Signal and Noise: A Response to the Newtown Tragedy

SignalNoise

As the nation continues to reel from the news and aftershock of yet another mass shooting, many of us are wrestling with our own thoughts and emotions. We review the facts and details as they become available, and from there we try to create a rational explanation for a monstrous and irrational act. It’s a fool’s errand, really, like trying to negotiate with a madman, and yet we make the attempts. And when we fail, as reasonable people are most likely to do, we look for ways out of the conundrum.

Mostly, we focus on ways to fit this communal tragedy into our own personal understanding of the world, however short-sighted or narrow-minded that understanding may be. In the libraries of our minds, we try to shelve this latest tale of terror under psychology or religion or politics or feminism. “Experts” from all of these disciplines have appeared on a range of talk shows and news broadcasts lately, variously depicting the shooter as a godless gun nut, an insecure young white male, an autistic videogame addict.

I’m normally drawn to literature for explorations of human madness, but this time around, I’m finding more appropriate parallels and metaphors in music, specifically in the science of sound. Maybe this is due to the title of Nate Silver’s recent book, The Signal and the Noise, which looks to mathematics and statistics as they relate to pundits and would-be prognosticators. More specifically, Silver discusses attempts to predict future events, such as elections, and wonders why most of these attempts fail.

At this moment, here’s the future-oriented question most of us struggle to answer definitively: How can we keep something like the Newtown killing from ever happening again?

Such a complex question inevitably inspires a great deal of “noise,” the static and chatter that surrounds and distorts a sensible discussion despite its tangential relevance. For example, we’ve heard many conversations about “mental illness” despite the lack of any confirmed diagnosis in the case of the Newtown shooter. Others have attributed his motives to celebrity-seeking, despite any evidence to that effect, and thereby condemned the media. One person ironically hijacked the persona of a media celebrity (Morgan Freeman) in order to make his own anti-media point more popular in the world of social media.

All of this is noise. When we listen to it and perpetuate it, we lose track of the signal: the clear message buried inside.

Signal and noise have been core components of electronic music for decades now. I grew up during a time in which music was transformed by the appearance of the synthesizer. These electronic devices generate a source tone (for example, discrete sounds like sine waves or random signals like white noise) that is subsequently processed through a series of oscillators, filters, and envelopes to create a final note or sound (helicopter rotors for a Pink Floyd album, for example). The resulting signal can then be amplified and heard through headphones or stereo speakers.

The science of synthesizers may be complicated, but I want to focus on two concepts related to signal and noise: filters and amplifiers.

The goal of a filter is to block and withhold unwanted material, such as a particular range of sound. An equalizing filter, for example, allows you to lessen (or conversely boost) the amount of treble or bass you might hear through your stereo system. Some physical filters, such as a coffee filter, are quite refined and prevent small particles from passing through. In a weird way, a bulletproof vest is a crude sort of filter; its function is to block the passage of ammunition through to the wearer.

Throughout our lives, we develop multiple filters to help us process and understand the world around us. Otherwise, we might feel completely overwhelmed 24/7/365—as if some of us don’t feel that way already. Some of these filters come prepackaged—in academic or religious instruction, for example. We construct and employ others through our own experience, the lessons learned in life. Like the bulletproof vest, these filters shield and protect us; they give us the strength and courage to venture into potentially dangerous situations, both physically and mentally. They help us face up to monstrosities.

At this point, perhaps a line of poetry is in order:

The heart knows no filter.

If you’re like me, the initial news of the Newtown massacre came as a shock to the system. My first responses were all raw emotion: grief, rage, fear. Heartache, of course, because the heart, not being bulletproof, was wounded.

I might add disbelief to the list, but I can’t. For starters, it would be a lie; Columbine and Aurora and all the previous mass shootings should have already prepared us for this. On top of that, disbelief is a secondary, filtered response. The prefix “dis” serves as the filter, processing the initial state of belief. When we said we couldn’t believe the news of the shooting, what we were really saying was that we didn’t want to believe. The filter acted to block the truth, to deny its passage and place in our world.

