Well, it’s Saturday morning once again, and since I’m working today, I’m writing a blog post today. Aren’t you lucky? I suppose it does help to while away the idle hours, if and when they happen, to have a blog post to read, and mine are longer than many.
I briefly had a few thoughts, as I was getting showered and dressed this morning, about what topic to address in my post today. However, not one of them persisted in my mind, and I’ve lost the threads completely. Likewise, I didn’t write them down or otherwise take notes, so I don’t remember what I’d thought possibly to write.
I guess that means that none of them was truly gripping and important enough for me to hold onto, which probably means they wouldn’t have been that engaging to read, though that guess could be wrong, at least in principle.
It’s a bit like a phenomenon that happens with some regularity on my Saturday mornings.
On my way to the train, I pass a club of some sort on the southeast corner of a relatively major intersection along my path. Though it is mainly deserted during the week, on Saturday mornings it is almost always packed with cars, to the extent that people have to park in the otherwise empty lot that serves a convenience store across the way. One often sees people, all alone or in twos, crossing the street and heading for this club. This is at about five in the morning, which implies the club is open pretty much all night; it’s hard to imagine that it opens at three or four.
As I pass the place, I often think to myself that it is remarkably popular, and I tell myself that I should look into it. In this age of Google Maps and the like, it should be quite easy to find the spot on the map app and see the name of the business. From there I could easily find out more about it, assuming that it has an online presence of some kind, which I am guessing that it does. Most popular places do.
And yet, as it turns out, this is the longest I’ve ever kept a thought about the place in my mind after passing it. I’ve not yet looked it up in any way, despite having passed it almost daily for years now. I don’t even recall its name; I don’t know that I’ve ever actually read what it is, though there is a sign. It’s not a strip joint of any kind. The sign is painted, not internally lit or molded from neon-filled tubes. It’s clearly some form of “social club”, and it seems rather wholesome, but I don’t get the impression that it’s part of or affiliated with any religious organization, though I could easily be mistaken about this.
It just doesn’t stick in my mind, and though I do occasionally regret this upon passing it once again, it’s not a very deep regret. Obviously, if I were truly curious, I could find out more. Believe me, I consume oodles of written and video (and sometimes audio) material about various scientific curiosities, carefully curating the information to get it from reliable sources rather than purveyors of woo and pseudo-science*. I’m capable of pursuing my special interests with great fervor. So it must not be that important. But the fact that such thoughts and ideas so frequently spring into the mind only to—on most occasions—simply dissolve into nothingness like a light frost in a warm morning sun shows something interesting about the way ideas and thoughts come into a mind.
On an unrelated note, I’m now sitting on the train in a seat analogous to the one by the poster of which I shared a picture recently (the one about the suicide help line, which I still haven’t called again, though I surely qualify for its services). The poster here, which I’ll show below, is for “Aware and Care Palm Beach County”, which is about preventing mass violence. Indeed, as you can see, it reads, “Mass violence can be prevented…it starts with you!”
I applaud the sentiment of preventing mass violence**, pretty much however one can define it, but I’m not sure that the statement is correct. It’s certainly not been demonstrated, either logically or in practice to be completely preventable. If someone is dysfunctional enough to want to commit violent acts against large numbers of strangers, and is even willing to give their own life to do so, it’s hard to see it being absolutely preventable. I think what the sign-makers really mean to convey is that mass violence can be reduced, or that some mass violence can be prevented.
But the sign also includes the words “Learn how to…report suspicious behavior”, and that makes me nervous. It seems to imply a bit of a Big Brother mentality, a KGB, Stasi, CCP, DHS, Gestapo kind of attitude of seeking out and removing “undesirables”. I don’t think that’s its intent, but such things often, or perhaps always, have “good” intentions at their roots. Rarely does a dangerous but popular movement get started by openly encouraging people to act to cause chaos, death, pain, and destruction on huge scales.
But a state has tremendous power, and it can—and does—commit greater violence and destruction against its own citizens on many occasions and in many ways than any lone madman, however well-armed. And this happens so diffusely, its effects so broad, that most of the time, most people don’t even notice it, let alone think about it. It’s a bit like death and injury rates from car accidents—they are huge in number, scope, and overall scale, but they are hardly even noticed, for they happen episodically, their effects spread out over time and space, so only very few people notice the carnage and devastation they entail.
It is probably the case that most committers of mass violence share certain characteristics of personality, psychopathology, and behavior. This is barely the beginning of working out a predictive model for locating such people. It’s like the breast cancer screening test problem as so often used to explain Bayesian reasoning relating to probability and statistics. Veritasium did a good video on this, and Derek is also an excellent educator about difficult concepts, so I’m linking that video. You could do worse than to subscribe to his channel.
The important thing is not solely that most—or even all—mass violence committers have a certain set of characteristics, but also how many of the possibly billions of people who have those characteristics will ever go on to commit any kind of mass violence. I suspect you’d find it to be a tiny percentage indeed. You may have some of those characteristics yourself. How confident are you in the state’s ability to tell the difference between those who will commit violence and those who will not? What if they think that you are such a person?
That being said, of course, I do think, if you see someone who has access to many and/or powerful weapons and they are acting in ways that make you think they are considering committing some atrocity, it’s reasonable for you to tell someone about it. You’ll probably be wrong, of course, given the statistics of the matter, but you might at least call someone’s attention to a person who could use some psychological help.
But it’s worth it always to keep in mind that those in “authority” are just flesh, blood, bone, and (in principle) brain like you are, and on average they are no more intelligent nor aware nor ethical***. Don’t give those people more power than that with which you’d trust the average football fan…and less than you’d give a referee.
*Though I enjoyed such material when I was very young—from stories of UFOs and so-called paranormal phenomena, to “cryptozoology” stories about such things as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster—as I got older, I was able to see the difference between the type and quality of evidence behind such claims and the information which explained, for instance, how and why biology operates, what makes cars and ships and planes function, what the nature is of gravity and electromagnetism, the history of the universe as well as we can discern it, and so on. These are not only much more satisfying because they are about subjects that are actually real (as witnessed in part by the immensely powerful technologies such information can produce) but also because they have internal and mutual logical consistency. It’s hard to see how a universe that is not mutually consistent could even hold together. For a good primer on the important difference of such fields of curiosity, I can unreservedly recommend Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. Get it and read it if you haven’t already. His writing is clear and conversational, and he conveys complex ideas in ways that are both wondrous and easy to understand. It’s not for nothing that Stephen Jay Gould called Sagan “the best advocate for science in the millennium”.
**This is violence that interacts with the Higgs Field, and so has mass even at “rest”, and cannot ever move through space at the speed of light. This is as opposed to “massless violence” which always travels through a vacuum at the speed of light. Massless violence doesn’t experience a “personal” flow of time.
***Certainly the readers of this blog are well above average in intellect, knowledge, and morality, though that doesn’t necessarily reflect on the blog’s writer.