Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Sociology Of Tragedy

The shooting on Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson is a tragedy.

Six people died (including a 9-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001). Giffords remains in critical condition with a severe brain injury. "Tragedy" is too small a word to convey the magnitude of the pain and grief unleashed by one man with a gun, but it will have to do.

If I could do anything to undo this tragedy, I would do it. If I could have prevented it, I would have. If I knew of some way that I could personally prevent future tragedies, I would be spending my time now embracing it. Since none of those things is an option for me, I'm spending my time doing what I can do instead - trying to think about things in a non-banal way in the hope of moving at least one step closer to some sort of enlightenment.

The first question I'm struggling to answer is this: What exactly makes this a tragedy that merits so much news coverage?

The evening news broadcasts that I watched on both Sunday and Monday were devoted almost entirely to the events in Arizona. Monday's broadcasts seemed, for the most part, a repeat of Sunday's in that the basic story didn't advance much. The new elements that were added - the moment of silence that was observed, the interviews with eyewitnesses, the addition of sad theme music - seemed calculated to deepen our sadness rather than deepen our understanding. As so often happens with stories like these, I ended up feeling that reporters and others were wallowing in the tragedy rather than putting it in perspective and moving on to the other notable events of the day. That's *not* to say we shouldn't feel sad and angry about these events, and it's not to say that we should treat them like some sad movie to be forgotten as soon as we leave the theater. It is merely to suggest that we don't need to be completely submerged in a tragedy to appreciate its tragic nature - that indeed there comes a point at which the more we are submerged in it, the less likely it is for us to truly appreciate its place within the broader context of life on this planet.

In an attempt to better understand that broader context, I did some research. Among the things I found out:

----- More than 150,000 people die in the world every day. (Why did the deaths of six of those people on Saturday merit far more news coverage than the deaths of thousands upon thousands of others?)

----- More than 6000 Americans die every day. (Why did the deaths of six people in Tucson merit special attention? What exactly makes their deaths a national tragedy and the thousands of other deaths more or less nothing more than a personal or local tragedy?)

On page three of my newspaper today, I learned about a few of those other deaths in a *very* few words:

----- A Taliban suicide bomber killed two policemen and a civilian in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

----- Western military officials now say that NATO forces accidentally killed three Afghan policemen in an air attack. (It's allegedly the first instance this year of "friendly fire" taking lives over there.)

----- Violence in Sudan has killed at least 30 people as that country veers ever closer to civil war.

----- A flash flood in Australia has killed eight people and left at least 72 others missing. At least four of those killed were children.

Why have none of these stories received even a fraction of the coverage accorded the Tucson tragedy? Why will the names and faces of the dead in these other stories almost certainly remain a mystery forever while the names and faces of those killed and wounded in Arizona seem destined to be replayed and replayed until they can never be forgotten?

There *are* reasons, of course - but not all of them are pleasant to contemplate.

Americans tend to be far more interested in the deaths of other Americans than they are in the deaths of foreigners. Maybe the citizens of every country are more interested in the deaths of their fellow citizens - I don't know. In any case, I'm struck by the basic parochial nature of tragedy. And it leaves me more than a bit uneasy because it seems to say that a death in MY family/state/country/ethnic group/whatever is far more important and worth far more coverage than a death in whatever group YOU happen to belong to. That seems to me to be nothing more than an irrational prejudice.

It doesn't help matters that Americans tend to be so uninterested in the deaths they cause around the world. It's as if we have these boxes that we put others in, and each box insulates us that much further from their suffering and tragedies. The "Foreigner" box is a big one. So is the "War" box - you know, war is hell, and accidents happen, and the ends justifies the means, and so on, and so forth. The "Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names" box is pretty big as well, though even easy to pronounce names and places that are as close as Canada are unlikely to merit much news coverage here no matter how terrible the tragedy associated with them might be.

Of course the "Natural Disaster" box is pretty big, too. It allows us to depersonalize things very quickly - to substitute statistics for individual human beings. Being social creatures, I suppose it's natural for us to be more concerned with the murderous actions of even one of our fellow humans and less concerned with impersonal forces we can't influence even though they're far deadly, but still.... Why, objectively speaking, should we feel worse about the shooting of 20 Americans than we feel about the deaths of 100,000 Indonesians in a tsunami? Shouldn't we instead feel 5000 times worse about the latter?

It seems to me that the human mind is simply not up to the task of dealing with reality in an appropriate way.

