Mass shootings and pathologies, personal and public

December 31, 2012

ZoellnerAn attempt to make sense of fundamentally baffling events

 The book I was reading when the Newtown massacre occurred was Tom Zoellner’s A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us About the Grand Canyon State and Life in America (Viking, 2011). The author is a fifth-generation Arizonan, long-time friend of the congresswoman, and journalist (Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle) turned professor of English (Chapman University in Orange, California).

“This book,” he says, “is an attempt to make sense of a fundamentally baffling event. I have used the tools of journalism to arrive at a few conclusions. Several personal biases—explained within the text—make this not a work of objective journalism in the traditional sense, though I have striven to be fair to all concerned.”

One of the strengths of Zoellner’s analysis is that he presents a detailed portrait of the man who did the shooting that injured Giffords and twelve others and left thirteen people dead. His pathology and personal responsibility for the crime are not explained away by social conditions and other factors related to time and place.

The ongoing public discussion of weapons and public safety needs to be equally insistent upon maintaining this emphasis. People who do violent acts are personally responsible and have to be treated accordingly.

Zoellner’s analysis also shows the close connection between the pathology of the shooter and the social conditions within which he lived. While the social conditions did not cause the pathology, they provided a narrative for the distorted sense of reality that his illness induced.

Zoellner provides an outline history of the settlement of Tucson and Arizona, emphasizing developments from the 1930s onward. He quotes Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble: “We closed ourselves off; we built a wall around ourselves.”

Zoellner adds his own interpretation: “These physical settings were matched by a consequent decline in the old American values of community.” He illustrates the impact of these developments from his own near-pathological youth in one of these heartless subdivisions.

This book also shows how the media, with talk radio an important factor, cultivate a growing sense of paranoia throughout the community and at the same time radicalize political processes.

Because Zoellner’s book deals with the Giffords shooting, the contributing conditions in Arizona are prominent throughout the book. As his subtitle indicates, however, he sees similar processes taking place across America. No matter where we live, social conditions can lead to deadly actions by people whose personal pathologies are pushing them toward vigorous action.

The tone of the book is especially well stated in a paragraph of page 259. It starts with these lines: “To wash our hands of an errant citizen like Jared Loughner—to push him away and think of him like a natural disaster that nobody could have stopped—is to engage in the worst kind of denial about the human influences that made him who he is, especially in the four drifting years before his final violent act.”

After naming some of these influences, Zoellner concludes the paragraph: “A set of environmental conditions was in place that made such an extreme act of superhero individualism within the range of possibility. Loughner was not a tornado or an earthquake; he emerged from a specific human context.”

What should we do to reshape the social context so that it is less likely to lead to mass shooting of innocent people? Zoellner offers a list of eight possibilities that could make a difference in Arizona (pp. 260-261). Each is phrased as an “if clause.”

Two of the eight focus on weapons, including the first: “If there had been…a law in Arizona that required just one hour of safety training before a handgun could be purchased, Jared Loughner would never have acquired the Glock.”

Five possibilities deal with public attitudes and policy, including number three: “If more listeners realized that partisan talk radio is not a genuine public policy forum but a money-oriented business designed explicitly to attract an audience through gross exaggerations and invented grievances, elected leaders would not be so easily vilified and thought of as subhuman.”

The final “if” clause calls attention to the need to provide adequate treatment of people with pathologies: “if the state of Arizona could adequately fund its infrastructure for taking care of the mentally ill instead of pushing that basic public responsibility onto untrained private citizens, there would be a diminished likelihood that Loughner and unknown others like him could cause such immense damage and misery to innocent people.”

Zoellner closes with the hope that Arizona will take up these issues that “transcend politics” and become an example to the nation. Now that Newtown has reactivated the nation, it’s time for all of us to enter into the discussion.

And churches, I believe, should be one of the venues for the conversation.


How many miles is enough?

December 21, 2012

Java House38 degrees on its way to 40. Steady rain all day. Yet, at 11:00 a.m. the guy on the bright yellow Waterford bike had already done 50 miles. After warming up a little, he was heading home, another 25 miles.

And there I was, aggressive cyclist (I like to think), sitting in Java House writing the introduction to my new book.

In the last ten days of this year, he hopes to cycle another 200 miles, which would bring him to his goal for 2012—12,500 miles. Even if he succeeds, he’ll still fall short of someone else in his club by 1,000 miles.

Totals like this make my 3,000 miles for the year (generously estimated) seem like nothing. Of course, this guy is a decade younger than I am. He’s only 70.

One reason for his high mileage, he told me, is that he rides randonneurs and ultra-marathon events: cross-state rides, long courses through the Alaskan wilderness and deserts in the Southwest, cycling day and night regardless of weather and with no time out for sleep.

