we, as a society or whatever, can have the sort of high-level moral discussion such a profound historical act as the abrupt killing of a whole lot of people seems, in my mind at least, to demand. How to have that kind of discussion, I mean, without it falling to side arguments about socio-political identity or legislative expediency or research methods or systematic remedies or the contemporary relevance and/or value of rehashing ancient grievances.

For once we should take the moral problem of people killing people head-on, as a moral problem, and keep on it, strictly as a moral problem, for as long as it takes to get over the idea that a line graph gives us any better route to salvation than that of the "enthusiasms" against which science was originally defined. In fact there's a lot we don't know, and might never know, by any means whatsoever. What we all somehow seem to know, without a doubt, is that what happened this morning was wrong. I want to know why that knowledge doesn't suffice to restrain us from so much quibbling.

2 years ago
Posted by wmoser

Blockquote, people process these things in different ways. Deriding information as "wonk porn" is a bad start.

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