Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Opening essay in a WIP involving various risks we face as Americans

Guns: And Other Dangerous Technology in the Hands of American Citizens

Copyright © John Janovy, Jr., 2013

During the summer of either 1948 or 1949, when I was ten or eleven years old, our family drove from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to visit my mother’s sister. Among the highlights of that trip were the Southwestern deserts, with their “World’s Largest Rattlesnake” signs, a visit to the Los Angeles natural history museum and La Brea tar pits, a “war show” at the Memorial Coliseum, and a tour of Carlsbad Caverns on the way home. Among the vocabulary I’d acquired during the previous few years, prior to Hiroshima, was the phrase “.50 caliber machine gun;” the war show, a WWII battle re-enactment, brought that phrase to life, sort of, without human bodies actually being blown apart but with a healthy dose of noise, flashing lights, and weapons. That pre-teen memory surfaced a dozen years later as I lay on the ground and pressed the trigger of a real .50 caliber machine gun, felt the concussions, and watched the tracers, straight as a burning chalk line, for a mile down range.
During the summer of 1958 and fall of 1959, I was in military training as an advanced ROTC student and field artillery second lieutenant, respectively. In 1958, I did infantry basic training at Ft. Hood, near Waco, Texas, and in 1959, went through the officers’ basic course at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. During one of those periods, we were taken to the firing range and introduced to a variety of weapons: .30 caliber carbines, .30 caliber machine guns, .50 caliber machine guns, 57mm recoilless rifles, and hand grenades. We were all quite familiar with the M1 Garand. At Ft. Sill, we also spent many hours learning to direct artillery fire, both in the classroom and on the firing range (“Your target is an abandoned tank, 100 mls west of Signal Mountain.”). Eventually we ended up behind 105mm howitzers, pushing shells into the chamber with a balled fist (avoids fingers being caught in the breech block), and yanking the lanyard. Later, firing both 155mm and 8 inch howitzers, my thoughts often turned to exactly how much havoc a single individual, or a small group of people, could wreak given the right technology.
Those thoughts again surfaced in my mind one clear early fall afternoon as I entered the Strategic Air Command Museum, situated along the Platte River south and west of Omaha, Nebraska, and stared up at truly remarkable pieces of technology, all designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to deliver death and destruction, hopefully on an unimaginable scale, to some far-away place and to some far-away people. B-58A Hustler nuclear supersonic bomber, maximum speed 1,358 MPH at 44,000 feet, payload of 109,500 pounds (55 tons of mayhem, potentially nuclear); B-52B heavy bomber, capable of carrying 123 tons of whatever happened to be needed or wanted at the time; both helped along in their missions by SR-71A Blackbird, a reconnaissance aircraft with a range of 3000 miles at 80,000 feet and Mach 2 speed, scanning and reporting on a hundred thousand square miles of enemy territory in an hour aloft—in essence, a traveling bomb sight. And that’s just the old, decommissioned, museum stuff; whatever is currently deployed must be an order of magnitude more lethal.
None of these flying instruments required a whole platoon to deliver, although if ground support and maintenance are considered, the number of people involved must be substantial. The intellectual and physical resources required to design, build, and test these technological wonders are also quite substantial. A liberal mindset might wonder indeed whether such a massive commitment to the production of military hardware, currently more in terms of currency than spent on such purposes by all the world’s remaining nations, including China, is consistent with the American Dream, American ideals, or the concept of American Exceptionalism. But we’ve kept a hell of a lot of people employed, many of them at tasks requiring high-level skills. As a result, with our taxes we’ve supported—most certainly although indirectly—colleges and universities, local housing markets and automobile dealerships near military bases, and the medical profession, along with every other business and charity that receives money from families associated in any way with this military-industrial complex.
What we have not done, as a nation, is assess the long-term consequences of our obsession with weapons. And it is an obsession; the evidence to support such a claim is nearly boundless, from the video game and entertainment industries, to glamorization of military service, jet fighter fly-overs at college football games, the above-mentioned expenditure of national resources on large, highly destructive, state-of-the-art technology, and political rhetoric that inevitably accompanies the latest multiple shootings in schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, and places where disgruntled pistol-packing guys were formerly employed (or their ex-wives and/or ex-girlfriends are now employed). As a nation, we solve problems, or at least try to solve them, with guns: big ones, small ones, mounted on everything from jeeps to tanks to jet aircraft, and evolving as rapidly as technology itself in an age characterized by competitive technological evolution.
