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Random Acts of Violence

Posted By Jeff Cohn, Sunday, December 16, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut impacted all of us, at least indirectly. We are struck by the senselessness, by the magnitude, and by the randomness of what occurred. This is the kind of event that Nassim Taleb has referred to as a "Black Swan,” ones that are high-profile/hard-to-predict/rare, impactful, and for which we feel compelled to create an explanation after-the-fact. This latter phenomenon, the need to perceive order instead of randomness, is part of what makes us human. In his book "The Click Moment,” Frans Johannson states, "as useful and vital as pattern recognition may be, and perhaps because of its great usefulness, we constantly find, and feel the need to find, patterns where there are none.” So we link events like Newtown with people with behavioral disorders and with elementary school security (or lack thereof). In the days and weeks to come we’ll likely hear about well intended efforts to enhance safety in schools, talking about metal detectors, security guards, and training programs for school staff. We’ll hear about enhancing efforts to identify people with behavioral health conditions who are attempting to purchase firearms, with the goal of keeping these weapons out of the hands of those people who can do the most damage with them.

These efforts will be well intended, expensive…. and wrong. Acts of violence involving firearms can happen anywhere. In Philadelphia last week a man returning from a professional basketball game on the subway who was wearing the hat of the opposing team was verbally accosted by a couple of teenagers. As those youths left the train, one turned and shot him. Do we need to implicate mental illness as the "causative factor” here? Is this about subway security? What about the next event, which occurs in the street, or in a mall, or in someone’s home? I believe we live in a complex world where we are more connected than ever. Surprising circumstances lead to surprising, unexpected events. Human beings are often unpredictable. In a world like that, the contextual characteristics of the environment in which those events unfold have a significant impact on the outcome. If the environment includes a nearby firearm, rapid and significant death and destruction is much more likely to occur than if the there were no firearms around. Given the complexity of our world, why would we create the conditions where events like Sandy Hook have a greater likelihood of occurring, because randomness and surprise can intersect so easily with guns? Take guns out of these non-linear equations, and we will still get surprising, unexpected outcomes- but they will bedifferent, and lives will be saved.

Tags:  catching butterflies  cohn  complexity  unexpected 

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