On May 20, 1998 my wife was in the
newsroom where she worked in Western Oregon. The news director had
just heard something on the police scanner about some sort of
non-specific commotion at a local high school. It had been a slow
news day, so he told her to just go down there and poke around and
see if there was a story anywhere worth reporting. My wife got there
and phoned back that there did seem to be some activity, but she
couldn't tell what it was. There were no other news agencies at the
scene. And then all hell broke loose.
My wife was at Thurston High School in
Springfield, Oregon. A short time before she arrived a student had
gone into the school and began shooting his classmates. By the time
he was subdued by a group of very brave students, 15 year old Kip
Kinkel had killed two of his classmates and wounded 22 more. Soon
afterward the bodies of his parents, killed the day before by Kinkel
were found. My wife spent the day reporting for news outlets around
the country live from the scene of one of the worst school shootings
that had ever happened. Eleven months later at Colorado's Columbine
High School the death toll would be much, much worse.
Not long after the Thurston High
tragedy, I wrote an editorial for the Philadelphia Inquirer about
school shootings where I compared what happened at Thurston High
School to a natural disaster. We in the community had all been quite
affected by the incident, my wife, who witnessed the actual scene
more than most. It seemed so random to us all that it might as well
have been a tornado touching down and killing those kids at school
that day, and that's the position I took in the editorial. It left
the community stunned and full of questions. But there never were any
real answers. Kip Kinkel was, in the end, a tragic anomaly. How many
anomalies does it take to become something more than an anomaly?
I found myself reflecting on a point
that just isn't that clear when we think about what seems to be a
rash of mass shootings in the U.S. these days: how really few people
we are talking about here that perpetrate these crimes. Mother Jones
Magazine tallied up the mass killings since 1982 in the United States
and all those incidents combined are the work of well under a hundred
In a nation of between 250 and 300 million people to say that this is
a miniscule percentage of people is a huge understatement. I try to
remember this when I (or we as a country) are thinking of ways to
reduce such violence, because our methods need to take into account
how very few people it involves. How do you devise national policy
changes to deal with what 0.00000033% (or less) of the population is
Now, of course, these high profile mass
shootings are far from the only type of gun violence the U.S.
struggles with. We lose about 12,000 people annually to murders and
another 18,000 or so to gun suicides. But it is these mass killings
that seem to prompt the most talk of a need for solutions, and also
the most conversation about what's changed in society to make such
events seemingly more common. It's worth going into that a bit I
First of all, gun violence overall is
far off it's highs in the U.S. This is something we dealt with
extensively in one of our recent podcasts entitled “Aiming for
Effectiveness” and available free via this link:
shootings of the sort we have seen recently are increasing. Obviously
they involve a tiny subset of our population, but why would they be
on the rise now (as opposed to any other era)? As usual, everyone is
quick to look at the same equations/solutions/targets of blame, but I
think there are more questions worth asking than answers to be had in
cases like this.
To me there are
some fundamental unknowns that keep springing up that lead me to
lines of inquiry:1. How much of this is "normal"?
Is there a "failure rate" that one can reasonably expect at
all times in a large society among people who just “snap” at some
point? If there is, is it a constant percentage (therefore as
population rises, you can expect to see more actual incidents) and if
so, is it modified by anything we can put our finger on at the
societal level (the economy/job prospects, the culture/media, etc.)?
There are always "crazy people" too. Always have been. Are
we seeing a rise in this problem/the number of cases...or is it
stable and we just have more people so we have more individuals with
mental health issues based on a percentage that has remained constant
over time?2. On that "culture" question: I am
convinced this is where we are different than places like Europe.
People want to focus on the guns as the problem, but we have a
culture in the U.S. where guns are ingrained and where they have been
so for centuries. The use of them has seeped into us. It is the
desire to use them that's different. To think the guns themselves are
the problem we would have to believe that the Canadians, Europeans
and others with lower homicide levels all would like to kill each
other at our rates...they just lack the guns to make their wishes a
reality. That's ridiculous. The truth is that these other societies
don't have as much murderous intent as Americans. Why not?3.
