Origins of a mass-shooting disaster

Origins of a mass-shooting disaster
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I study disasters — disasters that arise from natural causes like hurricanes and those produced by human mistakes and mismanagement, like the massive BP oil spill. By any metric, any mass shooting, such as the one that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, is a tragic disaster.

From the point of view of our collective welfare, the most disturbing aspect of mass-shooting disasters is that we fail to hold parties accountable for the conditions that enable them, insisting instead that the blame lies with the shooter.

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But blaming the shooter for the Pittsburgh tragedy is like blaming a match for starting a fire. Of course, that spark is the precipitating event, but a “spark” is an absurdly insufficient explanation for the devastating results. 

Besides a spark, disasters require enabling conditions. The context surrounding the precipitating event can either protect from the hazard or enable the spark to become a conflagration.

Just as a match requires a source of oxygen and steady diet of flammable material before it can create a fire that becomes dangerous, a would-be shooter requires a gun and a steady diet of hate before he or she can execute a mass shooting.   

Our focus on the shooter (the match) is ironic because, generally speaking, precipitating events, such as blips in a weather pattern or slips in human performance, are difficult to predict and control. They tend to be random.

On the other hand, the context — the policies, structures and messages that enable and amplify the spark — is what we can control better. Context is not random. Human-produced disasters are creations of individuals and corporations that promote policies, structures and messages for their own welfare at the expense of public welfare and safety. 

The two most obvious enabling conditions in the case of a mass-shooting disaster are the divisive hate-filled rhetoric that fills our public discourse and the lack of any movement on serious gun regulation. So who gains from these enabling conditions? Gun manufacturers and gun lobbies are palpable winners.

But it is also time to lay blame on politicians who know that the best way to stay in power is to stoke their constituents' hatred. Also, media personalities, as well as social media platforms, benefit from our addiction to incendiary discourse. They know headlines that stoke our anger and hatred make the best click bait.

Many in Pittsburgh did not welcome President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN's Camerota clashes with Trump's immigration head over president's tweet LA Times editorial board labels Trump 'Bigot-in-Chief' Trump complains of 'fake polls' after surveys show him trailing multiple Democratic candidates MORE’s visit after the Tree of Life shooting. It is easy to understand why. Obviously, he was not the spark but he is responsible for context — for dialing up divisiveness nationwide and modeling the unbridled expression of animosity.  

To lay all blame on the proximal cause — the shooter — is short-sighted and superficial to the point of absurdity. Indeed, this shooter was imbued with an ideology of hate that has thrived in the public arena since the 2016 presidential campaign, when the incidence of hate crime and hate speech already taken root began to grow.

To advocate that we can prevent other mass shootings by detecting and disarming would-be shooters is foolish. In the midst of a raging fire, it accomplishes nothing to search for matchbooks. 

There is much that divides us — politics, race, religion and more. We need to remember how to live with this diversity of thought and opinion without vilifying the opposition and fueling hate. All public figures and people in positions of leadership need to clearly and consistently model and encourage our better selves.

Although we may feel helpless, we are not. There are actions available. When our political leaders team with profiteers to enable preventable disasters, we must hold them accountable with our votes.

Catherine Tinsley is the Raffini Family professor of management t at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, faculty director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute and academic director of Georgetown McDonough’s Executive Master’s in Leadership program.