Is this gun-toting nation—sucking up a disproportionate share of global fossil fuels, rapidly evolving into a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, mélange unimagined, and unimaginable, to our Founding Fathers, and enjoying a level of person freedom that is terrifying to many of our self-declared mortal enemies who range from fanatical God-worshiping monotheists to oppressive, nuclear-wannabe tyrants—a problem to be solved? No. It is simply not possible for any political party or NGO to convert the United States of America into post-Nagasaki Japan. Whatever our current condition, it cannot be radically altered; we are simply too heavily armed, both as individuals and as a nation. Among our public health hazards, perceived and real, firearms rank somewhere between female clothing (perceived high, especially by the religious and the Republican, but actually very low) and tobacco (perceived relatively low by users, but actually very high).
Our reactions to those hazards, both as individuals and as a society, vary greatly, depending on our exposure to them, our backgrounds, and the circumstances under which their hazardous properties are manifested. This essay deals, therefore, with the relationship between perception, actual hazard potential, and our actions resulting from perception. We humans act, or try to act, on our beliefs, which in turn are heavily influenced by our perceptions. For example, we ask: are so-called assault weapons with high capacity magazines a public health hazard? Our perceptions answer that question with a resounding “yes!” but the statistics tell us otherwise, regardless of the emotional impact of senseless multiple murder by disturbed individuals who, in a careful society, would never have had access to such means of destruction. Is female upper-body clothing a public health hazard? Our perceptions answer that question with a resounding “yes!” but the statistics tell us otherwise, regardless of the emotional impact of Janet Jackson’s left nipple at a Super Bowl halftime show and consequent legal response ranging from quick Congressional action to a class action lawsuit. So when we ask whether a particular technology is dangerous, the proper answer is another question: compared to what?
I contend that the relationship between what we see, what we believe, what we desire, and what we do is, or at least should be, a subject of intense and rational study. Thus when we step back and take a serious, dispassionate, look at our perceptions of danger and our actions driven by those perceptions, we can only conclude that Homo sapiens is a very interesting and mysterious species. Evolutionary biologists would not be surprised by such a conclusion. Christopher Beard’s The Hunt for the Dawn Monkey hints at the origin of our fears and Mark Klinger’s drawings give those fears a sort of life. Beard’s fossil evidence is, like most such evidence, open to discussion, but his basic premise is valid regardless of arguments over hand and foot structure: we come from frightened little primates with great big eyes and complicated brains. I suspect that if you sat down with Beard over a glass of wine, he’d tell you that we’re still frightened little primates with great big eyes and complicated brains and we’re using the latter overtime to concoct a whole lot of jungle beasts that may not really exist, using only our words and ideas.
It’s pretty easy to envision our foot-tall ancestors constantly on the watch for predators: cats, birds of prey, snakes. When an eagle swept down out of the sky, we quickly jumped, sometimes successfully. But when a distant volcano sent dust clouds that covered the sun and influenced the fruit supply a year hence, we shrugged our little shoulders, regardless of the ultimate impact on our local community. And that’s where we are today. When the dysfunctional kid kills his dysfunctional and heavily-armed mother then shows up at school with a highly functional weapon, he might as well be the Miocene leopard leaping onto that low branch where we’re trying to teach our baby how to peel an orange. But when nerds tell us that the average global temperature will increase a couple or three centigrade degrees by the time our newly-born granddaughter is our age, then we call it just a theory and dispute it vigorously, especially if we’re employed by certain companies, especially those invested in the production of carbon-based fuels.
