Wednesday 20 July 2016

Drugs, mass murder and simplistic solutions

Peter Hitchens is a right wing ideologue, who has recently been banging a drum claiming that the current 'plague of mass murders' can be attributed to the overuse of prescription and non prescription drugs. He's picked up on the fact that cannabis use is endemic in ISIS killers and a goodly proportion of pampered middle class kids who go nuts and shoot up the local school/mall/football game are on some form of anti depressant. Hitchens has to fill space in his rather dull column, in a paper owned by a family who supported Hitler, and makes its money feeding the insecurities and paranoia of Middle England. It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that Hitchens does not begin to tell the whole story.

Let me start by explaining my approach to fixing problems(and this is clearly a problem which needs fixing). I am an engineer by trade and I come from a family of engineers. Both of my brothers are engineers. My father was a pilot in the RAF who spent the last 2 years of his commission acting as an air accident investigation officer. You may wonder what this has to do with understanding mass killers. Well quite a lot. as engineers, my father taught us, almost as soon as we could walk, to be analytic. He said that he'd never investigated a crash where there was a single cause. In every case, there was a whole sequence of systemic failures that lead to the crash. Addressing these systemic failures, was his job. The results of his investigations, and every other investigation of every other plane crash before and since, has made air travel an extremely safe way to fly. Across the globe, authorities share data and info to ensure that every crash is investigated and the lessons learned used to make the industry safer.
In the UK, following the Dunblane massacre, gun control was massively tightened. This was an example of a lesson learned. It hasnt stopped mass killers, but it has prevented a similar atrocity in the UK. Does Hitchens have a point about the use of drugs being a factor? It is more than possible that in some cases it is, but it cannot be looked at in isolation. If every maniac shooter in the world (a miniscule proportion of the total number of people using them) were on anti depressants, would it prove a link? It would be worth investigating, but no it wouldn't. It would simply prove that people with mental health issues are more likely to have behavioural issues. What may be worth investigating is whether doctors are prescribing suitable treatments, because clearly if someone is under medical care and they start killing people, something has gone wrong. But  as I said above, that is just on piece of a very large jigsaw.

In the USA, lack of gun control is clearly the major factor. If disturbed people, on medication and sometimes with criminal records and on FBI watch lists have access to whatever weapons they fancy, it is clear that you have a recipe for disaster. Add to that the incessant stream of violent films,computer games, video clips on social media and you have a perfect storm for brainwashing the vulnerable.

But it doesn't stop there. We live in a society where family life is under constant attack. I don't mean in the way that Mr Hitchens and other right wing polemicists mean. They talk about the sanctity of marriage as the cornerstone of family life. I believe that quality family time spent together is the key(regardless of the composition of family unit). With Theever increasing demands on parents time, I wonder how many of the problems are caused by a lack of family love. Again, not every killer will have been left to their own devices, playing violent video games, whilst drinking fizzy drinks and eating microwave pizza, for years on end. But I suspect for a goodly percentage, it is a factor.

And nutrition. How big a role does this play in regulating our behaviour? As a dyslexic, I read that oily fish improves brain function. Therefore I eat it regularly. Does it work? I don't know but I am far more productive and creative than I was in my early 20's on a diet of sausages, beer and bacon sarnies.
I suspect that bad nutrition is a factor, causing chemical imbalances, that leads to the situation where depression can occur. I don't believe eating a Big Mac transforms a sane happy individual into a psychopath, but a long term pattern of bad nutrition, vitamin deficiency and the associated side effects is yet another building block.

Another cause, one which there is research into, is brain irregularities causing bad behaviour. It is well documented that MRI scans of violent offenders shows significant correlation between violent behaviour and under development of areas of the brain. I read a study several years ago, where a researcher claimed he could predict the abnormalities identified in MRI scans from a criminals jail history. Could we spot future mass killers just by giving them a brain scan? I doubt it, in the short term, but it warrants further investigation.

And there are other factors that play a significant role in our behaviour. Studies have shown that rates of violent crime have plummeted since the addition of Lead to petrol was banned. Are there other substances/food additives that are playing a role?

And finally I wonder about violent sexual images. The internet is awash with these. 50 years ago we in the UK were taught to be respectful. If violence is equated to sexual tittilation, can we really be too surprised if this leads to extreme behaviour, especially in societies where there is free access to guns.

For me, the issues I mentioned above are all part of the jigsaw that fits together to form the personality of the type of person in the West, who commits mass killings. I don't think any one factor on its own will act as a trigger. Clearly if you throw into the mix a demagogue promoting a violent ideology, that bears no opposition, this will make these issues even more dangerous. Some commentators blame religion, but the worst mass killers of the last 100 years were secular, such as Pol Pot and Stalin. Dangerous demagoguery comes in all shapes, sizes, creeds and colours. To claim otherwise is to close our eyes to human nature.

As I mentioned at the top, I believe that the way to address these issues is not simply to look at each case then close the book. We need a global initiative to understand the causes, identify the common factors which can be dealt with, and to make sure that every time we get a mass killing, every agency that has a lesson to learn, gets the opportunity to learn. Such an approach has made flying safe. Far more people die in mass killings than air accidents, so surely it warrants a UN commission to address it. The idea that there is a simple answer would be like assuming that a fix that would prevent the undercarriage of a Lancaster Bomber collapsing on takeoff, would prevent every future plane crash in eternity. This is where polemicists such as Hitchens go wrong. The world is constantly evolving. The challenges my teenage children face are radically different to those I faced in the 1970's. The solutions are also radically different. Mass killers have always been around. What has changed is there toolkit, their motivation, their access to weaponry and their ability to use the Internet to feed their obsessions.
Whilst I suspect a bit of gun control in the U.S. would make a massive difference there to the number of deaths, without all of the other factors being addressed, sadly it will be a major issue for a very long time.

1 comment:

Peter Hitchens said...

I have replied to this on my blog, where the author is welcome to post a response.