Mass Shootings and Distorted Priorities

In 2002, a sniper terrorized the Washington D.C. area. Someone died pumping gas. Another died loading groceries into her car. A manhunt ensued.

The drama captivated the nation. As a 16 year old kid in Phoenix, I remember reading updates each day on the front pages. Nightly news showed unceasing coverage, no matter the channel. Over a three week period, ten people died.

Two men were eventually caught. 42 year old John Allen Muhammad and 17 year old Lee Boyd Malvo had tag teamed in killing random victims and driving the getaway car. The drama continued into the trial, as we learned of mixed motivations, grandiose plans, brainwashing.

You can’t deny the attraction of such a story. The plot would make for a gripping movie, and indeed, the story has since been dramatized for a full-length film and rehashed in multiple crime documentaries.

Random acts of violence, especially large scale, bizarre, or that-coulda-been-me scenarios like what happened in D.C. or in the movie theater in Aurora, or in Orlando, perhaps deserve unbalanced media coverage. We want to know about it. Such is human nature, well known and happily harnessed by media corporations.

I’m interested, though, in how these shootings steer public policy debates. Of course mass shootings are tragic and deserve attention. But we exert disproportionate and misdirected energy looking for quick fixes to a complicated, relatively rare, unpredictable phenomenon. The fantastical nature of these crimes and their unbalanced media attention bias our judgement.

A quick comparison: Judging from averages for the year 2002, during the same three week sniper stretch, 1,790 people committed suicide in the United States.

Homicides in our inner-cities dwarf the number who die from mass shootings.

Yet politicians latch onto mass shootings, burning political capital calling for marginal changes like universally applied background checks or banning certain types of weapons. Democrats made a big show this week with their “sit-in” demanding a new vote on these measures, and staking support for banning weapons purchases by individuals on terror watch lists, which are flawed in their creation and violate basic expectations of due process.

Undoubtedly these measures might help save a few lives each year. But in my mind, we should be pushing for deeper reform measures at the community level. Education programs, support for family units, prioritizing mental health—attention to these fundamentals would be more preventative of all sorts of ills that sprout discontent and violence. How can we find ways to make people feel happier in their lives and more integrated into their communities, less prone to lash out or gravitate toward radical ideologies?

John Muhammad became unhinged after a messy divorce and a court order preventing him from seeing his children. Lee Malvo was an impressionable kid, victim himself of a broken, abusive upbringing. Look up any mass shooter and you will find a disconnected, mentally disturbed, angry person.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people is a tired cliché. Certainly guns help people kill people; certainly assault weapons in the hands of murderous people increase the death count. Guns are dangerous and more can be done to keep them from dangerous people.

Our collective energies, however, can be better directed. A political stalemate over gun control shouldn’t prevent us from creating a happier, safer country.


Previously written posts on mass shootings:

A House Divided

Identity and Insanity: Holding a mirror to a violent society

Kalief Browder, RIP

KaliefKalief Browder, a 22 year old New York resident, committed suicide last year. The first I heard of this young man was two days ago on a New Yorker podcast. It was the anniversary of his death. The piece moved me to share what I learned about his life.

I had heard of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Walter Scott. Names that have become symbols of racial injustice in this country when it comes to policing. Each of these black individuals lost their lives in split second decisions by white officers. How much racial prejudice motivated these decisions, we don’t truly know. Cops got overzealous, lives were lost. One occurrence would be too many.

The Kalief Browder case epitomizes a systemic failure, a clear and heartbreaking example of a breakdown in the justice apparatus.

Browder fell victim to the institution. His story would be more believable if it happened in North Korea.

At the age of 16 he was picked up by the police and arrested for stealing a backpack. He claims he never stole it. For purposes of the story, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because the boy sat in prison for three years without a trial. He spent three years in Rikers Island, a notoriously brutal prison. He spent two of the the three years in solitary confinement. A teenager awaiting trial for petty theft.

Kalief struggled to adjust to the harsh conditions. He was repeatedly abused by officers in the prison, video of which has been published. He was deprived of food. He attempted suicide multiple times in his cell. He reported getting mocked by officers during one of the attempts.

After three years, no conviction no trial, the charges were dropped without so much of an apology. Just like that, Browder re-entered the world.

He struggled to adjust to reality. Three of his most formative years, changing from a boy into a man, were spent caged in a 7 x 12 foot cell. His mind never recovered. He was in and out of psych wards after his release. There were two attempted suicides before the final, fatal act on June 6, 2015.

The inhumanity of the situation is appalling, besides the clear violations of his civil rights. Innocent until proven guilty. Right to a speedy trial. Protection from cruel and unusual punishment. A failure on all counts.

What pains me the most about this case is that the system clearly saw this person as a nobody. He didn’t matter. Had Kalief been a star athlete getting media attention for his scholarship offers, this wouldn’t have happened. If he were the son of a well-to-do, he wouldn’t have spent a day behind bars.