In the following pages I’ve tried to put a recent gun tragedy—the Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook elementary school shootings—into a modern evolutionary perspective. Nothing will change the devastating shock and everlasting sorrow of parents who lost children in that incident. My hope is that another one does not occur before I finish this small book, or evermore. But even though I am far away from that Connecticut event, like the vast majority of all Americans the discussion about preventing that next one surrounds me, carried on in my daily newspaper, on national television, in news magazines, and, of course, via the Internet, especially Facebook and Twitter. The argument over “gun control” will not go away by the time I finish this analysis, and my voice is not likely to settle it, especially because whatever the term “gun control” means to folks from all sides of the political spectrum, it’s not likely to stop the next person determined to shatter our sense of safety and well-being.
I am a scientist, however, who for the past half-century has had to answer to anonymous peer reviewers when attempting to publish, for international consumption, the results of research done in my laboratory. Such review forces upon a writer both a certain kind of rationality and a deep respect for evidence—traits we acquire not because we’re particularly noble, highly ethical, or more intelligent than our neighbors, but because they’ve been forced upon us by our professional colleagues, not all of whom are our fans. So I’m going to try to take a look at evidence, mainly statistics, insofar as they are available and presumed accurate, as well as our reactions to various events, both as individuals and as a society. As a result of that look, I conclude that we Americans live with public health hazards, some of them quite remarkable, but we react to them in ways that are not always consistent with the level of danger, especially as a society.
Some of these hazards can be ameliorated, others seem quite intractable. In some cases we have reduced danger to the public, in other cases we have not, and will not. With some, we are and likely always will be exceedingly vulnerable; with others, we will ignore at our long-term peril simply out of disbelief. Yes, we are still those scared little primates always on the lookout for leopards and eagles, but fail to see some of them, especially when they come disguised in our false perceptions, and imagine others just because they’re dressed up in metaphorical Halloween costumes. And what are those costumes made of? My answer is: words and beliefs, although I will admit that some of those beliefs may have roots that go back very deep, into that wide-eyed, frightened, Miocene ancestry.
Homo sapiens, a primate whose scientific name translates literally into “wise man,” is a consummate inventor. There is plenty of evidence that this propensity for making things—tools, especially—is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Chimpanzees do it; some birds do it; and, if we consider bubble-cones that enclose anchovies into enormous bite-sized groups as technology, whales do it, too. So we are not alone in our inventive practices regardless of how sophisticated we may be compared to our vertebrate relatives and how powerful this combination of human brain and hand has proven to be, particularly in the construction of weapons. Every spear, bow and arrow, knife, catapult, pistol, rifle, machine gun, cannon, and jet fighter/bomber is a device intended to hurt something or someone: prey or enemy. Yet we invent plenty of other things that can and do hurt, regardless of our intent. Then we live with our inventions.
Technology never goes away. Freeman Dyson, in his book Disturbing the Universe, passes along a story about a child given the choice of a horse or a bicycle. The boy chooses the horse; the take-home lesson is that the horse is a natural phenomenon that will eventually die, but the bicycle is technology. The boy knew instinctively that once he acquired a bicycle, he had that technology, the idea if not the steel and rubber machine itself, forever. In addition, the society surrounding that boy had acquired the knowledge of how to build bicycles, and such knowledge would not go away so long as humans populated the Earth. Dyson follows that story with a discussion of weapons, especially nuclear weapons. We have them; we will have them, indeed lots of them, for as long as we exist as a species; their parts may well outlive us by millennia.
So what are my purposes in writing this essay? There are three: First, like thousands, if not millions, of my fellow Americans, I feel a need to speak out about problems that seem to plague our society, and especially when those problems deliver such an emotional impact and affront to our rationality. Second, because of my scientific specialty—parasitology, i.e., the study of parasitic organisms—I’m constantly exposed to technical literature that addresses problems of risk and health, including the dangers of infectious disease at both the individual and population level. Thus by training, I believe I’m as qualified to talk about various aspects of dangerous technology, including weapons, as some Rambo wannabe. Finally, for the past half-century, my professional life has been one in which my students and I have constantly addressed complex problems, albeit most of them involving the lives of microscopic animals, and published the results of such study. Nevertheless, complex, multi-faceted problems share many traits, not the least of which is the relationship between perception and reality. This relationship is the one I am exploring in the following pages.