Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Haven't we had this conversation before?

Update December 26th, 2012: The Mermaid's Tale also covers this story.

Isn't it supposed be Boxing Day?  I guess I'll always be a stranger in a strange land.

Joe Pickrell is tweeting that "researchers" at the University of Connecticut are going to sequence the genome of Adam Lanza to "discover" biological clues to extreme violence.  A journalist at the New York Times has actually written an article about it and it has been published in the "Science" section of yesterday's paper.


People have been studying psychopathy for years. For example, Robert Hare has devoted his life to its study.  Other researchers, too numerous to mention, have soldiered on, bravely looking at the interplay between drugs, illicit and otherwise, alcohol, stress and mental health.

I have been listening to the discussion, off and on, on NPR, to the public reaction to the Newtown gunman.  Once again, we discuss the cause:  the media, gun control, and mental health.

The mental health discussion caught my attention.  One women mentioned something to the effect that approximately one percent of the population struggles with schizophrenia, which is approximately the case.  She then made the statement that she had never met anyone with schizophrenia and proceeded to discuss schizophrenia in very simplistic terms, as if to say that if we could just round up all the people struggling with schizophrenia, put them in group homes, then we'd all be A-OK.  No need at all to do something about those assault weapons.  Finally, someone stepped in to say that many people who have schizophrenia have successful lives and are, in fact, heroic in their struggle with the disease.

Still, I found the conversation a reflection of our profound ignorance of mental health issues.

Moreover, the discussions about "gun control" are, in my opinion, ridiculous.  It will be very unAmerican of me to say so, but as far as I am concerned, there are a few reasons why you might want to have a rifle:  you need to get rid of the crows; maybe you're hiking in grizzly bear territory (outside of a national, state or provincial park); you're a hunter . . . but a .22 would probably do the job, maybe a little bear spray .  .  . if you wanted more, you could try a bow.

However, beyond an arms race, there is no place for automatic assault weapons in our cities.  Oh, right, the Second Amendment.  Been to any federal, state or city office lately?  They're defended to the teeth.  It's always nice to have to state your case to an official through bullet proof glass.  Makes for really cozy communication.

As to the "researchers" at the University of Connecticut, I am sympathetic to the plight of the many families.  I am sure they are desperate for answers.  However, the genome of the Newtown gunman will not provide any.  That is not to say that genomics will not eventually tell us something about schizophrenia, psychopathy and other diseases of the mind.

I am profoundly sad to say that we will likely be having this conversation again.


  1. "As to the 'researchers' at the University of Connecticut, I am sympathetic to the plight of the many families. I am sure they are desperate for answers".

    There is something strange going on in the USA. Of course it is not the only place where such mass killings take place but it happens far more often there than it does almost anywhere else. Other countries that do come close are such as Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq etc, all countries with a high proportion of religious fanatics. I wonder if that is the connection?

  2. No, I don't think it is particularly a function of religious fanaticism. Rather, religious fanaticism is probably fomented by desperation, lack of social services, lack of healthcare, and lack of more moderate avenues for social interaction and connnection. These are the same negative social conditions that exacerbate the ability of a society to acknowledge and buffer the behavior of people struggling with mental health issues.

    Even where you have a society that has many social services in place, the availability of guns is always precarious.

    I will never forget the fear instilled in me when I was studying electrical engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, in 1989. A gunman entered the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and killed fourteen women engineering students.

    The reactions of the society at large were then somewhat similar to the reactions now: As a society, we seem to want simple answers that do not involve taking on any of the tough issues.

    The initial reaction seems most often to be say that it was an insolated incident or sequence the genome of a person predisposed toward "extreme violence."


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