When ghastly events occur, the lawyers ask if an individual or entity was to blame. The politicians, by contrast, ask if some new law is needed to prevent similar events from happening again. Lawyers have an incentive to seek out the culpable. Politicians in power have an incentive to “do something”. And opposition politicians have an incentive to represent the politicians in power as culpable. But how should we, the public, respond, other than with prayers for the victims and condolences for their families?
Last week, ghastly events happened in both America and Britain. In London, the 24-storey Grenfell Tower caught fire with heavy loss of life. In Virginia a gunman sought to kill Republican congressmen — including the House majority whip, Steve Scalise — as they practised baseball. Five people were wounded, including Mr Scalise.
Though the two tragedies differed considerably in scale, the fire in London began with an accident that got out of hand, despite the swift response of the fire brigade. The shooting in Virginia was a deliberate attempt at murder, which was prevented by the swift response of the police.
The British public now has a right to ask how many other tower blocks are at risk of an inferno that spreads with such devastating speed. Perhaps the safety of Grenfell Tower was neglected by the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation. Perhaps the plastic core of the recently added cladding was flammable. Or perhaps UK building regulations are out of date.
Yet the fact that towering infernos are so rare in Britain suggests there may not be a system-wide problem. Because British people generally prefer to live close to the ground, fewer buildings of a similar design were constructed here than elsewhere in the 1970s. There are a lot more tower blocks in New York than in London, yet New York state has one of the lowest rates of death from fire in the US.
The American public needs to ask a different question. What level of bloodshed is it prepared to tolerate as the price of its exceptionally lax laws on gun ownership?
As always happens after mass shootings in the United States, the liberal media last week seized the opportunity to argue for tighter gun controls. However, the usual rhetoric was made more difficult by the fact that the would-be assassin, James Hodgkinson, was himself a man of the left.
Hodgkinson’s pages on Facebook and LinkedIn revealed him to be an admirer of Senator Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s socialist rival for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Hodgkinson had signed an online petition calling for President Donald Trump to be impeached, posting it on Facebook with the comment: “It’s time to destroy Trump & Co.”
Before his attack last week, according to one eyewitness, Hodgkinson had “asked . . . if the team practising was a Democrat or a Republican team”. Presumably he would not have opened fire if the answer had been “Democrat”. That a political attack such as this was likely now seems obvious. Ever since last November’s presidential election, the American left has been using recklessly inflammatory language to encourage “resistance” to the Trump administration. Last month, to give just one example, the comedian Kathy Griffin posted a picture of herself with a bloodied plastic model of the president’s head.
In an attempt to excuse such incitements to violence, the New York Times editorial board foolishly attempted to suggest an equivalence between Hodgkinson’s attempted murder and the attack six years ago on Democratic Represe ntative Gabby Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, implying that Loughner had been encouraged by the Republican politician Sarah Palin’s political action committee. Yet Loughner was far more obviously deranged than Hodgkinson. Loughner’s internet posts were gibberish.
Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that there are elements on the American right that have used irresponsible language in their attacks on Democrats. The real question is this: could we be facing an upsurge in political violence? More than any other developed country, America has the potential to become politically violent. According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 36,252 Americans were shot to death in 2015, of whom just under 13,000 were victims of homicide. (The most common type of death from a firearm is in fact suicide, which claimed 22,000 lives.) America’s gun homicide rate is 90 times higher than Britain’s.
This reflects above all the much greater availability of firearms. There are about 310m guns in the country; that works out at roughly one gun per person, though only 40% of households own firearms. Yet gun crime has been declining since the early 1990s. Then, the death rate from firearms was about 7 per 100,000 people. It is now half that. Although the number of homicides in 2015 was 17% higher than in 2011, it is too early to claim a return to the bad old days.
The most that can be said is that mass shootings are more common than they were in the past. There have been more than 90 since 1982. So far this year, there have been six. (It would be seven if Hodgkinson had been a more lethal marksman.) That is almost as many as in the whole of the 1980s.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of mass shootings had no political motivation. Roughly half were perpetrated by individuals with records of mental illness. So it is too early to prophesy a new civil war. Political polarisation, yes. But armed conflict? Hardly.
And yet, and yet. In one of the most troubling books I read last year, Ages of Discord, the historian Peter Turchin argues that the rise of mass shootings is just one indicator of a coming era of civil strife comparable to the decade before the Civil War of 1861-65.
The three causes he identifies are “(1) elite overproduction leading to intra-elite competition and conflict, (2) popular immiseration, resulting from falling living standards, and (3) the fiscal crisis of the state”. Turchin’s “political stress index” provides a statistical basis for this claim.
Too many insult-trading politicos, too few decent jobs, and a chronic fiscal imbalance: these are indeed symptoms of something rotten. And these are the things that ordinary citizens should be worried about, too. Ghastly events are bound to happen now and then. The thing to worry about is the historical trend. And the one I see in American politics worries me more and more.