Numeracy, School Massacres and the Nature of Terrorism

on February 15, 2018 in Parkland, Florida.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America

A few months back I got into a minor public spat about the failings of so-called “data journalism.” I erred to the extent that I spoke loosely about data journalism in general as opposed to misuses of it or sloppy and lazy uses of it, which the example I noted clearly amounted to. One might generally describe this abuse of the form as clever people using numbers to lecture people about elements of human experience the clever lecturing people either don’t understand or think their cleverness gives them a pass on trying to understand. One element of that example was a study that showed that mass shootings account for only a very tiny subset of the total number of deaths in this country from firearms every year. This is true (probably obvious to almost all of us if we give it some thought) and also largely beside the point.

One can say the same thing about virtually all acts of terrorism. Many people do. And we’re right to do so in the context of how the United States has been transformed since 2001. With the massive exception of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the number of people killed in the US every year by terrorist attacks is minuscule – and that includes rightist domestic terrorist attacks as well as those tied to Islamic radicalism. This is particularly important since a massive amount of our government expenditure and focus is aimed at counter-terrorism in its various dimensions.

Pooh-poohing school shootings is more questionable since we do so little to try to prevent it. On a generous interpretation, you can point to “hardening” schools through various means, armed security guards, endless drills and so forth. But in practice, we do virtually nothing as a society to prevent school shootings or gun violence (apart from these limited and inherently defensive actions) in general because we’ve made a collective decision that the right to own any kind of gun in any number, with any amount of ammunition, anywhere and at any time is the highest social value. It is more important than anything else.

But it makes perfect sense that we focus on school shootings more than most other shooting deaths if we judge them in purely numerical terms. Because school shootings are acts of terror – in the pure sense rather than the now-acquired meaning as a euphemism for violent Islamist radicalism. They are acts of terror because their aim is to terrorize the whole society. The individual killings are to a great extent a means to that larger end. Note that in most school massacres, though not all, the perpetrator doesn’t go after particular people who they believe hurt them. It’s indiscriminate and aimed at achieving the highest body count. It is indiscriminate by design because no one is immune and everyone feels the shooter’s power.

Every homicidal death by violence is an equal loss, an equal personal tragedy and even more an equal familial tragedy. But deaths have different effects on the larger society. That too is important, and it is a difference society is well to take into account. We recognize this reality in hate crimes laws. A black woman who is killed by a white supremacist gunman is just as dead as she would be if she were killed by an African-American mugger, by her spouse or by her own hand. But racist murders terrorize whole communities. So we punish them differently or in some cases more severely. Because it causes a harm beyond the individual killing. Indeed, it intentionally causes a harm beyond the individual killing.

The logic becomes more palpable when applied to lynchings. A 2015 study puts the total number of lynchings in the South during the Jim Crow era at roughly 4,000 – we might more specifically describe them as racist terror murders with the acceptance of the civil law enforcement system. Over a period of almost 75 years that comes out to just over 50 killings a year. (In practice, they weren’t evenly spread out but heavily concentrated in the period of the imposition of Jim Crow.) That’s certainly fewer than the number of non-lynching homicides in those years and must be far fewer than the number of total deaths by violence of African-Americans during the time. But that’s not the point. Lynchings held millions, were committed with the specific intention of holding millions in mortal fear and submission. Their impact was wildly out of proportion to their numbers. Most killings are committed with the intention of ending a specific person’s life. These killings are committed for their societal impact.

School shootings are not lynchings. They are different in myriad ways. But they share a similarity in spreading terror far beyond their individual victims. That’s the definition of terrorism. The number of children who have died or been seriously injured in school shootings is relatively small – though it’s hard to know what counts as ‘small’. But the Post found that since the Columbine massacre in 1999, some 150,000 children have experienced a school massacre even though the vast majority weren’t physically injured themselves. Certainly tens of millions of parents and children have experienced the fear and persistent sense of vulnerability of school shootings. It is of course all by design.

None of this is a misunderstanding or result of innumeracy. Terrorism spreads terror. School shootings, with all their now hideously cliched choreography, are just that. And we’ve decided they are not as important as the right to own any number of guns in any number, with any amount of ammunition, anywhere and at any time is the highest social value. Don’t forget that.