[REPOST] The Brooklyn Subway Shooting Does Not Confirm Your Priors
Re-publishing this in light of the Nashville shooting
***A shooter who reportedly identified as a trans man has killed six people including three children at a school in Nashville. Some people are attempting to tie the shooter’s actions to the trans rights movement, generally. In light of these events, I’m re-upping this piece, in which I argue that opinions should exist almost entirely independently of relatively unique events such as mass shootings, and that we should be wary of attempts to use high-profile tragedies to advance pre-existing agendas.***
There’s an exchange in an episode of Veep that’s so darkly hilarious that I can’t believe they got it on TV. It also captures conversations that I’ve had in real life:
Dan (Vice President Meyer’s aide): Ma’am, FYI, we’re tracking a school shooting in Spokane, Washington.
VP Meyer: Oh. Muslim or white guy?
Dan: Don’t know yet.
Meyer: Which is better for me?
Kent (Meyer’s pollster): White guy.
Meyer: Fingers crossed.
There’s a perverted symmetry to how we respond to high-profile horrific events. Conservatives use terrorist attacks to justify tighter immigration controls and — if they’re feeling saucy — the occasional all-out war. Liberals use mass shootings to push for gun control and to further the delusion that America has basically been a nonstop Klan rally for the past 400 years. The current suspect in the Brooklyn subway shooting is a Black guy who posted YouTube rants about racism and violence, so: advantage conservatives. Some of them will certainly try to cram this into a “Look what Black Lives Matter hath wrought” narrative. As if the guy drove directly from an activist teach-in to the shooting.
Our habit of tying emotionally charged events to pre-existing hobby horses and pushing for action on that basis is fucked up. It raises the question: Who’s really insane here? Is it the guy shooting random civilians, or the rest of us? And, uh…you know what: It is still the guy shooting random civilians. He is definitely the insane one, hands down. But the rest of us aren’t exactly covering ourselves in glory. Highly visible, tragic events are ripe for political exploitation and are often the catalyst for bad decision-making. We should try to recognize the pattern and break it.
Consider earthquake forecasting. Please. Just pretty please consider earthquake forecasting for a minute and then I promise I will tie it back into culture war stuff lickety-split.
Earthquake forecasting is all about probabilities. Seismologists can’t say “an earthquake of this magnitude will strike in this place at this time,” but they can make fairly accurate predictions about the frequency of events in areas over long time frames. They can make predictions like: “There’s a four percent chance that an earthquake of magnitude 8.0 or higher will hit California in the next 30 years.”
This, of course, makes seismology a pretty-sweet gig: No matter what happens in California over the next 30 years, seismologists can say: “Called it”. And when they make more precise predictions over longer timeframes — say, 50 or 100 years — then even if they’re way off, they’ll be safely in the cold hard ground before anyone finds out, their ill-gotten grant money long since spent. Yes, seismology is a grift perpetrated by charlatans and cranks; THAT is the point of this column.
But a SECONDARY point is that a single event doesn’t say much about the underlying probability of that event. A mega-earthquake in California is unlikely, but it could happen. If it does happen, does that make the “four percent chance” prediction wrong? No — long-odds bets with four percent probability come through…(rustles through notes)…four percent of the time. Of course, the prediction might have been way off, and no-one would know. Again: Seismology is a centuries-long scam that makes Bernie Madoff’s investment fun look like the Bedford Falls Savings & Loan.
When someone commits a horrible crime, it’s often cited as proof that drastic countermeasures are needed. But horrific, high-profile events don’t tell us much about the event’s probability. John Hinckley Jr. tried to assassinate President Reagan in order to impress Jodie Foster, but that wasn’t the first in a series of crimes inspired by early-period Scorsese movies. A Congressional Committee on Actresses Who Are Just Too Damn Good would have been overkill. Probably the most logical follow-on would have been emergency funding for National Gaydar, because — look, I know it was the ‘80s, and people were naïve about this stuff — but…Jodie Foster? Wrong tree, John. (Other than that, solid plan, though.)
Beliefs and policy decisions should exist almost entirely separately from high-profile events. The policy outcome tied to the Hinkley shooting — the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — happens to be one I support, but I didn’t need a shooting to convince me that it’s a good idea. If you had asked me before the shooting: “Should background checks be required before someone buys a gun?”, I would have said “Yes”. I would not have said “Maybe — can I see four people including the president get shot before I decide?” I try to take the same context-neutral approach to topics that inevitably come up after a shooting, including policing, mental health, and civil liberties. Changing your opinion in light of new information is good, but reacting emotionally to an event that might be an anomaly is a recipe for bad decision-making.
