Monday, December 17, 2012

How Do We Stop It From Happening Again?

I'm thankfully at the end of a peaceful, children-filled weekend.  We shielded our young kids (and ourselves, frankly) from the news, and focused on other things.  And that's probably the right parenting move.

But I've been surreptitiously gathering news and trying to sift through the onslaught of information to distill the important things I'd like to talk about today, after Sandy Hook Elementary's tragedy.

Here's what I've got, so far:

1. The Television and Internet News Are Badly-Structured to Deal with Immediate Tragedy.  The sheer number of things that news organizations reported, in real time, that were just WRONG is astonishing to me.  I don't work at a TV station, I don't work for a newspaper, so I can only guess at the mindset at those places.  But it's clear that all news organizations should take an accounting of how they reported on this story, and why, and how they can do a better job in the future.  I think the main problems are these:

    The Point Is ONLY the News That's Fit to Print.
  • Time Pressures - Expanding the News to Fit the Long Time to Fill - When something bad happened when I was a kid, you got "news updates" - they would periodically break into regularly scheduled programming to let you know something new, and recap something that was ongoing.  That's not how we do TV news coverage of crises right now.  These days we stay with reporters well past the time when they have nothing at all that is "newsworthy" to say.  You know, "all the news that's fit to print."  That means that we get all kinds of crazy, off-the-cuff "reporting" - including things like interviewing the kids that were there (hello?), and expounding ad nauseum on the psychological trauma everybody will go through.

  • Time Pressures - Breaking the Story - There is still an absurd drive to "break news," and that pressure leads to really inaccurate, fly-by-the-seat-of-one's-pants reporting - see e.g. "Obamacare Overturned" on CNN this summer, and the wrong gunman being identified by many media outlets in this tragedy.

"You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here's why. 
It's because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine? Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody. 

CNN's article says that if the body count "holds up", this will rank as the second deadliest shooting behind Virginia Tech, as if statistics somehow make one shooting worse than another. Then they post a video interview of third-graders for all the details of what they saw and heard while the shootings were happening. CBS, Fox, NBS and more have plastered the killer's face on all their reports for hours. Any articles or news stories yet that focus on the victims and ignore the killer's identity? None that I've seen yet. Because they don't sell. So congratulations, sensationalist media, you've just lit the fire for someone to top this and knock off a day care center or a maternity ward next. 
You can help by forgetting you ever read this man's name, and remembering the name of at least one victim. You can help by donating to mental health research instead of pointing to gun control as the problem. You can help by turning off the news."

  • What Is Respectful in News Analysis/Discussion of a Tragedy?  This is the "we can't even discuss gun control until X amount of time has passed" theory.  Look, I ache for the parents and families affected in this awful situation.  But why is it that it's only in gun-related tragedies that this weird "thou shalt not discuss root causes and policy choices" theory has sprung up?  On 9/11, was anybody saying "no, no, we can't talk about terrorism, airport security, or their related policy implications"??  Not that I remember.  Yet news organizations seem to have embraced this theory wholesale with little critical thought.  Now I understand that if you are anti-gun control, it can be difficult, even unseemly to argue for greater gun access after somebody used guns to mow down children, but that's just tough.  Guns do, in fact, kill people.  But more on that in a minute.  If we can't talk about any of the facts, and the policies associated with those facts, this is going to keep on happening.  Which brings us to...

2. We Need to Come Up with Better Ways to Deal with and Treat Mental Health Problems, Generally. 

This is a broad problem that has something to do with our not having a national health care system (which I guess is changing, some), because a national health care system could make overarching policy decisions on how everybody should treat mental health, and how it should be covered by a universal health system.  It's also a problem about how we look at mental health issues as a culture, which is to say: we don't.  We sweep these things under the carpet, generally look on therapy and depression and medication for mental illness as - I don't know - bad, secret, not-to-be-discussed.  

And Where Did These Folks Go?  

And while we ignore the issue, we still moved towards deinstitutionalization.  This movement was born from a good place - the desire to see people have rights in their own lives, and to have a say in their therapies.  There were also some awful institutions, along with some good ones.  

But deinstitutionalization has been a colossal failure for the mentally-ill, because those who do not have families with lots of money are likely to end up homeless or in jail, as their problems become too large and too expensive for their families, and they often do not want to take the medicine or do the treatment that helps them.  So this piece by a mom with a mentally-ill kid perfectly describes what we have done to individual families by not coming up with a larger, communal set of solutions. And though I think it's obvious, it bears saying that these decisions do affect the larger society, and not just when a mentally-ill person shoots people.  

