Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Recently, on the blog Psychobabble, I made a comment regarding the school shooting in Newton, Connecticut:

We all "have a right to our opinion" and mine corresponds with yours (the author of Psychobabble). But, opinion only covers things that are not, by nature, logical. To me, if children are being killed by guns, the answer is either to get rid of the children, or, get rid of the guns.
I guess one of my many failings is speaking in hyperbole. It does often tend to dilute the emotion, in this case sadness. My good friend from the Northeast corner of the Pond, took issue with the my contention that this was a logical question. Hoping he will give permission, I'll copy his comment:
Trouble is, Doc, that logic starts from premises ... and people pick their own premises.

Your unspoken premises in the above logic (and ones with which, of course, I passionately agree) include "children should not be killed by guns" and "children matter more than guns". The NRA and its fellow travellers would agree the first one but equivocate over the second.

And we all do the same in different ways. Which of us argues for constraint on road vehicles which currently kill about two thousand people a year in the UK (of which approx 8-10% are children), thirty thousand in the USA, three hundred thousand globally? As societies we tacitly accept, as the NRA does with firearms (and governments do with foreign wars, and industrialists used to do with child factory labour), a level of child mortality as the price of our chosen norms. And those acceptances become premises in our logic.
As always, there is a lot of wisdom in what the Growlery has to offer. However, I think his comment raises several profound questions. The first, of course, is our "tacit acceptance" of certain occurrences as norms, in particular, the death of children. This is an issue that has occupied my thinking for some time and it has multiple ramifications. It bears remembering that children have only recently gained the status of real people. The reason for this is quite clear. Up until the 20th century, the mortality rate for children even in first world countries (e.g. Italy p 8-9) was very high. I have an old Pediatric textbook from the 1920's that estimates that upward of 40% of children died before the age of 5 y.o. in the 19th century. In Tudor England p 113, for which records exist, the death rate by the age 10 years was circa 42%.  One can only shudder to think what the death rate of children in the ancient and medieval must have been.

As one consequence, until very recently, children did not become real people probably until they left childhood and went into adulthood bypassing the current extended adolescence. Certainly Romeo and Juliet were considered people though it is obvious that they are adolescents. The heroine in Balzac's Les Chouans, the Republican operative (sic), is in her mid teens but I can't find the reference. Thus, if my hypothesis is correct, the death of a child while tragic at any time for a parent, probably did not have the ramifications that such a death does today.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Starting in the 1970's, many medical centers established neonatal intensive care units. Younger and younger babies were surviving. Every life became more and more important. The age at which a newborn is judged "viable" has dropped in my professional lifetime from 26-27 weeks to as low as 23 weeks! The consequences of this pushing of the frontier of viability are many. Firstly, and most importantly for the discussion here, it places more and more emphasis on survivability of children. (the ethics of the viability question is also important but not part of this discussion).

Many other developments have changed the focus of Western Society to put importance on the survival of every child. These are well known. Families are small because of less demand for ready farm workers. And families do not need have many children to replace those children who died, usually from disease. (I should put a plug in here for getting vaccinations).

As a result of this, children are extremely valued in our society. We spend millions of dollars on a NICU baby. Since the 1960's one might even say that our society is youth oriented, though an argument can be made that dollars have replaced it. The reaction to the massacre in Newton I think exhibits this concentration of attention. (One wonders if the reaction would have been the same if it had been 20 African-American children.) However, I don't think this feeling is in anyway universal across all scenarios. As the Growlery points out, the fact that we are so complacent when hundreds of thousands of children in  Iraq were slaughtered and continue to be slaughtered in Syria, Afghanistan and Gaza lends some credence to his contention that some things matter more than the actual life of a child, in the minds of some people.

Yet still, I would argue that anyone who held the possession of a assault-rifle above the life of a child (always in the abstract, of course) is in some way perverted. After all, we are evolutionarily driven to produce and nurture children. Can the momentary pleasure of causing a deer to die of lead poisoning compare? Children are, as some crazy Greek said, immortality for some of us. But, it is also true that we as a society in a certain way accept the carnage of the automobile. But, I would argue, it is certainly not in the same ethical category as guns. I would like to point out that there is at least some control of who drives a car and increasingly severe penalties for using it for slaughter, even unintentional, which can't be said for a gun.

What exact value do we then place on the life of a child? Versus the life of an adult? What about the value of the elderly? (stop looking in the mirror, Dr. C.) Our Congress at the very minute debates slashing funds for social programs that will result in untimely deaths. Who is the arbitrator?