Or perhaps I should say that it's not up to dealing with *modern* reality in an appropriate way. It might have been a fine match for the small bands and tribes that provided the context for 99.9% of its evolution, but now - all of a sudden, thanks to modern technology - a brain geared towards dealing with a few hundred people over the course of its lifetime is having to deal with thousands, or millions, or billions. Is it any wonder that strange things happen?

(Of course the same basic thing can be said about human anger and aggression. Such emotions and the actions they inspire may have conferred a survival advantage in an age when fists and rocks and spears were the deadliest weapons we had at our disposal; they seem far less likely to convey a survival advantage in an age of assault rifles and nuclear bombs.)

I could go on and on in that vein for a long time to come but I trust that my basic point has been memorably driven home even without my having to dwell at length on the fact that Americans tend to see assaults on young, telegenic, white females as being far more tragic than assaults on most others.

Let us move on.

The one thing that seems to me to possibly justify the extensive coverage being given Saturday's rampage is the way it seems to represent an assault on our system of government. Closely coupled to this is the fear that it might not be an isolated incident but a harbinger of worse things to come.

In other words, as tragic as the events in Tucson may be in and of themselves, what really gives them the power to stir up our emotions is what they appear to represent to millions of people.

Do they, in fact, represent these things?

I'm not convinced that they do.

As near as I can tell at this point, the rampage seems to have been committed by a lone nut. He doesn't seem to have been motivated by any coherent political agenda or ideology, still less does he seem to have been part of an organized conspiracy. Pinning the blame for his actions on Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or anyone else seems to me to be a very unfortunate - and very unnecessary - stretch. Palin & Co. have enough very real faults for us to point out and criticize. We don't need to add or invent others. The harsh right-wing rhetoric that some suspect may have led to Saturday's shootings would merit serious attention and learned rebuttal even if such rhetoric turns out to be completely innocent in this case. Why should it take an actual violent incident to motivate us to recognize, counter, and deflate the many problems and fallacies and ugly imagery associated with Rush Limbaugh, many members of the Tea Party, and others?

Seeing a child playing with matches requires action even if that child hasn't set a fire yet. Blaming that child for a fire caused by poor wiring distracts us from dealing with our wiring problems.

If a villain simply must be identified before we can let this tragedy go, perhaps that villain ought to be our country's unfortunate way of identifying and treating the mentally ill.

We're a country that closed our asylums a long time ago. So-called "community mental health care facilities" were promised as replacements; I'm still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. If anything, things seem to have gotten worse in recent years.

Here are a few words on this subject from Time magazine:

In most states, including Arizona, it's predictably difficult to detain someone involuntarily due to mental illness. If he is not deemed an imminent danger to himself or others, as determined by a judge, in almost all cases, treatment will not come without the person in question admitting that they are ill and need help. Even then, there is no guarantee that help will come readily or swiftly.

"What you have is an obvious need for more capacity in the mental-health system," says Dr. Ken Duckworth, a Harvard professor, psychiatrist and medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A need for more capacity is certainly true in Arizona. According to a 2005 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit mental-health organization, the state had 5.9 publicly funded psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, compared with a national average of 17. In addition, NAMI gave the state's mental-health system a C in 2009, a step up from its D grade in 2006, but with vast room for improvement....

In 2009, NAMI gave just six states B grades, while 18 got Cs, 21 got Ds and six got Fs. None received an A.

Are things likely to change for the better soon?

I doubt it.

In my own state of Ohio, the Republicans who have just been swept into office are apparently about to whack away at both Obama's health care plan and Medicaid, meaning that the many poor and mentally ill people who reside here are going to be even less likely to get the care and attention they need and deserve in the next few years than they are now.

At the same time, those Republicans seem ready to further relax Ohio's already less-than-stringent gun regulations.

And as for more federal or state dollars going for research into the causes of mental illness - well, what do YOU think the chances are of that happening in an era of trillion-dollar deficits?

Where does this leave us?

I'm not exactly sure - but it doesn't seem to be a particularly good place.

I suppose every nation in the long run gets the culture and society and government it deserves.

A nation that prefers to wallow in sadness when tragedies occur rather than adequately expend the time and money and energy and resources it takes to make future tragedies less likely to happen seems to me to be a nation that's performing at far from optimum levels.

If that lackluster performance results in still more tragedies in the days and months and years ahead, why should anyone on earth be surprised?

1 comment:

  1. We didn't close ALL the asylums. We still have churches. Maybe they have enough room.