To the "Why are we more murderous?" question: WE (as a
whole) aren't. But a subset of us is. This subset is what's
interesting/concerning. Why can 99+% of us handle any of the violent
cultural or economic influences (or the prescription medication for
mental health issues or any of these other variables) but a small
percentage is perhaps pushed over the edge at some point...maybe with
the help of influences that lower inhibitions to acting out in ways
that are deadly?. And if we are dealing with a tiny subset of people,
does it make sense to make society-wide changes that affect the
non-problematic 99+% to possibly diminish some of the damage caused
by the potentially murderous subset?4.While these mass
shooting incidents that seem to be on the rise lately are certainly
"crimes", this is obviously something very different from
what we normally think of as "crime". Most of the gun
violence in this country (The VAST majority) is involved in the sort
of crime we all normally think about. Drug dealer shoots rival drug
dealer in back alley of blighted neighborhood...man commits suicide
and decides to take his estranged wife with him...burglar kills
target in botched robbery attempt, etc. None of this is good, of
course...but this is somewhat normal in the expectation of things (I
have a book made of up photos from a scrapbook of a police officer
from the 1930s to the 1950s and he shows you what sort of stuff they
routinely ran into where people died...these criminal incidents we
see today were common even back then. What you DON'T see in his
book...because they were very rare back then...is mass shootings
where 10+ people die in a single outburst of violence. The closest
parallels that I can think of are things like the St. Valentine's Day
Massacre in 1929 and whatnot. Again though...not committed by
deranged/disassociated malcontents...but gang warfare. Murderous, but
somewhat rational in its evil calculation. Certainly not cases where
the assailants expected to kill themselves at the end of their
violence. A different set of circumstances entirely from these school
and mall type shootings.).There are incidents I can find from
the past that are analogous to what we see more and more these days
with these recent mass shootings. The famous 1966 shootings at the
University of Texas for example (where a man with a brain tumor
killed 16 and wounded 30+ more before being killed by authorities).
They are less rare today though. Perhaps we should look into possible
reasons why something that was happening at one level of regularity a
generation ago, is happening at a higher level now. One thing is for
sure when you look at it that way: It can't be the availability of
guns. That's been a relative constant in U.S. history. The variable
must lie elsewhere. I'm very curious what might help explain this.
Some that I have spoken to have brought up the idea that medication
that some of these shooters might have been prescribed might have
played a role in their behavior (a recent article that I re-tweeted
to my twitter followers at @dccommonsense claims that 80+% of
assailants in these recent mass shootings can be classified as having
significant mental health problems). Considering that the warning
labels on some of these drugs discuss possible suicidal impulses as
side-effects, and most of these assailants kill themselves or expect
to die in these attacks, perhaps this is an angle worth examining.
Are there any sources breaking down how many of these shooters were
on such drugs? Can any of this be quantified?
In many ways
these mass shootings mirror the problem of terrorism in a modern
society. How far should the society go in trying to defend people
from a problem that involves so few actual perpetrators? Do you go
crazy with security everywhere to protect a nation from a terrorism
threat that kills few actual people (but when it does can do so in
spectacular and very traumatic and fear-inducing ways?). Do you get
tougher on guns when an overwhelming supra-majority of those who own
and use them never have an issue related to them? How far do we go
inhibiting the law-abiding and responsible to inhibit the criminal
We have been
wrestling with this issue for some time obviously. What I hate to see
is us doing so in the same way we always have (the simple knee-jerk
gun control versus 2d Amendment argument). We have a “murderous
intent” problem in the U.S. and perhaps an increasing issue
relating to the mental health (or possibly the mental health
treatment) of some. Those issues do not provide the same easy talking
points or simplistic answers at the legislative or political level
that the gun angle does, but they may strike more efficiently at the
heart of the problem. There's a reason we have more mass shootings
than we did a generation ago. If it isn't guns (and it isn't...the
current laws are tougher than in the 1960s and earlier) then what is
it? And is it a growing issue for real? Or are 60 or 70 unbalanced
and malformed humans shooting up public areas since the early 1980s
making us think Americans are more murderous than we have always
I am not trying
to pretend that these are answers. I just know that with decades of
effort expended on the normal gun vs. anti-gun argument not bearing
any tangible fruit whatsoever, I would love to see us approach this
problem in a more novel way. Let's “three-dimensionalize” this
debate and see if any new insights are forthcoming. Doing the same
thing we have always done on this issue over and over and expecting
different results is, after all, the very definition of crazy. And
we seem to have enough of that going around as it is.
