Is It Fair To Link Mass Killings, Economy?


Why are we killing each other? That was the provocative question asked by the Associated Press' Ted Anthony in a story excerpted on this site a few days ago. Anthony was referring to mass killings that have taken 47 lives in the United States in the last month. It's an excellent question, but another good one is whether it was fair for Anthony to speculate that increasing unemployment will set off more mass murders.
The most recent cases before Anthony's story were the Binghamton, N.Y., immigration center killings and the murders of three Pittsburgh police officers. The Binghamton shooter had lost his job, but a presumed letter he wrote before he opened fire on random victims suggested that he was upset for some reason about actions by police. Law enforcement clearly was the target in Pittsburgh; one supposed reason for that attack was the fear that the Obama administration would somehow move to seize guns in private hands–a fear for which there is no evidence.

The real story behind many of the mass killings in the U.S. may be untreated mental illness and the inability or unwillingness of people who see symptoms of it to take action. Clearly, most people who have economic problems do not commit violent acts (neither do most people with mental illness).

Analyzing mass killings to find common threads, if any, might be productive. Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University looked at incidents involving four or more deaths between 1976 and 2007. Sadly, the phenomenon is not new; in 10 years over that 3-decade span, more than 100 people in the U.S. were killed in such cases: 1979, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1999, 2003, and 2007. It does not appear at first glance that those were all years in which the economy was bad.

Fox also found that the offenders in mass killings almost always were male and predominantly were between 29 and 29 years old. There were five times as many incidents on the Pacific coast than in the New England states. These and other figures compiled by Fox don't provide any quick explanations for the current spate of killings but it seems simplistic to assume that the economy is the main culprit.

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