Who is to blame for the Columbine High School massacre?
There is no shortage of suspects: The NRA and the gun industry,
video games, the internet, the media, absentee parents - and of
course, the young gunmen themselves.
As we have listened with grim fascination to the public debate,
old ideas and slogans (recycled from the aftermaths of the
Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas school shootings) have reappeared
in the media, followed by much, much, more of the same.
So if we have heard this all before, why the fascination? Our
interest derives from our decades of toil in undergraduate philosophy
classes. The horrible incident in Littleton, Colorado has let loose
in the public media a flow of fallacies sufficient to launch a
thousand books devoted thereto. Even a brief treatment of the
identifiable fallacies appearing in the public debate over the
"causes" of this horror would easily fill a book. And we have other
books to write. So we will examine only five. Remarkably, except for
the first ("the slippery slope"), we do not recall encountering any
of these fallacies in the numerous texts that we have used in over
thirty years of teaching logic and critical thinking. Thus we have
assigned new names to each.
Common to most of these fallacies is scapegoating and
rationalization - the "not us, it's them" response. The
first two on our list, "the slippery slope" and "the fallacy of the
sacred text" are so commonplace among the NRA and other Second
Amendment absolutists that they demand our attention. The other three
all rest upon weird theories of causation and proof - theories so
outlandish that a simple explication thereof, separated from the
political rhetoric, should suffice as refutation.
The Slippery Slope - (alternatively called
"the domino effect" and "the camel's nose"). We've all heard the
argument: "once they (meaning , of course, the government)
take away our assault weapons, what's to keep them from
confiscating all handguns, and then our sporting and target rifles?
"Where do you draw the line?" An interesting but often
overlooked feature of "slippery slope arguments" is that the slope
slips in both directions. Hence, the arguments of the gun-control
advocates: "once you allow citizens to own assault weapons, why not
artillery, or even atomic weapons? "Where do you draw the
"Where do we draw the line?" Quite simply, we "draw the line"
where, in our collective and considered wisdom, we choose to "draw
the line." Simple as that. And the drawing of legal "lines" is both
commonplace and generally uncontroversial. There is no remarkable
difference between the political judgment of a seventeen and an
eighteen year old. But clearly six year-olds should not vote, and
thirty year-olds should not be denied the franchise. So we "draw the
line" at eighteen, simply because we have to "draw" it at some age.
We have collectively agreed that eighteen "seems about right."
Likewise in the cases of the legal ages of consent to marry, to
purchase and drink alcoholic beverages, to operate a motor vehicle,
and so on.
Both nature and artifice are chock-full of continua -
gradations from "too little" to "too much," with no identifiable
"line" between the extremes. The list is endless: vehicle speeds,
truck load limits, blood alcohol content, ambient noise, water and
air pollution levels, and so on.
Civil comity and personal safety both require some "drawing of
lines" across such continua. The "line" along the continuum in the
right to bear arms should reasonably be drawn beyond registered
ownership by non-felons, and before the ownership of assault or
nuclear weapons by felons. The NRA complaint against "line-drawing"
The Fallacy of the Sacred Text. (This is a
variant of A. N. Whitehead's "Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary"). To
the NRA and other gun-advocates, the Second Amendment simply means
what it says. (More precisely, they hold that the second clause
regarding "the right to keep and bear arms" means what it says. They
conveniently overlook the first clause which justifies the second
through the "free state's" need of a "well-regulated militia." And
the less said about that word "regulated" the better). Like
scripture, say the absolutists, the Constitution is exempt from the
ordinary weaknesses of human language such as ambiguity, vagueness
and historical contexts. The founding fathers speak, say the
absolutists, like the voice of God, unequivocally, clearly, and with
Accordingly, the Second Amendment "means what it says - 'shall
not be infringed.'"
But why should this "right to keep and bear arms" be absolute,
when none of the other constitutional rights are absolute? As Justice
Holmes famously remarked, the right to free speech does not allow one
to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nor does the freedom of
religion allow human sacrifice or even permit parents to deny on
religious grounds, appropriate medical attention for their children.
. The right of the free press is limited by the laws of libel, and
the right of free assembly does not sanction lynch-mobs or the
obstruction of traffic. None of these "constitutional rights" are
absolute. Why then should the "right to bear arms" be an
Religious conservatives, in their defense of "absolute morality,"
commonly condemn "situation ethics." And yet, whenever one is
obedient to two or more moral rules, "situation ethics" becomes
unavoidable. (The religious conservative claims obedience to at least
ten). As the late philosopher Charles Frankel once observed,
exclusive obedience to a single moral rule is not "morality," it is
fanaticism. The ten commandments forbid "bearing false
witness," murder, and stealing. But what if one must lie or steal to
save an innocent life? Two or more moral rules raises the logical
possibility of, and often actual encounter with, moral surds
- the plain impossibility of avoiding the violation of one rule
through obedience to another. Enter "situation ethics."
