In our impotence to undo the travesty that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary, we console ourselves with conversation – and arguments – about what to do to prevent similar tragedies in the future. As we do so, we ask what we might learn from science to guide us.
Analyzing the numbers
For example, what are we to make of the statistics on mass killings in the U.S.? In response to an online comment that all countries have mental illness but only the U.S. has mass shootings on a regular basis (schools, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc.), a fellow social scientist and friend of mine responded with some interesting numbers. Being a research-oriented person, I took note.
He observed that, when one compared the U.S. to European countries and factored in the sizes of the populations, the rates of death by mass shootings (say, per 100,000 population per year) were actually lower in the U.S. The United States is a big country (now over 300 million), so when you divide the deaths by the U.S. population compared to, say, Finland, you get a lower number for the U.S.
What are we to make of such an analysis, or the many other analyses that seem to suggest that, well, the problem may not be as great as many think, and perhaps significant changes in what kinds of weapons are available to what kinds of people aren’t really needed?
The tolls we pay
Upon reflection, a question occurred to me that may be obvious to some but is sometimes lost on numbers-oriented people like my friend and me:
What of the toll on the soul of our society?
What of the toll on the hearts of our children, who don’t understand statistics, but certainly do experience the reality that no one – not even Mom or Dad – can confidently reassure them that they will come home safe after school – indeed that they will not encounter a tortured soul who blows them away with a weapon designed for just such a purpose?
What of the cost to the peace of mind of parents, teachers and principals?
What of the toll on people who suffer from psychiatric disorders, who would never harm anyone, but who will always feel the wariness of friends, employers, even family members, who cannot help but associate them with these crimes?
How is this damage to our society’s soul to be quantified in a cost-benefit analysis of the size of ammunition clips or the portion of the taxpayer’s treasure to devote to fixing a broken mental health system?
You see, the cost of a slaughter at a Virginia university or a Colorado movie theater extends far beyond the body count. Far beyond the suffering of families and friends whose grief may never heal. Far beyond any cost-benefit analysis. The cost of a mass killing of good, innocent human beings permeates an entire society, and eats away at its soul.
The next few months and years will be notable for how our nation responds (or fails to respond) to the hideous killing of babies in a Connecticut elementary school. Many facts and figures will be presented, as each side tries to convince the other of the rightness of its proposals.
As we witness or perhaps participate in this process, take it from someone who makes his living looking at the “facts.”
Facts and figures are only one perspective on truth. We also must look to our hearts to decide what we want our society to feel like, to ourselves and, more importantly, to our children. And then we must act.
Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this post, you might also like these other posts about the tragedy: