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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What's the ideological "lesson" of the Arizona Massacre?

After every deranged shooting, opinion elites engage in a game of Derive-Ideological-Lessons-From-A-Deranged-Shooting Game. The Arizona Massacre was no exception from the DILFADS ritual, and the usual gambits -- more gun control, less political polarization -- were played. If I were inclined to play DILFADs, I'd offer two other plays for the DILFADS playbook -- namely, that the "lesson" of the shooting is that (a) it should be easier to civilly commit apparently deranged people (catering to my Red State readers) or (b) we need more spending on social services for the mentally disturbed (taking care of those Blue State lurkers out there). As I happen to believe both of these propositions, the Arizona massacre would be a great opportunity for me to press my personal agenda.

But here's a third option: Why do we not just stop playing DILFADS? Is not DILFADS an obvious example of the Fallacy of Identity -- the assumption that a salient effect must have a big cause? (See David Hackett Fisher, Historians' Fallacies at 177-78 for a nice summary). Thus, in the Arizona case, lots of commentators assumed that a well-documented contemporary condition -- widespread political polarization -- was somehow related to the shooting. But it turns out that Jared Loughner's possible schizophrenia does not seem to have been "primed" by political rhetoric as opposed to, say, Drowning Pool's music. Had he lived in Alaska, he might have gunned down Sarah Palin: There is no evidence that he had ever been exposed to Tea Party (or any other) political rhetoric, let alone Palin's now-famous cross-hairs.

The problem with DILFADS and, more generally, the Fallacy of Identity, is not so much that they lead to embarrassing op-ed pop sociology. Rather, the problem is that the Fallacy of Identity corrupts our agenda-setting process by causing us obsessively to focus on statistically unimportant problems with excessively costly solutions. The more the reform is tailored to the particulars of the tragedy, the more likely it is that the reform will misfire, because the particulars of the salient tragedy were actually not major causes of the evil that we seek to avert.

After Columbine, for instance, we got horse doctors' doses of state laws mandating Zero Tolerance for weapons in schools, even though weapons in school are not, in fact, a major cause of school injury. This host of badly drafted laws wreaked havoc as kids were thrown out of school for bringing tweezers to school, and toy soldiers were banned from classrooms. After Megan Kanka's murder, we got waves of ever-tougher >sex registration laws, even though inability to identify the address of sex offenders is not, in fact, a major cause of children's sexual abuse. These laws now impose extraordinary costs to little apparent effect in reducing the evil to which they were addressed.

Perhaps the Arizona incident will energize the movement to ban high-capacity magazines like that used by Loughner. Such a prohibition would, on the whole be a decent legal reform -- but, compared to other goals to which the Left could devote its energy, not an urgently needed one: The body count from deranged gun-wielding shooters using high-capacity magazines is pretty low, compared to, say, fires caused by carelessly used space heaters. It is irrational that our policy-making apparatus should be distorted into addressing such a statistical anomaly at the expense of more important goals. We academics pride ourselves on being able to arise above irrationality. So I suggest we academics make a special effort to fight both DILFADS and Fallacy of Identity, by embracing the sadly nihilistic reality of mass shootings: They are random events unrelated to any Big Cause that, even if preventable, might not be worth the costs of preventing them.

Posted by Rick Hills on January 12, 2011 at 11:50 AM | Permalink


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How many deranged (or sane but calculated) shootings are necessary before you start to suspect that things are amiss with guns in this country? DILFADS? Cute premise. Would you include Ruby Ridge, Branch
Davidian / Waco , Oklahoma City bombing in that? Those were all based
in gun advocacy. Should they be ignored to support your DILFADS premise?

Best wishes, --Mike , Candidate for Congress , http://www.mjbarkl.com/run.htm

Posted by: Mike Barkley | Mar 9, 2011 5:52:17 PM

I like the acronym DILFADS, and think the point about this being a(nother) good example of the fallacy of identity, and/or salience bias (making generalizations by extrapolating from only highly salient events or examples rather than the entirety of the set of available data) is basically right.

There may be one way, though, that we may derive meaning from the Tucson event without slinging blame in inaccurate ways. These events may provide an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, and our political discourse, and to amend each of them in ways that may not have been obvious before.

Here, there isn't any evidence that the Tucson shooter was influenced by Sarah Palin's "targets" ad, or by overwrought political rhetoric more generally, and I think this means that Palin herself or other purveyors of this kind of violent political language (regardless of right or left affiliation) can't be held directly at fault for causing the incident.

This does not mean, though, that the Tucson tragedy cannot (should not) be an opportunity for reflection about the character of political debate and the responsibilities (as well as the freedoms) conferred by the Speech Clause. Causation aside, viewing Palin's "targets" ad through the prism of the Tucson event makes the ad stand out even more as crassly violent, disturbingly eliminationist, and wholly unnecessary to make her political point.

It's often helpful to try to see some kind of silver lining in the wake of terrible events like this, and I hope that the Tucson event may cause us to reflect carefully on how we talk about politics in America, and to more responsibly exercise free speech rights. This is not because any political personality has blood on their hands, but simply because it is a more decent (and probably also more productive) way to engage in democratic discourse.

Posted by: Dave | Jan 12, 2011 4:15:41 PM

A report following the Tucson Massacre that Glock sales increased dramatically seems to answer the lyrical question: "How Are Things in GLOCK-amora This Fine Day?" - not too good.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 12, 2011 1:12:12 PM

"Why do we not just stop playing DILFADS?" Because it works. Before Oklahoma City, Bill Clinton was reduced to agreeing that "the era of big government is over" and whining that "the president is still relevant." Nutter blows up building, Bill blames the entire Right, Bill wins the DILFADs debate, and much of the Right backs off its agenda for fear of being an "inciter of hatred."

Nancy Pelosi walked black congress-members thru the Tea crowd LOOKING for the infamous "spitting" or racism; the script was written in advance. It worked.

Gheesh, Dick Morris wrote a memo advising Clinton how to exploit the tragedy. Rahm said you can't waste a good crisis, and others say you can't waste a good corpse.

Most of the Patriot Act were long-sought goals by some, long-swince drafted and awaiting an opening. We responded to Oklahoma by also passing AEDPA, because narrowing habeas review for garden-variety felons would of course prevent future bombings.

People will play because it works, and the only way to stop it is to not let it work.

Separate from the cynical folks who play this game, many others are so drunk on their Kool-Aid that they actually believe this nonsense. They believe that Sarah Palin incited Tucson, or they believe that Obama or Bush or whoever did whatever. Because everyone who disagrees with them is evil.

Posted by: joe reader | Jan 12, 2011 1:04:01 PM

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