If "the right to bear arms" is to be absolute, what other social,
political and moral desiderata are to be sacrificed to this one
absolute? Let's start with "the right to safety in one's home,
property and person." To their profound grief, the students and
parents in Littleton faced the implications of this sacrifice. Must
There is an alternative to Second Amendment absolutism which has
been adopted by all civilized societies (including our own, though to
a minimal degree): admit that "the right to bear arms" must, along
with all other rights, submit to limits, defined by the values we
accord to our other rights. For more about "situation ethics," see my
"Defense of Moral Relativism").
The Fallacy of the Single Cause. "It wasn't
the availability of guns that caused the Littleton tragedy, it was
video games." "No it wasn't, it was the mass media." "No it wasn't,
it was poor parenting." "No it wasn't, it was the availability of
guns." And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Common to all this buck-passing is the assumption that "if someone
else is to blame, then we are not - if some other enterprise is the
cause, then ours is not." And so the search is on for the
cause of the tragedy.
"The cause?" Why just one cause? What is logically wrong
with suggesting that "the gun culture," and video games,
and youth media, and alienation, and
absentee parents all may have, to some degree, contributed
to this atrocity? Why must there be only one cause, the discovery of
which fully exculpates all other suspect causes?
Answer: there is nothing whatever wrong with searching
for, and addressing, multiple causes. If we are well-educated and
logically savvy, we don't ask, "what is the cause of
cancer?" Or "What was the cause of the Russian Revolution?"
Or "what was the cause of Bill Clinton's re-election?" Why
then should we tolerate, without rebuttal, the attempts of the gun
lobby, the video game entrepreneurs, Hollywood film makers, or
whoever else, to evade responsibility by locating "the
cause" of Harris and Klebold's shooting spree "somewhere else"?
Why not say, instead, "yes, the video game 'Doom' played a part.
But that's not the whole story. Now let's take a close look at video
games, slasher movies, the gun culture and the easy availability of
guns. And so on."
But the "multiple causes" approach can itself be an
oversimplification, for it evokes a mind-picture of multiple legs,
holding up a table. This view suggests that each of the "multiple
causes" is independent and discrete. But surely that is not the case.
These several "causes" (in the social science jargon, "contributing
factors") constitute a web of intricately interacting "causes," aptly
described as "the culture of violence." Thus media depiction of
violence fosters a fascination with and a collection of firearms, and
thence an absorption with violent video games (or vice versa - these
"causes" are, after all, reciprocating). Attempts to solve "the youth
violence problem" by attacking just one "cause" (such as gun
ownership) is as useless as an attempt to kill a tree by cutting off
All-or-Nothing Causation. This
fallacy is heard in the remark, "millions of kids play Doom and other
video games, but they don't all go on shooting rampages." In this we
hear echoes from the tobacco industry: "millions of people smoke, but
most of them don't get lung cancer. Ergo, smoking does not
cause lung cancer." But smoking was never claimed to be the
sole and certain cause of lung cancer. It is
claimed (now with conclusive scientific evidence) to be a
contributing and aggravating factor in
carcinogenesis. Statistics tell the story, as we compare mortality
figures for smokers and non-smokers. Similarly, while the vast
majority of young people who play Doom or watch "slasher movies"
admittedly do not commit homicides, this fact in no way discounts the
possibility that some murders may be "triggered" by
immersion in violent media. At the very least, that possibility
deserves careful study, and we understand that such studies are very
Proof-Positive or None. This sophistical
device has been also been prominent in the apologetics of the tobacco
industry. About the time of the first Surgeon General's report on
Smoking and Health (in 1963), we read such dismissals as "nobody has
ever shown anything conclusive about cigarettes and health - lung
cancer and all that. It just hasn't been proved." And "there is no
proof - no established proof - of cigarettes being harmful." (Thomas
Whiteside's "A Cloud of Smoke" in The New Yorker, November
30, 1960). Closer examination shows that such dismissals rest upon an
alleged failure to discover a "definitive causal connection between
tobacco smoke and cancer." However, as David Hume argued in the
eighteenth century, and as philosophers of science have since then
generally concurred, "definitive causal connections" are not
"observed" as such, they are inferred from the "constant conjunction"
of events. Scientific "proof" is not only probabilistic (i.e., "a
matter of degree"), valid scientific hypotheses must be "falsifiable
in principle" - i.e., the proponent of the hypothesis must be
prepared to describe "what it would be like" (contrary to fact) for
the hypothesis to be false. It is unlikely that "hired gun" debunkers
in either the tobacco or the firearms or the video game industries
are prepared to tell us what sort of "proof" might convince them that
their products are, in fact, public menaces.
A lack of "established," "conclusive" or "positive" proof does not
amount to no proof at all. In both scientific practice and in
practical life, we are best guided by probabilities. We buckle our
seat belts, exercise regularly, avoid drug abuse, in the reasonable
but less-than-certain belief that such precautions are warranted. And
if the purveyors of the instruments and depictions of violence
correctly point out that there is no certain evidence that their
products promote mayhem, strong, albeit less than perfect, evidence
should suffice to justify a curtailing of their activities.
Fallacy and the Subversion of Public
Debate. As the above (very partial) list of sophistries
indicates, the rhetorical armament of commercial apologists is vast,
subtle, and often ingenious. There are few public issues that can not
be argued with apparently plausible arguments on both sides. Even
with seemingly scientific issues such as global warming,
biodiversity, pesticide use, and now the "causes" of youth violence,
the targeted industries are routinely capable of producing "expert
scientific" rebuttal witnesses. Thus the public comes to believe, as
one wit put it, that in the arena of public debate, "for every PhD
there is an equal and opposite PhD." It doesn't take much logical
acumen to understand that if all sides to an issue can be
equally well supported, then no side can be supported. The
coin of "expertise" and "evidence" is thus debased. Public debate
becomes, as G. W. F. Hegel put it, "a night in which all cows are
Eventually the public comes to believe that there are no
facts, only "beliefs;" no evidence or
proof, only "persuasion." Politics is replaced by "public
relations." According to some trendy scholars, science itself is
demoted to merely another (white-western-male) "social construct."
Enter the "post-modernists." (Cf. "No Mo
Po Mo," this site).
If there is to be no place in the "post-modern" world for critical
scholarship and science, then in that world there will be many more
Littletons and much worse, as shared community concerns fade into
insignificance in the arena of competing private and commercial
interests. Not a happy prospect.
Unless, Unless -- we come to our communal senses and
appreciate that not all arguments are created equal; that there are
objectively better (cogent) and worse (fallacious) modes of
argumentation, and that a recognition of these modes can be taught to
all ages. In particular, science teaching should include an
understanding, not only of the content but also of the
methodology and logic of science - so that a
student, and eventually a public, can understand why there
is "good reason" to believe in astronomy, and no justification for
believing in astrology, and why the warnings of government
atmospheric scientists should carry more weight than the reassurances
of the hired guns of the energy conglomerates. "Current events"
discussions in high schools should cease to be mere sequences of "I
believe thats," each regarded as "equally precious" and "true-for"
the student. Instead, student utterances of "belief" should be
followed immediately by the challenge, "why should we believe you?
What is your evidence and your argument?" Class discussions should
become disciplined exercises in critical expression, defense and
rebuttal - all with an aim, not to persuade, but to
discover confirmable truths. Alas, there are
precious few teachers trained to lead such discussions, and fewer
still being taught such skills in the Schools of Education.
However, with a renewed commitment to public intelligence and
reasonableness, we may learn and appreciate that there are
discoverable causes of and effective remedies for our social
We hear a great deal these days about "teaching morality in the
public schools." (See
Morality: A Dialogue).
But even before that, perhaps we should start with a investment in
the teaching of "critical thinking."
What is to be done? Those of us who were
alive and alert during the sixties, who lived through the Kennedy and
King assassinations and the urban riots of that decade, have
repeatedly experienced the same dreary sequence which follows each
prominent assassination or mass murder: public outrage and grief,
demand for action, apologetics from the media and the NRA, "outrage
fatigue," and finally a return to status quo ante - until
the next atrocity. There is little reason to hope that the aftermath
of Littleton will be at all different.
However, as some wise person once commented, hopeless causes are
by far the most interesting - such "hopeless causes" as the
non-violent overthrow of the British Raj in India, of Apartheid in
South Africa, and of legal segregation in the American south.
We begin by acknowledging the brutal facts. As the Sixties civil
rights leader Stokely Carmichael remarked, "violence is as American
as apple pie." He was right. The culture of violence is woven into
the fabric of our society, continually nourished by the profit
motive, and defended by the virtuoso skills of corporate public
relations. And as we noted above, the "usual suspects" trotted out
after each new horror - the NRA, the arms industry, computers (games
and internet), the media (cinema and television), absentee parents -
are not independent "causes" of youthful violence, they are
dynamically interacting and reinforcing factors in that "culture of
And the consequences of that "culture of violence" are palpable.