The closest I’ve come to riding this way was BAM—Bicycle Across Missouri—St. Louis to Kansas City and back again on Labor Day weekend when I was only 55. Since I took time out to sleep a couple of hours each night, it took me all of 58 hours to cover the 540-mile course. The fast ones did it in fewer than 40.

“Some people say I’m compulsive about my cycling,” he volunteered. Maybe he’s right.

It’s clear that I’m not going to do randonneur rides and ultra-marathons. This conversation on a cold, rainy day, however, does prompt me to set some goals for 2013. Here’s a list of possibilities.

1)    Buy a new bike computer and track my mileage carefully.

2)    Commit myself to an average of 60-75 miles per week of ordinary cycling.

3)    Do my annual PAC Tour week (500 miles) and at least one additional multi-day trip of similar length.

4)    Do four century rides, beginning with Ride Around Clark County the first weekend of May.

5)    Continue my tradition of 50 miles near New Year’s Day, an annual round trip from Vancouver to Eugene, a one way Seattle-Vancouver ride, and a birthday ride of a mile per year of life.

Even with this pattern, I’ll still do less than half the distance of my Java House acquaintance. But I’ve got books to read, this blog to write, and the book I’m working on to finish.

Reason or excuse? You decide.


When terrible things happen, what can church people believe and do?

December 17, 2012

When terrible things happen, three questions force themselves to the surface: What can we believe? What’s happening to America? What we can do to make things safer?

Two books are helping me find answers. The Predicament of Belief by Phillip Clayton and Steven Knapp provides a way to understand God that can be affirmed by people who also accept scientific explanations of reality and the importance of morally adequate interpretations of reality.

A Safeway in Arizona by Tom Zoellner provides a detailed description of the pathology of the man who shot Gabrielle Giffords and shows how the destructive behavior patterns of people like that man are influenced by the public discourse of the time.

A recent column by Nicholas Kristof suggests ideas that can shape evidence-based discussions of public safety with respect to the use of firearms. I plan to give attention to these three topics starters in later posts. Before turning to these topics individually, however, I want to summarize my position as I begin this series.

Theology: I stand firmly in the Christian tradition, as represented today in liberal Protestant churches. I am committed to a scientific worldview and, at the same time, believe that praying is an intelligent activity that makes a difference. I am coming to believe in a new way that it is possible to conceive of a continuing life with God beyond this life which we now live.

Life in America: I am deeply committed to the basic structures of life in the United States that from the beginning have insisted upon liberty and equality and upon the intertwining of personal and public happiness. At the same time, I recognize that our nation’s history includes a darker narrative that affects how people think and act. In order to make life good for any one of us, we have to find ways of overcoming the pathologies both of individuals and of the larger community.

Issues of public safety: For the most part, I agree with our system of regulations and mandated procedures that provide a relative degree of confidence in the safety of the food supply, honesty of banking procedures, safety of automobiles, age-related criteria for driving, and other matters of this kind. The discussion about the availability and use of lethal weapons, especially firearms, properly begins at this level. The discussion needs to be fact based, taking into account the actual record of how things are working in other parts of the western world.

With this summary in mind, I commend a column by Charles Howard, University Chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania. He discusses his own approach to prayer, which includes private fasting as a way of intensifying his own participation in this spiritual exercise.

Chaplain Howard believes, as I do, that prayer makes a difference in how the world works. Here I am quoting only the lead sentences of the four topics for which he is praying during the next 27 days (one day for each person killed at Newtown). By clicking on Charles Howard, you can access his full column.

  1. I am fasting and praying that our nation would have breakthrough in our long painful journey with gun violence. Especially that our leaders would have the courage to introduce, pass, and fix the gun laws of our nation, states, and cities.
  2. I am fasting and praying that the individuals in my life who own guns in their homes (especially for protection) would get rid of them safely.
  3. I am fasting and praying that the painful situations surrounding and leading up to gun violence would be addressed.
  4. And finally I am fasting and praying that our hearts would be deeply touched by and inspired by the brave and amazing teachers who protected their students.

I am especially sensitive to the predicament of pastors of churches. My limited conversation with church-going friends makes me aware of the intensity of feeling about many political topics and especially those that revolve around revolvers, rifles, and other lethal firearms.

At a time like this, it is especially important that church members who care about personal liberty and public happiness take the lead in sponsoring constructive conversations among people of faith.


Senior cyclists: slowing down the pace of slowing down

December 15, 2012

Wright Fitness 

Even with low gears designed for an old man, I’m finding the climb up Germantown Road more than I can manage. It’s been getting worse since I became an octogenarian a year ago.

Although I don’t like what’s happening, my mood is improving since I started reading Vonda Wright, MD, MS, who is director of PRIMA (Performance and Research Initiative for Master Athletes) at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Wright’s understanding of the impact of aging on athletic performance draws upon a study of 2,599 senior athletes who were performing in the 2001 Senior Olympics in New Orleans.

