The story is so very moving and puts a human face on serious matters of public policy.
As evocative as Sami Rahamim's story about his father is, I was left wondering about the shooter. This is not to minimize the human loss, the destroyed families, and the sheer wantonness of the crimes committed by the street pirates in America's central cities such as Chicago, or mass murderers like Adam Lanza.
There are victims; there are perpetrators. The good social scientist and secular humanist in me understands that there are structural forces which drive social pathology. Individuals are not just born criminals or social deviants: their behavior is a result of complex forces that include both nature and nurture.
The Black Pragmatist in me also knows that the vast majority of people in the same horrible situations do not resort to crime. Nor, do they decide to act like highwaymen brigands who prey on their neighbors.
A question. Is this another entry for the "Black Nihilism files?"
A counterfactual. What if Barack Obama sent out an email which read as follows?
Gun violence is a public health problem. While the government can do many things to help solve this problem, we need individuals to pursue creative solutions to this problem in their own communities. Many of our communities are overrun by street brigands. Mass shooters have also taken too many lives.
What are you prepared to do about it? My administration is assembling a group of the leading researchers, including criminologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, mental health professionals, and experts in public health to come up with a list of solutions to the plague of gun violence in America.And what if the email added one more sentence:
Given recent advances in neuroscience, cognitive research, and other related fields, we will also be adding biologists and geneticists to this blue ribbon panel. We must use all of the knowledge at our disposal to solve this national problem.How do you think the public would respond?
I ask this question because it seems almost inevitable that the causal dimension of street crime and gun violence will have to be dealt with more robustly as part of (what seems to be stillborn at present) any real national conversation about guns and public health. Given the ugly history of race science, eugenics, and other technologies run amok in the United States and elsewhere, I am deeply concerned whenever biology intersects with matters of public policy.
"Biopolitics" is wrought with both great opportunities and great peril. It is not viable in the long term for the United States to keep locking millions of people up in jail as violent crimes costs the United States economy trillions in lost productivity.
What if science could allow us to take preventive measures? What if a vaccine or pill could be made that would that moderate the behavior of those people most prone to violence?
In thinking through these questions I keep returning to two concepts.
One seems well-grounded and worth more discussion as we try to navigate the mind of both the street pirate and the mass killer.
The other is junk science. Yet, it promises a simple, and in many ways beautiful, causal answer for socially deviant behavior.
"Hostile intention attribution bias" is a foundational concept for understanding street violence. Many of us have seen this behavior in our young people who just have to keep their "respect." They fight over having their sneakers stepped on; they shoot up neighborhoods over slights both real and imagined; their impulse control is profoundly limited.
The National Institutes of Health has a great primer on the concept which includes the following helpful diagram:
The following passage from the same article is chilling in its clarity, as well as how it so deftly captures the lovelessness, hopelessness, and nihilism that plagues many of our most poor communities:
The experiences that foster a hostile attributional style might include:Physical abuse. Modeling of hostile attributions by adults and peers. Failure in important life tasks.Rearing in a culture that values self-defense, personal honor, and retaliation.The ghetto underclass youthocracy of street pirates, Chief Keef wannabe's, and other assorted hooligans have developed a range of adaptive behaviors which have no use outside of a 5 square block area. And in those same limited life worlds, the behaviors themselves are destructive, dangerous, and hurt not just those possessed of that social pathology, but all of the good folks who have to live within the same geographic space.
The question remains, how do you fix these broken people?
The second concept which comes to mind in this discussion is "the warrior gene." Could Adam Lanza have a version of the warrior gene? Could the hooligans who are killing innocent young people in Chicago be similarly programmed?
For the uninitiated:
"While gangs typically have been regarded as a sociological phenomenon, our investigation shows that variants of a specific MAOA gene, known as a 'low-activity 3-repeat allele,' play a significant role," said Beaver, an award-winning researcher who has co-authored more than 50 published papers on the biosocial underpinnings of criminal behavior.
"Previous research has linked low-activity MAOA variants to a wide range of antisocial, even violent, behavior, but our study confirms that these variants can predict gang membership," he said. "Moreover, we found that variants of this gene could distinguish gang members who were markedly more likely to behave violently and use weapons from members who were less likely to do either."
The MAOA gene affects levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that are related to mood and behavior, and those variants that are related to violence are hereditary. Some previous studies have found the "warrior gene" to be more prevalent in cultures that are typified by warfare and aggression.The idea that biology is destiny could be comforting--and perhaps be a path to a solution for street violence--if treated in a neutral way. However, in the real world, science is part of a broader "regime of knowledge" that serves particular interests over and above those of others.
In the case of the much speculated upon warrior gene, the idea that DNA could influence one's propensity for impulsive violence is also considered piss poor science in many circles:
McDermott’s study provides little to no evidence for the warrior gene, because the difference between carriers and noncarriers was minuscule. McDermott et al. examined 70 subjects, half of whom carried the warrior gene. The researchers found that 75 percent of the warrior gene carriers "meted out aggression" when cheated—but so did 62 percent of the noncarriers. Moreover, when subjects were cheated out of smaller amounts of money, "there was no difference" between the two groups.
Obviously, the warrior gene cannot possibly live up to its name. If it did, the whole world—and China in particular, if the racial statistics cited above are remotely accurate—would be wracked by violence. The warrior gene resembles other pseudo-discoveries to emerge from behavioral genetics, like the gay gene, the God gene, the high-IQ gene, the alcoholism gene, the gambling gene and the liberal gene. (See my previous columns on the liberal gene and gay gene.)
The abysmal record of behavioral genetics stems from two factors. First, the quest for correlations between thousands of genes and thousands of traits and disorders is prone to false positives, especially when traits are as squishy as "aggression" and "childhood trauma" (the variable that helps some researchers link MAOA-L to violent behavior). Second, the media—including respected scientific journals like Science and PNAS as well as shows like Dr. Phil—are prone to hyping "discoveries" that will attract attention.Gun violence, with its mass shootings, and random street crime brigandry, must be addresses from multiple directions. There needs to be an honest conversation about reasonable gun control. There must a serious discussion of the victims of gun violence and what measures can be taken to make sure that fewer people, especially children, are victims of the country's gun fetish rum amok.
While it is not fashionable in some circles--primarily because of reasonable concerns about the disparate and unfair intersections of race, crime, and the prison industrial complex--folks of good conscience and sense who care deeply about the Common Good must speak truth to power. Here, the truth-tellers must not be limited to discussing structural elements of deviant and criminal behavior, as they will soon be preempted by dishonest parties who want to resuscitate the discredited claims of The Bell Curve and other pseudo race science claptrap to find solutions to the country's plague of gun violence.
If Black Pragmatists and others who care sincerely and deeply about the Common Good do not engage in some real talk the relationship between street crime, and the personal responsibility which the shooters have for their foul deeds, others will step up to the plate.
Let's get ahead of the curve on this one good people. How would you confront the spawn of Black Nihilism, broken communities, semi-existent opportunity structures, and a regressively deviant youthocracy?