Numerous statistics, of variable significance, have been bandied
about these past two weeks. But one in particular commands our
attention. As "Handgun Control" in Washington reports, "in 1996,
handguns were used to murder 2 people in New Zealand, 15 in Japan, 30
in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany and 9,390 in the
United States." Think of it! An American's chance of being
murdered by a hand gun is about sixty-four times as much as that
of a Briton. Not even Charlton Heston can shrug off that
The official response to Littleton has been profoundly
discouraging. Comments such as "this is a terrible tragedy" is
utterly uninstructive: we already know that, and need not be told
again. Any proposals, from the President on down, that follow "let us
all resolve to ...." are likely to be useless and unproductive
hand-waving. We hunger for the bread of decisive and practical
leadership, and are given stones of empty rhetoric.
Case-in-point: following the Littleton shootings, we tuned
to C-SPAN and heard a couple of hours of hearings on "Youth
Violence," conducted by the Senate Commerce Committee.
Representatives of the computer, firearms and entertainment industry
were invited to participate. All declined, except Mr. Jack Valenti of
motion-picture industry, who, failing to find much fault in the
product of his employers, saw our communal salvation in the "trinity"
of church, family and school. "Let us all resolve to..." and all
that. Far worse were the Senators in attendance: all agreed that
youth violence is a terrible problem, and (to the best of our
recollection) all agreed that "it is not the business of government"
to address that problem. No legislative proposals were before that
Committee, or were likely to issue from it. This is the condition to
which a generation of relentless attacks on "big government" has led
us: our elected representatives first to wring their hands, and then to wash them of moral responsibility. (See our editorial,
"The culture of violence" will have to be attacked on many fronts,
and at the roots. Firearms registration and control is not
the answer - but it is an essential ingredient of the
answer. Neither are restrictions and regulations of the internet,
computer games or the media, enacted separately, the answer
-- by themselves. But they are ingredients of the answer. On the
other hand, voluntary restraints by the commercial media are unlikely
to count for much, as recent history has amply proven. We've heard it
all before: "If we don't portray violence, someone else will, and if
that's what the public wants, our reward for moral restraint will
only lead to our bankruptcy." As William Vanderbilt said, "the
public be damned, I work for my stockholders!" "The invisible hand"
of the free market, it seems, is without conscience. Proof? Again,
look to recent history.
History also indicates solutions. Let the law (i.e. government)
enforce upon all, what the conscientious businessman would enact for
his firm "if it weren't for what my competitors would do to me."
Garrett Hardin calls this "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon."
"Government interference?" Of course! But such "interference" took
opium out of our drugs and pollutants out of our air, lakes and
rivers. "Government interference" also requires that no medicines be
prescribed unless proven safe and effective, protects us from tainted
food, and protects our life savings from bank failures. Few citizens
would now suggest that we abolish the Food and Drug Administration,
the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Deposit Insurance
Corporation (though I know of a few hard-shelled libertarians who
would do just that). Why then the opposition to regulation that would
protect the minds and morals of our youth?
Mr. Valenti's proposals, though partial and overly convenient to
his industry, are not without merit. Yes, morality must be taught in
the churches, the schools and the home. The churches are quite
properly "out of bounds" of the government. But the government can,
through the tax structure and through parental-leave statutes, ease
the burden of raising worthy children amidst the morally compromised
popular culture. Most of all, government has a role in supporting
and, if necessary, regulating, public education. But this will
require public investment - in research, in teacher
education, in improved student/teacher ratios, in non-commercial
media, and much more.
Talk is cheap. It remains to be seen if we are sufficiently
outraged by "the culture of violence" to be actually willing to pay
for long-term remedies.
As we have argued above, "the culture of violence" does not have a
single cause, and thus does not have a single remedy. But if asked to
identify, in descending order of significance, the root causes, I
would begin with this: depersonalization. We live in a
society that reduces persons to "personnel" in corporate
structures, to "consumers" and "utility maximizers" in our economy,
and to targets in our media. To Harris and Klebold, their
fellow students at Columbine High School were no more "persons" than
the video images in "Doom" or the cinema images in "The Basketball
The core of morality in the great world religions, and in the
secular "contractarian" ethics that I espouse and defend, is the
recognition in the other of the humanity and personhood that
one cherishes in oneself. In modern society, thoughtless commercial
"happenstance" ("the invisible hand") erodes the humanity of others
until one finds oneself surrounded by humanoid "objects." This
tendency must be thoughtfully resisted and reversed - in our personal
lives ("let us resolve to...") but also through rigorous research,
through communal effort, and through public investment.
It all comes down to this: a deranged kid is capable of shooting
at human-flesh-as-object. However, except in such desperate
circumstances as warfare or self-defense, no one can shoot to kill
someone recognized as a fellow personal human being.
Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge