Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Springtime for Hitler

Megan posted about mass-murder. I am responding at length here rather than clog her comments board.

First off, she links to an article about elementary school teachers scaring students by pretending that a drill was real. She claims that if you teach people how to behave in real situations, all the time telling them it's a drill, they'll know how to respond (and will respond properly) in the case of a real emergency situation.

I'm going to draw on personal experience here, so it's with high schoolers and not eleven year olds. I honestly can't say how eleven year olds would react to "dangerous" situations, but during my junior year of high school there were a few terrifying weeks when there was a sniper on the loose in the area. Every couple days, another person would be shot by the sniper and the school would freak out. Now this isn't the same as a gunman actually being in the school building, and I use the comparison ONLY because it is the best parallel I know. Point being, that when the announcement came over the intercom that we were experiencing a "Code Blue" situation, Megan was right - students didn't freak out. Instead, they thought it was a drill. In fact, I was the only person in my class to think, "Wait, they didn't say drill. This is for real."

Point being that while this very well might be different if you say something like "There's a masked gunner in the school. Hide under these desks," if you have a known procedure and drill it every so often, when an administrator says "This is a Code Blue situation", the students will probably daze off and hear "This is a Code Blue drill situation", and not take it seriously at all. Which is exactly what happened, even after I told my classmates that they were most likely incorrect. And while they didn't take it seriously, they still followed the rules for a "Code Blue" fairly precisely. It was within a standard deviation, I think.

My second example is more similar in the immediacy of its danger (but still nowhere near the same), and the point of it is that even people who are very well trained to respond to emergency situations react badly at times. When confronted with death, danger, and so forth, people panic. They lose control. The example being a little boy who started drowning in the pool over the summer. The lifeguard who was nearest watched in shock, and the lifeguard who was farther away swam through the pool to rescue the kid. This happened several times, actually, with one particular lifeguard doing almost all of the saving because he was the one who responded well to a crisis situation. These people are well trained, it's their job to be on the lookout for problems, and the issue wasn't that they didn't take it seriously enough - everyone saw what happened. The issue is that some people just panic. I've heard great stories from EMT friends about people just freezing in the middle of a call, or forgetting what to do. It happens. That's humanity. The only way to get someone to respond well to crisis, that we know of so far, is to innure them to crises - the seasoned veteran or the person who has been working in the emergency room for years can deal with situations better than the new recruit or the medical student. It takes a long time, but you do get somewhere.

Point being, for elementary students, there is no good way to actually train them on how to deal with a crisis situation. No matter what you do, they probably won't react well to a dangerous situation. Either they won't believe it, or they'll panic, and a very small number of them (remember, these are eleven year old kids, not exactly responsible, calm adults) might have the self-possession not to hurt themselves. Those teachers made a poor choice, but there isn't really a good choice available.

She goes on to talk about what the best ways to stop mass-murder are, and her basic argument (as I understand it) is that you can't legislate to people who are already breaking laws, so the best option is to "treat it at the source" with gun control and with psychiatric help for likely sociopaths.

First off, while I support gun control, I also think that there is absolutely no problem with someone who is sane and just happens to like hunting (or shooting ranges or WHATEVER) to have a gun. In terms of what people do with their private lives, so long as they aren't hurting other people, it is not the place of the government to legislate. However, having some control over guns, to prevent known (or unknown, I guess) sociopaths from using them, is probably a good idea, and having required safety measures to prevent small children or theives from getting them is also a good idea. BUT, no matter how tightly we regulate guns, and even if we outlaw them entirely, people will still get them. And if we outlaw them entirely, the only people who will get them will be the people likely to misuse them. Which is kind of... silly, in my opinion.

I have a couple problems with the proposal of "psychiatric help" to prevent sociopathy. In some cases (e.g. tumor in hypothalamus pressuring amygdala) there is something that can be treated by external action, and in those cases medical assistance is certainly our best bet. But most cases are not like that, as the VT shooting shows clearly. Psychiatric treatment isn't as simple as treating the flu or strep throat. Even comparing it to cancer, where INCREDIBLE amounts of personal strength is necessary to see a treatment through doesn't do it justice. Because in each of those cases, there is a clear physical cause - something that drugs, or a surgeon, can remove - and the personal strength required is the strength to see a treatment plan through, to go through pain and hardship and not succumb to depression. In psychiatric illness, however, you aren't fighting against a bacteria or a virus or even your own mutated cells. You're fighting against your own psyche, and that causes huge amounts of trouble unknown in other diseases. External treatments are not totally effective, and the treatment plan takes huge amounts of effort on the part of the patient. Basically, an antibiotic (or a trio of antibiotics) will cure you of the bubonic plague whether you want it to or not. But NO TREATMENT will cure you of a psychiatric disease unless you want it to and are willing to go through hell and high water to cure yourself. Sociopaths are known specifically for thinking themselves better than others, why would they want to be "healthy", when "healthy" is equivalent to "normal"?

Secondly, there's the problem that not all sociopaths are bad sociopaths. Our society prizes some of the traits of sociopathy, admittedly in milder forms. Men (and women) who are a little bit rebellious, and impulsive, who are aggressive enough to take action without worrying about it, who stand by their beliefs through fear of pain, and who don't dwell on remorse and the past are in fact lauded. Looking at a list of the symptoms of sociopathy doesn't just call to mind the mass murderer stuck in prison, but also many of our nation's leaders. I once heard (from a source I would trust) that most people who run for president are (at least a little) sociopathic. Don't forget that most sociopaths are on the outside charming and witty. Determination, bravery, creativity, pride, these are all things that we WANT to be part of our society, but they are exactly the things that, when present in too potent a form, and not tempered by empathy and care for others, are the hallmarks of sociopathy.

Again, you're faced with a problem almost without solution. You can restrict the means for getting a weapon, in which case dangerous criminals still have weapons while you are still restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens. You can try to treat sociopathy, but it seems to be patently hard to treat, and removing all forms of sociopathic urges from our society is something that we distinctly do not want to do, since the same things that seem to make a good leader are a start on the way towards sociopathy. As depressing as it might sound, maybe there is no way to really prevent these outbursts, and the only thing that we can do is to train people to handle crises better - which, as any EMT can tell you, is certainly difficult but can be done. Which brings us full-circle, to the idea that drilling lockdowns and other emergency procedures is the best way to save lives. It seems obvious to me that the longer a gunman spends prowling the halls looking for people to shoot, the shorter he spends actually shooting people - and the longer the police have to get to the scene before people are shot, the better. Shooting through locks isn't as simple as the movies would have it, and the windows on the doors of most classrooms (if present) don't provide a good way to reach the doorknob. Unless he knew that people were inside the room, would he really try that hard to get through the door? It would be like prying open a tough can of tuna to find only water inside. Lame.

As far as I can tell it, that's the best argument there is for drilling lockdowns and so forth. It's not an ideal option, but it might be the best one that we have.

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