is a sure sign of my inexperience in organizing (anything) that I put
out a call for people to tweet those whom they intellectually admire
and then provided no way for those twitter recipients to figure out
what the heck they were being asked to involve themselves in. Let me
apologize for that here and now.
post is an attempt to provide something people can link to that will
help flesh out and provide context to what it was I was proposing.
have been discussing the problems facing the USA (and the world) for
many years now. News “analysis” was always the term used to
describe what I did. “Commentator” was another oft-used
description. Many of the people who have been tweeted about this also
fall into those categories. Now, one either does that sort of job to
make a living, or to foster positive change (as they see it) or some
combination of the two.
the goal is to foster positive change, then I imagine we have all hit
the same wall. We can analyze/define the current situation (call it
“A”) and where we need to go (“C”) but the mechanism to get
us from here to there is the missing ingredient in all of our
equations. I can't seem to come up with an adequate idea for “B”
that will actually succeed. How do we get from A to C? The action
verb is missing here.
problem of course is the corruption in our political system.
as we all know, every system of government that has ever existed has
some level of what might be termed “corruption” inherent in it.
Sweden has it, so does Nigeria. But in Sweden the problem is so small
that the system deals with it and it is almost unnoticeable. In
Nigeria (no offense Nigeria) it is so endemic that it dominates
everything. Every system can absorb a certain amount and function
fine. But there's a tipping point when things eventually get to a
place where you go from having a working political system with some
corruption in it, to a corrupt political system. The United States is
past that tipping point.
problem in a representative system such as the USA's though is that
we have a government that translates the popular will via
intermediaries. In order to reform the corruption the votes of the
very people who benefit from the corruption are required to fix it.
I have used the analogy that in order to foster change in this area
we need the foxes to redesign the chicken coop to make it fox-proof.
The dilemma here is obvious. What to do?
years I have advocated voting for people who are not part of the Big
Two political parties as a way to combat this problem. This idea has
little merit anymore because the Big Two parties have spent decades
enacting roadblocks at every level (local, state, federal) to inhibit
third party and independent candidacies which even without such
electoral impediments are long shots.
to limit the influence of money have also failed. Even if our
legislators sincerely wanted to reform the issue of money buying
access and influence in government the Supreme Court seems bent on
protests movements with “boots on the ground” and committed
people (from all political stripes) have elicited little but scorn
and mockery from the media and others (and sometimes even calls for
legal sanctions and surveillance from the government).
Legislation. Protests. These are the traditional methods historically
used to fill that action-verb void. Those were the “B” in our A
to C transition. When those fail, what should be tried?
recently interviewed three people running for president under the
Independent or Third Party label-Former Governors Buddy Roemer and
Gary Johnson and former Mayor Rocky Anderson. Every one of them
agreed with me about the analysis of the situation. All agreed the
corruption is the Gordian Knot in our system that taints any other
sort of legislative action. No bill can make it through our system
to become a law without the corruption changing it (or emasculating
or “loopholing” it if it was intended to reform or create real
oversight). Yet none of these people had any real answer for “B”
other than “Trust me. Look at my record. I will fight this”.
How? Smart men. But no answers.
when I decided that I am a hypocrite if I don't do something more
than what I am doing. There are many smart folk out there (you are
probably one of them) doing their part to help. But we are all
working within our little nodes (or in the case of some of you,
not-so-little nodes) of operation. Is this the optimum way to do
this? Could the potential impact for change be increased if there was
some increased level of interaction and cooperation between these
nothing else, figuring out the answer to the “B” action-verb
question would be a huge leap forward in progress. This is where
brainstorming (and the involvement of audience members with specific
technical knowledge or skills perhaps) might prove a crucial
breakthrough point. I know that I personally would feel much more
effective if I could suggest people take some action that I knew had
the real potential to create a better situation for us all
politically (and by that I mean a system that responded to what the
great mass of society needs instead of this or that corporation or
interest group. We have a government that can't think about the
“General Welfare” or the holistic whole because the “whole”
isn't giving them money...this or that tiny segment or interest is).
