Why We Won’t Stop Mass Killings: We Like Them Too Much
Perhaps when mass killings really start to hurt the majority of the population, then we’ll take stronger action against them. But for now, we like them too much.
Daniel Altman is Big Think's Chief Economist and an adjunct faculty member at New York University's Stern School of Business. Daniel wrote economic commentary for The Economist, The New York Times, and The International Herald Tribune before founding North Yard Economics, a non-profit consulting firm serving developing countries, in 2008. In between, he served as an economic advisor in the British government and wrote four books, most recently Outrageous Fortunes: The Twelve Surprising Trends That Will Reshape the Global Economy.
Forgive me if I’ve already offended you with the title of this piece, but I’m an economist. As such, I tend to weigh up the costs and benefits of just about anything when trying to figure out what it means for society. And when it comes to mass killings, my analysis suggests we have some reason for introspection.
Because of the inescapable reach of media, mass killings affect virtually everyone. While the victims and the ones who loved them suffer terribly, the rest of us may feel a combination of many emotions: grief (through empathy), fear, disbelief, curiosity, fascination, and even a thrill at seeing the commotion caused by what happened. Each horrific event puts us on a new emotional binge.
After shootings like the one in Newtown, the media descend excitedly on the crime scene, and the public tunes in to see and hear the latest details. It’s like rubbernecking at the site of an accident on the highway; we do it because we want to, either to satisfy curiosity or to fulfill some visceral need for morbid stimulation. Then we find out about the killer and the circumstances of the murders, and we argue righteously about how our society has to change. Doing this may actually make us feel good.
Later on, the media produce articles and programs eulogizing the dead. These items usually make us feel good, too. Most of us didn’t know the victims, and most of us didn’t grieve much at their deaths. Yet because of their deaths, primetime hours and column inches can be filled with heartwarming stories of their lives. You can be sure that the writers and television producers feel good about producing these items, too.
So how is the balance sheet looking so far? For most of us, mass killings inflict a tiny bit of pain – we may feel some sadness or insecurity immediately after they happen – but afterwards we may spend hours immersed in poignant narratives or philosophical debates that we genuinely enjoy. A couple of dozen people died, and their friends and families will never be the same. But on the other side of the ledger, hundreds of millions of people around the world spent a few hours wallowing in some wonderful emotions. And who knows – if those debates are productive, society may even end up changing for the better as a result.
Taking the analysis to the extreme, you could say that mass killings are much more beneficial to society than, say, traffic deaths. The latter pass almost without notice; they make a few people feel bad, but they don’t make anyone feel particularly good, and the rest of our lives go on unchanged. There are also a lot more of them than mass killings. On this basis, an economist might decide that it was much more important to curtail traffic deaths than to stop mass killings.
And that, in fact, is what we do. Mass killings have continued with tragic regularity despite the moral and political outcries that invariably follow them. At the same time, traffic deaths have fallen precipitously thanks to safety devices in cars, better enforcement, and a host of other measures. Perhaps when mass killings really start to hurt the majority of the population, then we’ll take stronger action against them. But for now, we like them too much.
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