Admittedly, the people whose performances were analyzed were atypical of all Americans in that age range; they were mostly white, well educated, and largely free from “comorbidities” such as heart trouble and diabetes. Since I fit within this sample, Wright’s analysis is immediately germane to me and other older, strong cyclists whom I know.

The study indicates that for the entire group studied performance ability gradually declines from age 50 until about age 70. At age 75, however, the rate of decline takes a sharp turn upward and continues on that trajectory through age 85. This study did not provide data for people past that age.

The charts and tables that Wright includes in her essay (published in 2008) provide detail that is pertinent to senior cyclists. Runners who do the 1,000 meter distance show the uptick at age 75, but runners doing shorter distances make the upward turn a few years earlier. Apparently, the fast-twitch muscles used in sprints are less resistant to aging than the slow-twitch muscles used in distance events (including road cycling).

The study compares performance characteristics of senior athletes with people of the same age in the general population and shows that the pattern is similar across the entire spectrum. The rate of decline accelerates at about the same age. It is encouraging to note, however, that athletes who keep up their patterns of activity decline more slowly than others.

That fact alone makes me want to stay with my hard core cycling even if I have to walk up the steeper portions of Germantown Road.

It’s easier to accept the slow down that comes with aging when we understand why it happens. Here Wright’s medical training provides some of the information we need.

Loss of muscle strength: As we age, we experience a gradual loss of lean muscle and a corresponding infiltration of fat into muscle tissue. Fast-twitch muscles are more susceptible than slow-twitch.

Wright cites literature which states that aerobic exercise by itself does not prevent this change. This helps me understand why my legs don’t produce the power they used to when I continue to ride lots of miles at a fast pace and with lots of push.

All of the studies indicate, however, that strength training—weight lifting—can reverse this tendency. With the right program of weight training, older adults can regain much of the lost lean muscle mass and recover a muscle composition similar to that of younger people.

Loss of endurance capacity: Endurance, Wright points out, is dependent upon the body’s ability to process oxygen and maintain a high threshold for lactate buildup. Both are related to heart rate, cardiac output, and tissue oxygen uptake.

In her 2009 book, Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age (written with the assistance of Ruth Winter, MS), Wright provides a concise explanation of how the heart changes as we age. She also cites studies indicating that the rate of decline is significantly reduced by regular, aggressive exercise.

“Note that the age-predicted heart rate maximum decreased one beat per year after the age of 10. Each year we age, our hearts are capable of beating less quickly. This is due to a slower time of contraction and a longer rest between beats.”

This hard fact is ameliorated by evidence that “intense endurance exercise, performed through one’s life span, has been found to cut the decline in VO2 max in half.” Inevitably, our hearts gradually slow down, but with the right kind of exercise program, their performance ability declines less rapidly.

Much of Wright’s book is devoted to a program she calls FACE: Flexibility, Aerobic exercise, Carrying a load, Equilibrium. She provides instructions for exercises and activities that can be done at home or in hotel rooms, wherever people find themselves. She is persuaded that all older people can stay fit longer than most people do.

I’m never going to be young again, but with Wright’s help I may be able, come spring, to ride all the way up Germantown Road.

Best of all, walking nary a step!

(The sturdy referred to above is “Age-Related Rates of Decline in Performance Among Elite Senior Athletes,” by Vonda J. Wright, MD, and Brett C. Perricelli, MD, published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 36.3 (March 2008), 443-450. Fitness After 40 is published by American Management Association, 2009.)

Stories that change the world

December 10, 2012

Crossan - ParableEarly in his academic career, John Dominic Crossan developed an interest in parables, which resulted in a book, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (published in 1973).

Four decades later, he continues these studies in The Power of Parable ((New York: HarperOne, 2012) in which he uses parable as the primary method for understanding the content and character of Jesus’s message. He then employs this literary form to develop master narratives for the four gospel accounts and inspire his critique of the ways that the gospel writers reshaped Jesus’s message in response to theological and political challenges they were encountering.

 Most of this review consists of a précis of Crossan’s book that I have prepared in order to understand and remember his thesis and the way he develops it. Before offering this personal summary, however, I want to indicate my general response to the book. Crossan shows how fiction and fact often are woven together, sometimes wittingly and often unwittingly, so that they can serve as metaphorical narratives.

Crossan’s analysis of one set of writings suggests a way to recognize a similar process in many other writings in academic history, secular literature, and religious literature. Although Crossan believes that the historicity of narratives is an important issue to be settled, he makes it possible for readers to suspend temporarily the need for historical validation of narratives in order to recognize their parabolic functions.
Not only does this approach help Christians understand the character and power of their religious tradition, but it also provides a way to understand literature that is outside of their experience, such as the Qur’an and Book of Mormon. To read more, click Crossan on Parables.