December 17, 2012

We interrupt this Eli Lilly commercial to suggest a more plausible reason behind school massacres in America

I hate to ruin a good story line and distance myself from the renewed movement toward gun control in the United States.  It's the panacea du jour:  let's ban assault weapons and other rapid-firing firearms from widespread availability in the United States and all will be well.  This epidemic of school shootings will abate and we can feel safe again when our kids are in school.

Just one thing - there is something deeply illogical about that formulation of the problem.  Granted, once a killer (usually a "troubled" youth) flips, the easy access to military-style, rapid-firing weapons greatly enhances his destructive power.  That part is logical.  However:  in a sense there is an unspoken premise that in some way the assault weapon itself caused the massacre.  There the analysis breaks down.  That doesn't make any sense.  Nor does simply saying that the killer was "evil" or a "psychopath." 

A better question is to ask:  where are these evil, psychopathic killers coming from, do they have anything in common, and why are the patterns so similar?  To wit, the killer often seems to begin his rampage at home by killing family members, then proceeds to a school or other public place and kills multiple victims, then turns the weapon on himself and commits suicide.  Most of the massacres involve a mass murder-suicide sequence,  consistent with a decision to take a lot of people (often peers who shunned or excluded him) with him when his overwhelming emotional pain propelled him to suicide.

I generally find these days that if you want to understand a broad social phenomenon in the United States, the best place to look is somewhere that most people are not talking about.  The domination of Big Business (and corporate ownership of Congress and the Media) are such that you cannot rely on public discourse to identify the real source of problems.  As a good example, take the fixation on cholesterol levels as the key to understanding heart disease in the United States, and the related (and false) nutrional advice from doctors to stay away from saturated fat.  The commercial function of this advice is to sell Lipitor and related cholesterol-lowering drugs.  It has little or nothing to do with overall health.  Similarly, the "balanced diet" which has led to an epidemic of obesity in the United States is designed with subsidies to the monocultures of grain and corn farming in mind; nutritionally, it makes no sense whatsoever.  As a final example, the fixation on the "war on terror" is part of a propaganda campaign to justify the existence of a hugely oversized military establishment designed to fight this war "conventionally."  It has almost nothing to do with American safety, although one might want to keep in mind that the Predator drone strikes that are a salient part of this "war" have undoubtedly killed far more children of Newtown age than have ever died in American school shootings.  It's just that these children are mostly Pakistani and Aghani and are thus not within the consciousness (or conscience) of an American public which listens with rapt attention as the President comforts the good people of that small Connecticut town.

Which sounds, of course, like a radical analysis of American politics, but by now (equally of course) it's not.  Noam Chomsky's notion of "manufactured consent" and corporate control of the "national conversation" (the range of policy options which are allowed into the discourse) sounded very radical when he first proposed it, but by now it's conventional wisdom.  It's the way things work.

 So back to the question: what is setting these killers off?  One distinct possibility is that the killers are suffering from statistically-inevitable "side effects" of the psychotropic drugs known as SSRI's, such as Prozac, Zoloft, Effexor, and numerous other spin-offs of fluoxetine (which was first used as a pain medication and was then discovered to have mood "regulating" effects).  It's possible that these are the most dangerous drugs ever devised by the alchemists of Big Pharma, that they do vastly more harm than good, and that their persistent use owes to a willful decision of the FDA and political establishment (read: Congress) not to notice (or study systematically) their massive downsides.

One of those downsides is to trip a fraction of the patients into patterns of "extreme violence" and "hostility."  A British study from 2006 on a limited class of SSRI's (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) found a consistent link between anti-depressant use and violent ideation or hostile acting-out.  It was on the order of 1/2 of 1%, but let's think about the math of this situation.  As prominent as the school shootings loom in the public mind, they still remain relatively "rare" compared to the sheer number of schools and American children of school-going age.  Meanwhile, SSRI's are prescribed with the nonchalant alacrity of a neighbor throwing M&M's into the Halloween bags of trick-or-treaters.  Thus, the "cohort" or statistical "sample" is created by our drug-happy legions of SSRI-prescribing psychiatrists (although increasing numbers of them wonder if the routine use of Prozac and its affiliates is a good idea - see Robert Whitaker's book, The Anatomy of an Epidemic, which analyzes the roughly four-fold increase in mental illness rates in the United States which has occurred since the widespread use of SSRI's and similar mood-regulation drugs were introduced about 30 to 40 years ago).  A tiny fraction of the millions of kids or young adults on SSRI regimes will thus predictably become both violent (homicidal) and self-destructive (suicidal). The drugs cause this reaction. The connection between suicide and Prozac and Zoloft (in particular) has been apparent for a long time. Among these new crazy people, a certain small fraction will have access to powerful firearms, as Adam Lanza in Newtown easily did, or they will use their ingenuity to acquire one of the 300 million firearms floating around the American landscape.

There you have a plausible causation sequence.  It makes more sense to me than blaming it all on "video games" or the Devil.  Shouldn't someone look into it systematically? This isn't conjecture: a substantial majority of the school-killers have in fact been SSRI users (such as the leader of the Columbine massacre, pictured above).  This again follows naturally from the American way of dealing with the issue.  A young person has "emotional" problems = visit to a psychiatrist = prescription of powerful mood-regulating drugs = statistical inevitability of tragedy.  (Notice that the killers, from Columbine to Newtown, are often from nice, white, relatively affluent backgrounds, the kinds of places where the parents are most likely to seek immediate drug intervention if little Johnny has a problem with "concentration" in school or seems "withdrawn" for a couple of hours.)  The problem has not been systematically studied the way it should be, and I don't think it's paranoid to suggest that there are reasons Big Pharma would prefer we not look at the problem too closely. 

So Dianne Feinstein, Senator from California and reliable spokesperson for the military-industrial complex, tells us we've already figured out the answer, based on no analysis whatsoever that I can see.  The school-killers have access to high-powered weaponry, and they get up one day and decide to kill as many people as they can.  We can settle on that answer without interfering greatly with America's lively export business of guns, grains and obesity.  No need to rock the boat - Big Pharma is one of the keys to Obamacare, after all, and the pharmaceutical companies have a stranglehold on Congressional financing (on some of the necks that Wall Street and the defense contractors aren't already clutching).

Now, I will concede that society does in fact produce psychopaths capable of random violence, quite apart from any influence of psychotropic drugs.  But common sense ought to tell us that something else is going on here.  We're producing way too many "troubled youth" with a sudden propensity to blow away everyone they know.  You can reduce their range of available weaponry (and we ought to do so), but you will not really solve the problem of hostility reactions to psychotropic drugs.  And we won't get at that problem until someone starts talking out loud about the connection.

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