In the aftermath of the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which saw the murder of nineteen children and two teachers, we have plenty of evidence that the whole approach to such threats to life in America today is way off target. Not only is it difficult for local law enforcement to prepare for armed combat against deranged enemies with military assault weapons after a few hours of training. It takes Navy Seals years of training and experience to achieve the skills and confidence to execute effectively such a mission. Yet, something much deeper and pervasive produces such failures.
School shootings and their tragic outcomes are not subject to control by reaction. If first responders do everything just right, some children will still die. No matter what level of armament or training they have, first responders will always be at a disadvantage because the heavily armed and sometimes body-armored shooter is more or less suicidal and therefore willing to risk everything to achieve his deadly goal. Some folks are probably already dead. Yet, the first law enforcement officers on scene must be ready to engage immediately in a high-powered firefight. Too often they are not.
Such events result from a complex of much larger problems that remain beyond rational decision making in the public policy sphere, although they do not have to remain hidden or denied. The failure of institutions to provide an ounce of prevention results in a pound of life-threatening violence and bloodshed. The only viable response at that point is to confront the killer with a high-risk guns-blazing response. For many of the victims that is too little too late.
Sadly, this failure to protect our schoolchildren is emblematic of the failed approach to many problems and dilemmas in modern American society. In far too many domains, the standard decision is to wait to react to a problem or threat until after it occurs, rather than to take control proactively to avoid a tragedy in the first place. That would take foresight and often scientific knowledge of the nature of the threat as well. American public policy is characterized by hindsight applied in ignorance far more often than by foresight based on knowledge.
A Threat is Not a Choice
We have many threats to civil society today. None is a matter of choice if we seek to mitigate the threat—necessity eliminates all choices other than how to mitigate. Nevertheless, many believe that we can decide what we want to do, and put off the decision until later, regardless of the nature or severity of a particular threat.
Many studies of people who survive life-threatening situations—whether a sinking ship, being lost in the wilderness, or caught in a burning building—have found distinct differences in the outlook and behavior of victims and survivors. Life threatening situations have their own logic and survival depends on recognizing the new reality they pose.
People who immediately abandon their taken-for-granted assumptions of everyday life and re-conceptualize the life-threatening situation on its own terms, survive at much higher rates than those who do not recognize the difference. Survivors are the ones who know that they face a new reality and that they must act accordingly.
The victims continue operating on the assumption that they have always taken for granted. Some even view those now irrelevant options as their ‘right’ to pursue. You may have a right to jump off a cliff, but your rights are irrelevant when you land on the jagged rocks below.
Well, most public policy failures today are directly related to the culture of radical individual choice—it’s as if everything in life is merely a matter of individual preference, just like when shopping at the mall or the big-box store. In each of the following threats to human life and more, the failure is the same. the climate crisis; the crisis of gun violence; the growing concentration of wealth and proliferation of poverty; the pollution of our habitat and consequent public ill-health; the COVID-19 pandemic; and various financial collapses, including the Great Recession of 2008, as well as the previous Great Depression of the 1930s. The list could go on…
The Inverted Logic of ‘Free Market’ Illusions
American culture, and that of any other society that is fully engaged in the industrial-consumer global economy, takes as its premise the sacredness of individual consumer choice. Why? Because the culture of consumer-choice spills over into every sector of life. The best way to sell many products is to put the consumer on a pedestal of delusional self-importance and false power. The consumer is always right, as long as marketing strategy adequately manipulates her/his consumer choices by creating and maintaining images to trigger consumer behavior. For the individual, this creates the illusion that s/he has a right to choose, whatever, regardless of the circumstances. This also weakens any sense of responsibility to others and connection to the world beyond that of personal preference.
One consequence of the freedom of corporations to perpetuate their dominance over society, politics, and culture is that people and politicians all frame social problems and solutions in terms of reaction, not pro-active prevention. Just a few examples make the point. The masters of the industrial-consumer world always frame status quo as normal and correct; therefore, they see all problems as things we need not deal with until after the fact. The climate emergency is the current most pervasive crisis brought on by the implicit notion that the economy must go on growing, even beyond the limits of the finite planet in which it operates, no matter what.
The Failure to Plan and Prevent
Now, the culture of anti-prevention and the preference for after-action response as the preferred form of ‘solution’ is caused not only by extreme individualism. The same interests in promoting extreme individualism are hard at work preserving the status quo. The two go together. The giant institutions of the corporate state, do not want any public policy that might interfere with the flow of profits and the continuation of the global economy of endless growth.
An effective proactive strategy of gun violence prevention would require universal background checks, training and licensing, a ban on military assault rifles, and red-flagging individuals who show obvious signs of mental illness or tendencies toward violence. Dealing with the climate emergency will require all fossil-fueled institutions, public and private, to change their ways of doing business and curtail much of the industrial production we all take for granted today. It will require the oil and gas industry to drill no more and stop polluting the water tables of areas of its operations. The list goes on; it is very long.
Humanity has reached a turning point, a point of no return. If we act quickly and proactively to prevent further disasters, we may avoid reaching tipping points, beyond which we will spiral down into total societal collapse. “Thoughts and prayers” are after-action emotional expressions rooted in feelings of futility. Gun control laws and climate action are expressions of hopeful realism, the proactive practical behavior of a society that intends to prevent horrors such as happened in Uvalde, Texas, and so many other places in so many ways.