In the land of the free, we demand better. A few politicians are invoking Kalief Browder’s name for the sake of criminal justice reform, including President Obama in an op-ed for the Washington Post questioning solitary confinement. To his credit, Obama acted to stop the use of solitary confinement for juveniles as a response to low-level infractions.

We need to drastically reform our justice system in this country, and I hope that Kalief Browder’s name continues to provoke active responses, so his suffering can bring redemption for others.

The Mind of Donald Trump: Article Review

Atlantic TrumpMany people have written many things about Donald J. Trump. For some reason we have been forced to take seriously a character who, if written into a movie, would be a comedic exaggeration. But here we are.

And here he is– one seriously flawed, embattled opponent away from the White House. Amazing.

More amazing to me are the Republican leaders who lend their support for the sake of “unity,” then renounce 90% of what comes out of his mouth. Unity of what?

This phony support boils down to wanting votes from his supporters and wanting to stay on Trump’s nice side. Either explanation is soulless.

I can forgive and try to understand how the media and certain voting blocs might get mesmerized by Trump’s bravado shtick. I can’t forgive the cowardice of an elected leader sworn to uphold the constitution, for which Trump has shown no regard.

One of the more different articles I’ve read examines the psychology of Trump. Indeed, Trump’s behavior would more likely be found in a psychology textbook than standing on a debate stage. But here we are.

The Atlantic cover story The Mind of Donald Trump was written by personality psychologist Dan McAdams, who has also written a book in the psycho-biographical genre about George W. Bush.

Now, any casual observer of Trump will be able to pinpoint the main take-away from this article. No big surprise: McAdams believes Trump a narcissist, someone totally concerned about himself. Oh, and he thinks Trump is disagreeable.

How McAdams arrives here, though, is worth the read. He provides a detailed portrait of Trump’s life as pieced together through biographies and articles and Trump’s own writings and interviews. McAdams examines the presumptive nominee through the lens of a widely used personality trait analysis, and then compares the dominant traits of Trump with other presidents we have seen. (The most liken to Trump? Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon. More on this in a little bit.)

Another draw to the article is the analysis he provides for the appeal of Trump. Questions like, “How are Evangelical Christians able to vote for such a morally depraved person?” are answered in depth. (For the Evangelical question, he turns to modern research on authoritarianism.)

If any redemptive quality offering a fresh interpretation of Trump could surface, in this thorough analysis, it would have. And it doesn’t. Apparently, even speaking at his own father’s funeral, Trump took to bragging about himself.

McAdams concedes that personality traits can’t predict the type of president one will make, or exactly what they will do. He offers, however, that disposition can predict the type of decisions someone is likely to make. In Trump’s case, this points to a willingness to make confident decisions in a high-risk, high-reward type of situation. (Think: Iraq War.) Although his “openness” trait (in political terms, read: lack of conviction) may leave him a pragmatic dealmaker, his extreme disagreeableness and disregard for the truth are more likely recipes for something more “explosive.”

As the article shifts focus toward mental-set, worldview and motivation, there are also no surprises to be found. Trump thinks in competitive terms and views himself in a “dog-eat-dog” world. He wants to win and be seen as the top dog this vicious world. His anti-trade and anti-immigrant rhetoric fits right into his personal narrative.

The most insightful, and most disturbing, opinion in this piece is what McAdams believes drives the entire Trump persona– anger. I’ll quote the article here:

“Indeed, anger may be the operative emotion behind Trump’s high extroversion as well as his low agreeableness. Anger can fuel malice, but it can also motivate social dominance, stoking a desire to win the adoration of others. Combined with a considerable gift for humor (which may also be aggressive), anger lies at the heart of Trump’s charisma. And anger permeates his political rhetoric.”

So Trump is an angry, self-centered, disagreeable person. Hasn’t that been the case with other presidents?

McAdams compares Trump’s anger to Jackson, and his disagreeableness with Nixon. Both of these presidents have done very regrettable things. Jackson expanded the powers of the presidency and wrought the deaths of thousands of Natives Americans. Nixon’s abuse of office and deception caused him to resign in disgrace. But there are reasons to distinguish Trump even from these extreme examples.

First, McAdams reminds us that Jackson’s populist anger was harnessed in a functional way, and his story at least served to inspire the “common man” of his time. It’s yet to be seen whether any part of Trump’s explosive personality can be harnessed or function within our democracy, and nothing seems to be inspired more by Trump’s rise than violence and bigotry.

Second– and I am making this observation myself– Nixon was paranoid and harsh and calculating, but when his back was finally against the wall, his deception fully revealed, he stepped down and flew off into the sunset. In his resignation speech he said that “the interests of the nation must always come before any personal considerations.” He claimed to have been looking out for the good of the nation, and by stepping down instead of chugging through an impeachment trial, you can try to believe him.

How would a President Trump respond, with his back against the wall? From what I’ve seen and read, even in the face of plain truth, there would be no backing down. There would be incessant manipulation, attacks on attacks, with the full force of his office, beyond what we can imagine. Nothing comes before Trump’s personal considerations.

Every part of his life story, his observed behavior, and McAdams’ analysis point to this unnerving reality: Trump would destroy this country before he would humble himself.