Pressing further, I would argue that, due to the intensity of our emotional responses, many of us were rendered temporarily insane by news of the Newtown shooting. This would explain our disbelief, our denial of reality, our futile grasp at adjectives such as “unthinkable,” “unimaginable,” and “inconceivable.” By the very definition of insanity, we “lacked reasonable thought.”

And so began the noise, the procession of unreasonable responses to the tragedy. Despite a nearly total lack of evidence, analysts began offering possible motives and explanations for the violence, many of them tailored to fit their particular areas of expertise or concern. Conversations about gun control gave way to discussions of mental illness and health care, all based on conjecture. One viral essay, a blog post from the mother of a difficult and sometimes violent child, claimed such a deep level of understanding that she equated herself with the shooter’s mother. It was an absurd reduction based on an unknown and complex situation. Such extreme filtration of the facts resulted in one of the most highly illogical and self-centered responses to the shooting, and yet it continues to dominate some discussions today.

Many of these filtered responses were amplified via the media and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Immediately after the event, many of us reached out to family members and friends via phone calls, e-mails, and status updates and expressed our deepest, most sincere thoughts and emotions. Subsequently, we began to pass along the thoughts and feelings of others, mostly those that corresponded closely to our own beliefs. In other words, we filtered out the rest. We began to process the signal and, in some of the more extreme cases, distorted and completely lost it.

I thank our President Barack Obama for providing such a relatively measured and balanced response in the wake of this tragedy. In doing so, he reminded me of the kind of leader the country needs at a time like this, someone more like Mr. Spock than the Incredible Hulk. He did not indulge the vigilante superhero fantasies that preoccupy so much of the American mindset and perhaps contribute to this sort of violence in the first place. (I urge you to read Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined for a much more thorough exploration of this.)

As Nate Silver reminds us, logic is a tough, impartial judge. Like the rules of law, facts and statistics are indifferent to your or my personal opinions or beliefs. As filters go, logical analysis is our most reliable option, difficult though it may be. That’s why, in the wake of extreme tragedies like Newtown, we must continue to educate one another and ourselves in the facts of the matter. It’s also why we need to place a renewed emphasis on logic in the education of our children. No tool will be more useful to them in the course of their lives.

With that in mind and by way of example, I offer some attempts at a logical analysis of various reactions to the Newtown massacre below, keeping in mind the question: How do we keep something like this from ever happening again?

We need more, not fewer weapons. Pro-gun people often claim that an armed teacher or principal (or mall shopkeeper, movie theater attendant, member of the clergy, bystander…all of us, really, I guess) could take down hostile trespassers and prevent deaths in situations like this. Studies have shown otherwise. A more fully armed populace might prevent deaths, but it wouldn’t prevent the situations themselves, so this is at best only a partial solution to the question above. It might also have the opposite effect of increasing the number of such incidents, since more weapons would be in circulation and potentially available to would-be shooters.

Let’s say we pass a law (and some politicians have proposed such laws) that mandates weapons for school officials and teachers (and, by extension, shopkeepers and movie theater attendants and so on and so on). By that reasoning, the willingness to carry a weapon and undergo extensive training in its use would become a prerequisite for anyone applying for these jobs. You would need to feel ready and able to shoot and kill another human being when called upon. Pacifists, whether on religious or just plain moral grounds, no longer need apply, at least not until all the discrimination lawsuits have been settled.

Also, if we truly want to prevent any future bloodshed by arming ourselves even more, we have to trust in our ability to act fast and first—probably without time to fully assess a situation, and certainly without time to attempt a diplomatic or talk-down resolution—which means responding with immediate gunfire to any threat, real or perceived. This is the rationale behind the “stand your ground” laws in some states, which, as we have seen in the case of Trayvon Martin, can sometimes result in the death of innocent children.

These pro-gun arguments also conveniently ignore (filter out) the fact that more and more of today’s mass shooters wear bulletproof vests or combat armor on their sprees. Unless we’ve all been trained to be reliable sharpshooters, our chances at taking down an armed maniac before he takes us down are therefore slim. Shooting at him becomes more like kicking at a hornet’s nest.

