Megan McArdle's suggestion, on her Daily Beast blog, that "young people" should "gang rush mass shooters" ("even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once") amused and appalled a lot of people yesterday. It's a ridiculous suggestion, and many of her other pronouncements were equally ridiculous.
But I had trouble just getting past the opening paragraphs of McArdle's post:
There just aren't good words to talk about Newtown. It is a crime that literally defies imagination--hell, it flings imagination down and dances upon its head. No one reading this can imagine strolling into an elementary school and opening fire on a bunch of small children. You can't imagine even wanting to.Really, Megan? You're a writer, and you live in a large city, and yet you have so little interest in the complexities of human psychology that you literally can't conceive of a mind crazy and delusional enough to do this? You've never considered individual extremes of rage or irrationality or cruelty and measured them against your own moments of anger and lack of self-restraint, and wondered about the distance between what you're capable of and what leads to the worst acts imaginable?
Most crimes are motivated by unlovely impulses that are at least comprehensible: the desire for money, sex, respect, revenge. We don't do these things because we have been taught that "good people don't do that!"--and we want to think of ourselves as good people, or at least have the neighbors and our parents think of us as good people. Or perhaps we're merely afraid of getting caught and punished. But we can understand why people want to--we know what someone is after when they hold up a liquor store, or even kills their spouse for the insurance money. Understanding is not sanction: these crimes still have the power to anger and horrify. But they're comprehensible, and that comprehensibility is surprisingly comforting.
The alternative is Newtown. When one tries to picture the mind that plans it, one quickly comes to a dead end. Even if I had been raised with no moral laws at all, even if there were no cops and no prisons, I'm pretty sure that I still wouldn't want to spend a crisp Friday morning shooting cowering children. Trying to climb this mountain of wickedness is like trying to climb a glass wall with your bare hands. What happened there is pure evil, and evil, unlike common badness, gives an ordinary mind no foothold.
I know you couldn't do what Adam Lanza did. I couldn't, either. But I can imagine schizophrenia or psychopathy acting on a brain like my (relatively) sane one in such a way that horrifying acts seem thinkable, or even compellingly necessary. I can even imagine my "normal" brain being driven to less extreme but still appalling levels of brutality by Milgram-esque abuse of authority.
You find all this literally incomprehensible?
I shouldn't be surprised. McArdle is a right-wing libertarian. Such people seem to regard human beings as algorithmic trading programs with alimentary canals attached. They think poor and non-white voters do a sophisticated calculation of benefits received and choose to maximize their receipt of unearned boodle by voting Democratic; the desire for self-respect, for jobs, for careers, never enters into Democratic voters' thinking, according to the right. The right believes delusional madmen choose targets based on the fact that they're gun-free zones -- ignoring the number of criminals (including many spree killers) who get into lethal confrontations with cops, and ignoring the fact that schools and malls and movie theaters are where you find crowds of innocent people with their guards down, which is what certain strains of murderous insanity crave, and where you find large numbers of people happily socializing, a fact that fills many killers with contempt and extreme envy.
I bring all this up because if you think people are nothing more than selfish supercomputers that unfailingly calculate ways of maximizing utility, no wonder you lose sight of the fact that people are human beings. No wonder you don't shed a tear when a factory in a one-industry town closes down a week before Christmas -- can't those people just pack up en masse in a matter of days and "vote with their feet" by going where the jobs are? What is this "sense of community" of which you speak?
Yes, what libertarians know about people is true, as far as it goes. Yes, rationality enters into our thinking about what we do. But that's not the whole story, and the libertarian right doesn't understand that.