The aftermath of a shocking event might be the worst possible time to make a decision. The Overreaction Hall of Shame includes the Patriot Act, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and Japanese internment. When I got divorced, I probably should have been banned from tattoo parlors for a year; it’s only by grace of God that I don’t have “PARTY ANIMAL” over a picture of Garfield holding a bong tattooed on my lower back right now. As much as I hate to say it, Mitch McConnell almost has a point when he says “Now’s not the time to talk about gun control” after any mass shooting. I actually agree that the aftermath of a shooting is a bad climate for decisions; I just wish that McConnell thought that there was ever a good time to talk about gun control. Seriously, Mitch: Pick a date. I’ll move stuff around.
Of course, it’s advantageous to address an issue right after a tragedy. That’s why people do it: The political climate is abnormal. That’s also why it’s a bad idea: One side of the debate is neutered, because they’ll look like galactic assholes if they take the “wrong side” of the issue. That’s why the “Muslim guy/white guy” exchange from Veep rings so true; if it’s a guy on “your” side, prepare to get pummeled. But if it’s a guy on “their” side, then lucky you: You’ve been handled political capital, time for a spending spree! And if you feel that the way that I’m talking about the politics of tragedy is deeply fucked up, then I completely agree: This is a morbid and manipulative way of approaching these things. We need to stop.
Politicians aren’t the only ones who exploit tragedies; many in the media try to shoehorn catastrophes into preferred narratives. The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was initially portrayed by many as a homophobic hate crime; subsequent evidence showed that it wasn’t. The New York Times reported that a Capitol Hill police officer who died after the January 6 riot had his head bashed in by a fire extinguisher; he was not bludgeoned, and he died of a stroke on January 7; the DC Medical Examiner’s finding was that he died of natural causes. Last year’s Atlanta-area spa shootings were (and often still are) assumed to be anti-Asian despite strong evidence supporting a different motive and despite the fact that the main piece of evidence supporting the racial motivation claim is second-hand testimony from a taxi driver speaking to Korean-language media that was contradicted by two witnesses and that could not be verified by NBC News. That’s the weakest possible sourcing for evidence short of “talking parrot squawked it during an acid trip”. But hack reporters treat narratives the way old men treat pants: When they find ones they like, they stick with them no matter what, even if people can eventually see completely through them.
Obviously, liberals aren’t alone in this; conservatives also misrepresent tragedies to buttress narratives. The amount of violence during the post-George Floyd protests in 2020 was frequently exaggerated. Conservatives constantly push the “immigrants cause crime” narrative — families of people who were murdered by undocumented immigrants spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention — even though there’s strong evidence that both documented and undocumented immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans. This fact check argues that Trump uses crime statistics in a misleading way — holy shit, why hasn’t that been bigger news??? He was the PRESIDENT, he can’t misuse statistics!!! If people find out about this, I think Trump’s political career is over.
The whole exercise is sick. And, in my opinion, unnecessary; I don’t need to ruminate on large-scale tragedies to know that things like white supremacy and radical Islam are bad. I didn’t find neo-fascist ideology compelling before a woman was killed in Charlottesville. If Jonestown had never happened, I would not have heard Jim Jones’ weird-ass gospel of pseudo-communist Christian-ish race war enthusiasm and thought “seems cool”. It’s important that my beliefs be grounded in reality and not overly influenced by events that might be nothing more than the product of a troubled mind. When we overreact to tragedy, we’re letting the most disturbed individuals among us dictate the course of our debate.
One weekend in 2016, I found myself in my office at Last Week Tonight, knowing that we had to write a response to the Pulse nightclub shooting. The shooting had just happened, and we taped in a few hours. Basically all we knew at that point was that it happened at a gay nightclub and that the suspect had a Middle Eastern-sounding name. So…was it a hate crime? A terrorist attack? Some still-to-be-determined third thing? We didn’t know.
I remember thinking: Why does it matter? Why is the ideological label that we pin to an act of mania important? Because — on a basic level — we did know what happened: A deeply damaged person lost the ability to control his rage and exploded. He surely had views and motivations — in his mind, the attack made perfect sense — but it seemed vanishingly unlikely that a person with a demonstrably diseased mind would have any sort of coherent worldview. And so, the label is just a label: These guys are standing in a store called “31 Flavors of Toxic Ideology” and thinking “Let’s see — what kind of fringe dogma suits my fancy? White supremacist? Islamic fascist? Japanese Death Cult? Oh I just can’t decide!” These weren’t normal-functioning people who wandered into a particularly poisonous Ted Talk; the disease came first, and its predilections followed later. To view the ideology as the root cause of the sickness gets the causal arrows backwards.
We’re sure to learn more about the Brooklyn subway shooter. Specifically, we’ll learn which side will be able to grab this political football and charge for the end zone — right now it looks like conservatives, but that could change. We’ll also learn which poorly considered over-reactions will be put in place in the interest of “doing something”; it could be enhanced bag checks, which might be the only way to make the New York subway even more impersonal than it already is. I’m sure we’ll find ways to make this deeply awful event marginally worse. Because the only thing we know for sure about horrific acts of violence is that we, as a species, haven’t really learned how to process them yet.