In a “good-versus-evil” shooting match, there’s also a high probability that innocent bystanders will be wounded and/or killed by “friendly fire,” especially in dark or smoke-filled spaces such as the Aurora movie theater. I suppose that in order for all of us to feel completely safe from potential gunfire, we should be wearing bulletproof armor at all times. Consequently, our country begins to sound less and less like “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We need to restore God in the classroom.  For starters, this argument always seems to focus first on the victims, not the shooter himself. Secondly, it baits an argument about whose God we should all bow down to. Thirdly, this argument conveniently neglects (i.e. filters out) the large number of violent historical events, some described in gruesome detail in the Christian Bible, in which God supposedly commands others to kill on his behalf. These people, some of them respected figures in religious history, dutifully obeyed the voices they heard in their heads. Chew on this: What if the all-knowing God spoke to the Newtown gunman and told him, “There is one and only one way to wake up Americans to the need for gun control. If you go into a kindergarten and kill dozens of small children, I guarantee you that gun laws in your country will change and that thousands more lives will subsequently be saved.” Religious philosophers, discuss.

 We need to prevent the mentally ill from owning guns. For starters, the buyer and owner of the guns used in the Newtown killing was the man’s mother, and she wasn’t mentally ill. By all accounts, her son wasn’t officially diagnosed as “mentally ill,” either. Therefore, this restriction would not have prevented the slaughter in Newtown.

Restrictions that focus on mental illnesses also seem to assume that such conditions are both evident and permanent, that they manifest themselves from birth and remain consistently visible throughout a person’s lifetime. Anyone who has the slightest inkling of knowledge about psychology knows this is hogwash. Do you feel the same amount of mental stability each and every hour of each and every day? Did you feel 100% mentally stable when you first heard the news about the Newtown killing?

If we feel that we must prevent the “mentally ill” from owning guns, then we must establish an “acceptable” level of illness when it comes to owning guns—that level at which a person is at risk of harming either the self or another living creature. One could argue that nearly everyone feels capable of harming the self or another living creature at some point in his or her life, either during a case of severe depression or in a moment of stress-related rage. With that in mind, the “no guns for the mentally ill” proposal could mean, in its most preventative application, no guns for anyone.

Speaking of acceptable levels of mental illness, let’s consider all those people who heard about Newtown and felt compelled to rush out to buy more guns. Some felt sure that they needed these weapons to protect themselves and/or their loved ones from future incidents. Others were afraid that their personal gun rights were about to be stripped away, so it was best to stock up now and hope for a grandfather clause that would protect their stash. Such extreme and self-centered responses to this national tragedy suggest a form of delusional paranoia, itself a mental illness, yet these are the supposedly reasonable folks intent on protecting us all from the irrational gunmen.

Here’s another inconvenient fact related to mental health: In many gun-related incidents (though not, it seems, Newtown), a major factor in the shooting is the consumption of alcohol. If we expand our scope to consider all alcohol-related fatalities, we find many, many more deaths of innocent people and children caused by drunk drivers each year. Grouping these deaths together sends a clear signal; spacing them apart renders them more like noise. That may explain why we see few people either suggesting or rallying around a proposal to ban alcohol in order to prevent deaths, either by gun or by car. Another argument for another time, perhaps.

Stricter background checks will prevent these killings. This is an argument of hindsight, which, as we all know, is 20/20. The purchase of a gun will always precede a criminal’s first armed robbery, rendering a background check ineffective. What we really need is a foreground check. Absent psychic powers of prognostication or the development of software that aggregates all your personal data and predicts whether or not you’ll become a mass murderer, we’re still a few miles shy of the finish line with this proposed solution.

Ban assault weapons. This one makes sense, though once again it’s a partial solution. Even if it can’t stop shooters from doing harm, it can at least limit the amount of damage done. In other words, it saves lives.

Think of it this way: an assault weapon is an amplified version of a single-shot gun. It makes a weak signal stronger. It allows one lonely, unstable voice to send out a disproportionately loud message. Even though that message may be unclear or irrational, it echoes throughout the culture, filtered and amplified by our own voices as we try to make sense of it, voices that are in turn amplified by the many forms of media at our disposal.

What we’re left with is chaos and cacophony. In the world of music, it’s called feedback.

Put more simply, it’s noise.

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