Is Mass Murder On The Rise?

family cries after colorado shooting

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“No matter how you define it, mass murder is neither an American nor a modern phenomenon. Cases spreading across history depict acts of mass murder. In recent times, however, mass murder seems to be on the increase — or is it? It may seem that such crimes have escalated because of the manner in which they are currently detected and reported.”Those words ring true today, but were written 20 years ago. So we have to ask, are we living in a special time where these types of public mass murders are on the rise? Or does every generation feel this same way?

Criminologist James Alan Fox, of Northeastern University, told CNN in April that there hasn’t more of these crimes recently:

“Overall in this country, there is an average of 10 to 20 murders across campuses in any given year,” he said. “Compare that to over 1,000 suicides and about 1,500 deaths from binge drinking and drug overdoses.” 

So while they are sad when they occur, school shootings are “very few and far between, and very unpredictable,” Fox said. This suggests that authorities can do greater good by focusing on the prevention of suicide and substance abuse than trying to guard against a campus killer.

In an article published in Psychology Today in 2009, Joshua Foster, a professor of social psychology and blogger, examines why we think mass murders of this type happen more than in earlier times — and says it could be because of our memories. When we try to determine how likely something is, there is often little reliable and available data to base it on.

But, he writes, “there is one piece of evidence that you always have access to: your memory. Specifically, how easily can you recall previous incidents of the event in question? The easier time we have recalling prior incidents, the greater probability the event has of occurring — at least as far as our minds are concerned.”

While we KNOW this isn’t true, it doesn’t stop most people’s minds from drawing the conclusion that something like mass murders must be on the rise, if there are several fresh in your memory. “It is likely that people will become, at least for a time, more fearful that they or someone they know will be the victims of the next shooting incident,” Foster writes. 

So, what’s the problem with that? It distracts us from everyday, mundane dangers. After 9/11, many people refused to fly, instead taking to the roads, even though car accidents kill thousands of times more people than planes do.

The take-home message of all of this is that we should be a lot less afraid of many of the things that scare us. Yes, terrible things such as plane crashes, terrorism, and mass murder do happen. Likely each of these things will happen several more times before the year is finished. But the good news is that the chances that any of us will be affected by any of these events are so remote that we can safely relax and not worry about them. To the extent that we do try to prevent scary things from happening, we should put forth more effort to prevent real dangers like car accidents, heart attacks, and diabetes. Interestingly, many of the real dangers are things that we have a lot of control over (unlike mass murder). Therefore, to the extent that we try to prevent them, we might actually improve our quality of life.

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