3. We Need to Learn to Talk About Gun Control Rationally.  

I'm not saying that the only rational way to look at gun control is to be for all gun control.  Here's what I mean: I don't want to hear slogans (that's what they are) about how "guns don't kill people, people do" or "are you for knife-control?" anymore.  They don't make sense, and they are catch-phrases rather than thoughtful contributions to the discussion.  Why?  Because guns DO kill people.  They make it way easier.  You have to work much harder to kill people with knives.  And it's silly to equate the killing power of a knife with the killing power of an automatic weapon.  Come on.  There's a heck of a lot of ground between banning automatic or semiautomatic guns and a Bowie knife.  Which is not to say that I want a violent person to have either.  
Yeah, That Looks Like It's a Rational Way to Speak.

The fundamental disconnect the NRA has built in between people who like guns and people who don't is this theory that everything is absolute.  Policymaking is almost never about absolutes - that's a paranoid theory.  It's about where we draw the lines.  The whole reason the legal profession exists is to be able to describe what is okay and what is out of bounds.  The slippery slope argument (e.g. either "first they'll come for your semis, then your Daddy's hunting rifle" or "if you're for [gun control]/[gay marriage], are you for [knife control]/[polygamy]?") is generally made when the person making it doesn't have a very good argument against the actual proposed legislation.  It's a very defensive, paranoid stance to assume that Washington Is Coming for Your Guns whenever anybody wants to legislate on anything gun-related.

So we should get creative.  There are lots of ways we could stop people we don't want getting guns from getting guns, and there are ways we could stop particular types of guns from being sold.  Ways that are proven to work.  Yeah, there will always be some way that some bad or messed up guy could get a gun.  But we could make it ever-so-much-harder than it is today.  Being "for gun control" is a broad concept.  Understanding the technology, the types of weapons that exist, the types of safety measures that have been created, and the specific types of people who are mostly likely to commit gun crimes would be useful.  The gun industry has come up with some cool safety technologies.  And understanding gun safety is a good thing.  But hunters don't need semi-automatics to kill deer.  And studies show that guns do not provide protection from violence - that in fact, the presence of guns leads to more homicides, more suicides, and more tragic accidents.  The facts are there.  We just have to talk about them and figure out how they should impact our policy.  And the best way to ensure that you understand the gun laws and are okay with them is to engage in the process, not to just say no all the time out of fear.

4. It's Time for Some Bravery in Washington About Both Guns and Mental Illness.  

Good Idea, Senator!  Keep Going, Please.

These are not problems anybody is going to give you money to solve.  They may not be problems that organized lobbying groups will come in and draft for you (though I'm guessing the Brady Center would have some useful suggestions).  But it's really the job of legislators to try to solve this kind of problem.  It's federal, it's pervasive and recurring, and it needs legislative action to achieve a fix.  So yes, Senator Feinstein, get that low-hanging fruit.  But I hope more of you will also dig deeper and more broadly.

I just want to end with the heroic, yet heartbreaking story of how one teacher dealt with the chaos on Friday.  She did everything you'd hope your kids' teacher would do, and thank goodness she managed to keep her class safe.  Now let's do what we can to get the back of every teacher in every classroom:

Kaitlin Roig was looking after 14 pupils when gunfire erupted at Sandy Hook Elementary school.  "Suddenly, I heard rapid fire, like an assault weapon. I knew something was wrong. It was horrific. I didn't think we were going to live." 
Miss Roig, 29, said that she got up and closed her classroom door, ushering the children, aged six and seven, into the class bathroom. She helped some climb onto the toilet so they could fit, before pushing a wheeled storage unit in front of the door. 
"We all got in there. I locked us in. I don't know if [the gunman] came in the room... I just told them we have to be absolutely quiet. If they started crying, I would take their face and tell them 'It's going to be OK'. I wanted that to be the last thing they heard, not the gunfire in the hall. I thought we were all going to die. I told the kids I love them and I was so happy they were my students... I said anyone who believed in the power of the prayer, we need to pray and those who don't believe in prayer, think happy thoughts. They asked, 'Can we go see if anyone is out there... I just want Christmas... I don't want to die, I just want to have Christmas." 
In the interview, the teacher said that the gunfire did not last long but that even when it stopped she refused to take the children out, even later when there was knocking and voices saying they were police officers.  Fearing that it was the gunman trying to lure them out, she told the officers to slide their badges under the door. 
"I didn't believe them. I told them if they were cops, they should get the key... They did and then unlocked the bathroom."


  1. Every time I think I've processed what happened, I read another story from that day, and end up in tears.

    Well done, Emily.

    1. Thanks, I appreciate it. When I listened to the President's speech I cried a ton. It's just an awful thing to contemplate, let alone to know happened. And as with 9/11, it is terrorism, because you feel afraid doing the normal things in your lives afterwards.