this isn't a call for any specific political proposals. Americans
don't agree on that. Different people from competing ideologies have
opposing views on the various issues of the day. That's to be
expected and is even healthy in a system like ours. But the great
mass of Americans want a clean system so that the will of the People
(whatever that turns out to be) is translated into political
outcomes. There are few overt defenders of a system ruled by the
money of corporations and special interest groups.
recall that getting esteemed individuals and thinkers together to
discuss ideas towards reform is how we got a Constitution written
once upon a time. It's got a long and respected tradition and has
been effective in the past. The key aspect to my effort is not to get
the defenders of the status quo together (the George Wills or Thomas
Friedmans or David Brooks types) but those who have already
demonstrated that they understand that the status quo is a one-way
trip off a historical cliff. There are a decent number of those
non-status quo esteemed thinkers around, and if I could aid their
efforts by bringing them together, I would sleep better at night
thinking I had done something helpful and positive rather than just
bitched about problems we all already realize are out there.
does “bringing together” mean? Some virtual forum to brainstorm
would seem to be a logical first step. Why have me design how things
are going to be done when we can make use of the very intelligence I
am trying to corral to do this instead?
Working on this right now...more to follow as we educate ourselves...
are looking into the technical options right now. More to follow as
I educate myself more. Thanks for your patience and understanding.
I figured it was past time to issue a
progress report on the latest Hardcore History episode
(#41)...especially since we are currently two weeks past our
This is not only not unusual for us, it
has become the norm. We consider this to be a bad thing, but we
really don't know what to do to alter the state of affairs. With
this current episode we instituted three or four major elements to
help us get the show out sooner, and none of them worked. Today in a
discussion with “Ben” (if there is a Ben... ;) ) I just blurted
out “Maybe we can't do one of these shows in two months.”. And
maybe we can't.
Now, most people have been extremely
understanding of our situation. It's somewhat rare (but not abnormal)
to get somebody warning us that this will affect our business and
personally being a bit frustrated with us. More common is the
increase in subscription cancellations and the like as the show gets
increasingly overdue. I can't blame people though. We say “A buck
a show” not “Three bucks a month...auto deducted from your PayPal
account”. I stick by that though. We don't expect to be paid when
shows aren't out...only when they come out. The incentive is huge (in
more ways than just that) to get them out as soon as possible. But,
they seem to have a life of their own.
In fact, if I weren't always so
stressed and worried about it, I think I would be fascinated watching
the process from a third person vantage point. The creativity is
popping all the time, and stuff gets added to the show as we go (and
then we sometimes go back and insert thoughts that occurred to us
only after the part they fit into had been recorded). The
composition of the theater of the mind elements is a true art form,
and “Ben” doesn't get the credit he's due (for obvious reasons.
The Man is sick...). I will laugh regularly as he takes some element
from pop culture and twists and warps it in ways to form background
elements to go under (and enhance) my audio. It's a
In truth, we are stressed out about it
all the time. We know we should be able to get these things out
faster, and we know people aren't too pleased that we haven't done
so. It's just a task that takes more time than you might think (the
reading and note taking alone is a mammoth task...). It's like
writing a song...a REALLY long song. And it just can't be forced...no
matter how hard I try (and I try too hard sometimes...).
Here's where we are as I type this (Dec
26th). We have an hour and forty or so minutes of audio
recorded and currently in the process of being scored (theater of the
mind elements being added). I see at least another forty-five minutes
to an hour of audio before we are done with the story. If that
sounds long, know that we are as shocked as anyone. I specifically
tried to pick a topic and everything that lended itself to a shorter
show. We ended up covering 1,500 or more years of history instead.
Once again I proved that I am terrible at this element of the show
I love some of the stuff in the current
show. It's a topic that can easily get a podcast host in trouble,
but I think so far, so good on that score. If you can handle how long
it is, you may like it. Remember...if you get in trouble, there's
always the pause button. ;)
Thanks for your patience...we are, and
have been working hard. In fact, I've never worked as hard in my life
as I do as a podcaster. That's because my boss is a slave driver.