Sunday, December 16, 2012

Context and perspective

Last week’s events in Connecticut are well known; there’s no need for me to recite them.

Only a few weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, chastised middle Americans, telling us that we’re becoming irrelevant.

In this case, middle Americans who practice agriculture have something very relevant to offer. Context. Farmers and ranchers live in constant contact with nature’s reality. Ironically, they have far more experience with the workings of the real world – with life and death and perspective – than the more than 95 percent of Americans who live in the artificial constructs of urban and suburban settings.

Tragic as the deaths in Connecticut were, something perhaps more tragic has been happening since the advent of the 24/7 news cycle.

Hundreds of millions of Americans spent all or most of the day last week glued to their televisions and/or computers, drawn to the awfulness of the situation like a moth to a flame. This is simply human nature. It is also human nature to, at some point, put the thinking part of the brain back in charge, to let reason cast a net of reality over jumbled emotion. Reason seems to come easily to those who live close to nature. For those living in artificial environments, perhaps finding reason – or allowing reason to take charge – is more difficult.

In the wake of every tragedy, all people ask the “why” question. Asking why is human nature. Ironically, it’s an unanswerable question.

Neither the television, nor the internet, nor the thousands of talking heads and experts covering the tragedy were able to tell you why. No one can tell you why. Not even the perpetrators. Because the question isn’t “why did it happen?”, it’s “why didn’t it not happen?”

Asking the question led the major media to behave less than professionally, according to their own code of ethics. The code first published in 1926, is available on-line at

The trap that the major media placed itself in was that they didn’t simply report the news. They propagandized this tragedy and leveraged it into an attack on an inanimate object. The gun. And by extension, into an attack on gun owners. The major media have been united on the topic of strict gun control for more than a half-century. The simple form of their argument that such tragedies wouldn’t happen if there were no guns.

The major media also advanced the notion that certain segments of society are more prone than other segments of society to perpetuate violence. This is simple bigotry. The fact is that mass murderers come from every segment of society; from every race, gender, job category, education level.

To be fair, major media is entertainment. Entertainment is funded by advertising. Advertisers spend ad dollars where they will give the highest return on investment. A nation locked in 24/7 to the designated tragedy of the week sees a lot of commercials.

Mankind wears only the thinnest skin of civilization. Most Americans, having never lived anywhere else or traveled to non-modern overseas destinations, don’t understand this. Civilization is by definition a group of people who voluntarily agree to work and live together under the aegis of a set of rules. Rules which generally prohibit murder, rape, assault, theft, etc.

It doesn’t take individuals or groups very long to strip themselves of the trapping of civilization.

Throughout history, men and women have knowingly and intentionally violated the rules of civilization. Every American who has ever “sped up to beat the yellow” has done so. So has every murderer, rapist, and thief.

Quite often entire nations have violated the rules of civilization. Think of the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, Cambodia. Think of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Only last year, in July, 2011, a Norwegian killed 77 people, 60 of them children. He did this in a country with perhaps the most stringent gun laws in Europe.

An incomplete Wikipedia5 list of world wide mass killings (defined as six or more killed by a single individual) since 1909 includes the following:

Number killed
Africa/Middle East
Oceania/Maritime Southeast Asia
Educational Settings4
Hate Crimes1
Home Intruders2
U.S. Famlicides
European Famlicides
Famlicides – Other

1 Hate Crimes are not defined.
2 Home Intruders also include cases of homeowners defending themselves.
3 Americas includes ALL of the Americas; South, Central, and North.
4 Educational Settings include schools and learning institutions in 10 countries.
5 Wikipedia is not a very reliable source. The World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, which keeps more voluminous records but whose reports are never released less than four years after the data were collected, is somewhat more reliable but not entirely reliable. The Wikipedia source was selected based  ease of use, though the data are admidedly incomplete and less than completely reliable.

The composition of the list seems to imply that all killings on their list, with the exception of those by vehicle, grenade and other, were committed with firearms. I’m sure that the majority were, yet there have been other forms of mass murder committed since 1909, including the practice of stoning, the machete murders in Rwanda, etc.

Now for some perspective.

As I noted, the list is incomplete. If we assume that all the listed mass killings occurred in a single year, and if we multiply the total by 10, and divide into the global population, we get a mass murder rate of about 1.8 millionths of one percent (0.0000018). Most mortality rate figures are expressed as a fraction of a uniform 100,000 person cohort. Expressed in this fashion, the mass murder rate listed by Wikipedia, occurring in a single year and multiplied by 10 gives a rate of 0.018 deaths per 100,000, about one fifty-fifth of a death.

As we noted above, each untimely death is a tragedy. One fifty-fifth of a single death per 100,000, spread across the entire population of the seven billion humans who inhabit the Earth, lends valuable perspective. Though the 24/7 information cycle provides widespread and pervasive coverage of such events, they are, in fact, vanishingly rare. Nor are they a new phenomenon. The list only goes back to 1909. Humans have been committing mass murder – including the murder of children – throughout recorded history.

As a comparison to the above, the U.S. age-adjusted death rate from all causes is 758.3:100,000. Seven Hundred fifty-eight Americans of every 100,000 can be expected to die in the course of a calendar year (Deaths: Final Data for 2008 (most recent available); National Vital Statistics Reports; Vol. 59, No. 10; published Dec. 7, 2011).

Here is the ranking of the top 15 causes of death in the U.S. from the above report:

Number of deaths/percentage of all deaths
Heart Disease
616,828/25 percent
565,469/22.9 percent
141,090/5.7 percent
134,148/5.4 percent
121,902/4.9 percent
Alzheimer’s Disease
82.435/3.3 percent
70,553/2.9 percent
56,284/2.3 percent
Kidney Disease
48,237/2.0 percent
36,035/1.5 percent
35,927/1.5 percent
Chronic Liver Disease
29,963/1.2 percent
25,742/1.0 percent
Parkinson’s Disease
20,438/0.8 percent
17,826/0.7 percent
All other causes
469,062/19 percent

We all know that humans are mortal. None of us will live forever.

But since we’re discussing a particularly tragic circumstance, let’s provide some rather more specific context.

Another form of untimely death, one in which the perpetrator also intentionally violates the rules of civilization, is drunk or impaired driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,261 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2008. This number falls in between Kidney Disease and Suicide on the chart above and represents just over 1.5 percent of all deaths.

Of the total number of driving fatalities, 11,773 were caused by alcohol. Thirty-two (and a quarter) people die in America each day as a result of drunk driving. Many of the dead were not intoxicated, and were, in that sense at least, innocent. Many were children. Many were pedestrians. Many intoxicated drivers survived crashes in which others died.

The point of this piece is not to pick a side and convince others of the rightness of that side.

The point is to remind people that they’ve got both a thinking brain and an emotional brain. People are only rational and civilized when their thinking brain is in charge. Only the thinking brain can decide to turn off the television when enough information becomes too much information.

People are also extremely vulnerable to being taken advantage of when their emotional brain is running the show. It doesn’t take much digging through history to see the horrible consequences which have always followed.

You alone decide which brain is in charge.

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