Scapegoating

These are some random thoughts about the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Scapegoating is the non sequitur and unmerited negative treatment or blame of someone for a problem. Scapegoating may be conducted by individuals against individuals (as in, “John made me do it!”), individuals against groups (for instance, “I failed because our school favors girls”), groups against individuals (as in, “It’s Bob’s fault that we lost the game.”), and groups against groups (“Immigrants are taking all of the jobs from ordinary Americans.”).

A scapegoat may be an adult, sibling, child, employee, peer, ethnic or religious group, or country, or even an inanimate object.

The appeal of scapegoating is that it reduces a complex problem to an illusionary simplicity. It creates the mirage that the problem can be solved simply by getting rid of the offending individual, object or group.

So today, the pundits are in full scapegoating mode. But rather than some group being blamed for the shooting, the guilt is being laid before objects.

Some commentators were quick to blame the shooting on violent video games.

Others blamed “a violent society that glorifies violence.”

And of course, the favorite scapegoat of all: guns.

Unfortunately, such scapegoating does not actually address the true problem at all. Nor does it keep what happened in any kind of perspective, admittedly difficult to do in the midst of the shock.

Consider a bunch of statistics:

It is estimated that at least 80 million Americans own guns. There are about 258 million guns distributed among these 80 million Americans.

The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007 due to suicide, while 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. (Incidentally, that’s about the same number of people who were killed in car accidents–around 32,000–in the US that year)

So, 285 million guns resulted in 31,224 homicides.

That works out to about .4 percent of the guns in American being used for killing. It also means that about 99.6 percent of guns were not used to kill people.

For me, it becomes hard to believe that guns are the cause of the problem.

The same thing with violent video games. The new game, Black Ops 2 sold 11 million copies just in its first week of release. The number of the players of that game–or of any other violent video game–who commit murder are vanishingly small.

We could point out that over ninety percent of Americans ate a hamburger in 2007. About 17,000 Americans committed murder, with over 90 percent of them having eaten a hamburger at some point prior to their crimes. It seems to me unlikely, however, that hamburger eating will ever be imagined to be a cause for those murders.

Which illustrates, I think, the ludicrousness of blaming inanimate objects for the actions of a volitional agent. Here’s a thought. Why not just blame the murderer for his actions instead of his neighbors, the community, or whatever thing it is in our society that you don’t like.

Continuing with some more statistics regarding video games. Apparently, about 68 percent of American households play video games. Over 90 percent of those under the age of 17 play video games.

And yet the crime rate in the United States has actually been steadily declining over the last decade, violent crime has been plummitting. Murder rates are down. For instance, NBC news in June 2012 reported FBI statistics (http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/06/11/12170947-fbi-violent-crime-rates-in-the-us-drop-approach-historic-lows?lite) indicate that violent crime rates in the US are approaching historic lows.

And now on to some more general statistics regarding death.

In 2010 deaths from all causes numbered about 2.5 million.

The top 15 causes of death were:

1. Heart disease
2. Malignant neoplasms
3. Chronic lower respiratory diseases
4. Cerebrovascular diseases
5. Accidents (unintentional injuries)
6. Alzheimers disease
7. Diabetes mellitus
8. Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome and nephrosis
9. Influennz and pneumonia
10. Intentional self-harm (suicide)
11. Septicemia
12. Chronic liver disease and cirrhosis
13. Essential hypertension and hypertensive renal disease
14. Parkinson’s disease
15. Pneumonitis due to solids and liquids

Those top 15 causes of death cover about 2.1 million of the deaths in 2010; the remaining 400,000 or so deaths are come from all other causes.

The total percentage of people who died in the United States in 2010, from all causes amounts to about .8 percent of the population. In other words, in 2010, 99.2 percent of the American people did not die.

Perspective is a useful thing to have, but rarely do we hold on to it.

What happened at that elementary school in Connecticuit is heartbreaking and horrific. But looking for scapegoats for its cause will not prevent such terrible things.

And yet we all want to keep such horrors from ever happening again.

But if we can’t solve the issue by simply banning guns, banning violent video games, or banning violence in movies and television, then what can we do to try to solve the problem and prevent such violence?

And still, our first impulse, always, is to find someone, something to blame and make that someone or something disappear.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy. We must resist our first impulse. Scapegoating, for all its emotional appeal, does not actually solve a thing. It merely deludes us into thinking we’re doing something, taking a stand, making a difference. Instead, we’re acting more like the ancient people who danced and made noise to drive away the dragon consuming the sun during a solar eclipse.

So what causes crimes such as what we saw at that elementary school?

We could, as many Christians do, point to the general fallen nature of humanity and our need for redemption. Evangelizing our neighbors is certainly a good thing. But turning people into Christians does not mean that they will suddenly become perfect and righteous. King David, a man after God’s heart, committed adultery and murdered his paramour’s husband. Moses murdered an Egyptian. We regularly read about pastors embezzling funds, committing adultery, being guilty of pedophilia. We also read about Sunday School teachers, deacons, and ordinary pew sitters, teachers and police officers, firefighters and soldiers–human beings–committing sins.

Evangelism is good, but it won’t actually eliminate bad behavior. Christians are still sinners, after all. Making children recite prayers, posting copies of the ten commandments, or forcing Bible reading in the schools will not prevent crimes. America did not start skipping to Hell with joyful abandon when forced rote prayers were eliminated from public schools. You don’t always obey the speed limit, despite the regularly posted signs. What makes you think posting religious stuff or imposing religion will have any more impact on the criminal or insane?

So.

We live in a society that values its liberty and privacy. We don’t like being told what to do or where to go. We don’t want surveillance cameras watching our every move. We don’t want police on every corner eyeing us. Making America resemble an airline terminal run by the TSA is not a reasonable solution, either.

Such violence as we saw in Connecticut is newsworthy not because it is common, or an epidemic. It is news because it happens so infrequently. The vast majority of the hundred million or more school children did not face bullets today, nor did their teachers. The overwhelming majority of people in the US today were not the victims of violent crimes or crimes of any kind.

We would all like to see such things never happen again. We would all like to find a way to keep it from ever happening again.

Rather than scapegoating groups or objects, we may have to recognize that our ability to keep bad things from happening is limited and that solutions are often very, very hard. A person who would kill his parents, kill a bunch of children, and then kill himself is obviously suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, mental illness is hard to treat. The states have severely reduced the amount of money they devote to the treatment and care of the mentally ill, and when combined with well-intentioned but misguided laws that prevent involuntary commitment, the mentally ill are left to wander the streets still sick (the overwhelming majority of the homeless are mentally ill, despite having treatable illnesses. But the current laws make it difficult or impossible to help them).

What to do? Some thoughts:

1. Increase funding and care for the mentally ill and change the laws so that those who resist treatment can be forced to get the help they need; this is for their own good, as well as for the good of society (as in preventing, to some extent, what happened in Connecticut).
2. Recognize that crimes are the result of individual choices by individuals. We do not share collective guilt for what an insane person or a criminal does. We must not use such incidents as an excuse to blame our political opponents. No one wants to see such things happen. Attributing malice to your political opponents, arguing that their policies mean that they like to see children murdered, and want it to happen more, demeans you. And you sound like an idiot and worse. Surely you know better. It is also not good to use such incidents to create scapegoats or build strawmen.
3. Recognize that it is impossible, in a free society–or really, any kind of society–to completely prevent the insane or the criminal from causing harm to individuals and groups.
4. Resist the urge to feel guilt for the crime of another. Be willing to let the guilty bear the responsibility for their own actions without spreading the guilt around, throwing it at those you disagree with, or picking it up for your very own.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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One Response to Scapegoating

  1. Eric Miller says:

    Awesome blog. Thanks. One minor suggestion: for numbers less than one follow the common scientific practice of putting a zero before the decimal point. For example, .4 percent becomes 0.4 percent. Your use of the opposite statistic (99.6%) helped clarify, but my tired old eyes at first misread your .4 and .8 percent numbers.

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