The Real Problem Is…

The time to mourn will continue, but the cries to fix the problem that took the lives of 20 children in Newtown can no longer be ignored.  At a memorial service last night, President Obama, who appeared to be sincere in his resolve to  do something about mass killings after the fourth in his first term, said:

“Because what choice do we have?” he added. “We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage? That the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

And so the gauntlet is thrown down. Can the nation capable of putting a man on the moon because a president challenged us to do so find a way to prevent another Newtown?

A recurring answer from many in response to crises is to blindly leap to simplistic, overarching “solutions” to whatever they perceive as being the “real problem.”  Sometimes the “real problem” is the system is corrupt and irreparably broken. Sometimes the “real problem” is that we have dismantled the safety net for the mentally ill. Sometimes the real problem is that we fail to honor the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. 

The “real problem” tends to reflect whatever priority we personally hold, and we call it the “real problem” because people who hold a different priority want to solve the wrong problem. It’s wrong because it’s not ours, and it’s not ours because it’s not the one that conforms to our priority.  As with all beliefs, it’s a matter of chosen faith. The solution consistent with our faith is the one we believe will solve the real problem, and therefore the solution we support. And anyone who believes otherwise is wrong.

For those of us who have neither the authority to solve grand problems, nor the responsibility should our solutions be wrong, it’s easy to opine. The best part is that if the powerful don’t heed our opinion, we can smugly say, “See? I was right.”  The illogic of false choices doesn’t change this smugness. 

As much as anyone, I wish I had a cure for the death of these babies, and the death of any child.  I wish I could prevent many horrible things from happening, as do so many others. But cures don’t come easy, and don’t come cheap.  At this moment, appeals to emotion are very likely to swing opinion, as emotions are raw. Yet any fix will be around long after the emotion has waned, and we will live with the fix every day when nothing horrible happens. 

While the day after the shootings was not the time to think, now is.  While it is probably too early, we no longer have the luxury of feeling now that the gauntlet has been thrown.

The primary positions are already laid out.  There is gun control.  There is our mental health system. There is a stronger bubble around our children. There is greater school security. And there are any variety of variations and combinations of these ideas. Many have already laid claim to their positions, and will spend the rest of the discussion arguing why theirs fixes the “real problem.”

One line from President Obama’s speech at the memorial last night stands out in my mind.


Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

No one wants to respond in the affirmative.  No one wants to say that history has shown that we cannot eliminate tragedy from our world, as someone bent on engaging in horrible acts will find a way to do so.  It’s defeatist. It’s uncaring. It’s unacceptable.

Yet, it might be the case, and all the arguing over what is the “real problem” may be just so much noise. Every solution has consequences, and the weighing of these consequences can’t be obscured by the emotion of the moment.  There are cures worse than the disease. 

Scientists seeking a cure for cancer don’t search for a solution that will eradicate the disease. They search for tiny bites of the solution. They search for a means of delivering a toxin to an errant cell that causes one obscure form of cancerous growth.  Their search has taught them that there is no “real problem,” but a million problems, all of which need to be recognized to find the cure. And then, they need to balance the harm of each bit of the solution with the benefit, so as not to cure the disease by killing the afflicted in the process.

Most of our big problems require us to think much longer, much harder, much smaller, than we like to do. We want to proclaim that there is one big solution that will fix the “real problem.”  It’s nonsensical.  Worse yet, it leads us to argue about nonsense, and while doing so, ignore the small things that can be done to ameliorate tiny bits of the problem without terminal consequences to the host.

Don’t rush to your favorite priority to proclaim it the right solution, or the wrong solution, to the “real problem.” Don’t rush to join a team in this fight and defend your faith to the death.  If there are answers, they will require thought.  And it may be that there are no solutions to the “real problem,” that the answer to President Obama’s question is that tragedy is the price of freedom.  But that doesn’t mean we cannot strive to find answers that will prevent as many tragedies as possible, even if we can’t stop them all.

39 comments on “The Real Problem Is…

  1. Bill P.

    “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom? …”

    But B, (‘BB’?) it happened in a gun-free school zone. How is that possible?

  2. Bruce Coulson

    “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

    Wrong question. Tragedy is a part of life; it started when we became self-aware and demanded an answer to the question ‘Why?’ If the goal is to prevent any and all bad things from happening to people, then the battle is lost from the start.

    Are there ways that the (relative) frequency of the recent events can be reduced? Possibly; and certainly ideas on how to do so should be explored. But implying that such events are a ‘price of freedom’ is wrong. Because it suggests that if we give up more freedoms, we can finally be safe from all ills, all tregedies; that our lives will be safe and secure.

    But somehow, no matter how much freedom a people is prepared to surrender, they never become safe.

  3. Brett Middleton

    Government schools, compulsory attendance, zero tolerance, metal detectors, victim-disarmament laws and policies, mandatory drugging of kids … how exactly is our system of child-prisons properly described as “freedom?” Shouldn’t we answer that question before asking what price we’re prepared to pay for it? And is the guy who sent out a drone to kill a 16-year-old American citizen the right guy to be either asking or answering the question?

  4. Sgt. Schultz

    Interesting. So your response is “The real problem is…” and you see no irony whatsoever. By the way, it would have been easier to just quote Ben Franklin, who said it better and in fewer words.

  5. Sgt. Schultz

    Also, interesting. So you saw this post as an invitation to reveal your favorite flavor of psychosis.

  6. RP

    You know, before this tragedy the Atlantic recently ran a very thought-provoking article on how to deal with gun control. The conclusion was that while we continue to try to ban “assault” weapons, the fact remains that we will never get rid of the millions of guns that are out there, and so part of the answer (which the author only reluctantly came to) should be considering permitting more people to carry concealed weapons (after a rigorous screening process); and the article included examples of citizens who had stopped shooters. I don’t know what the answer is, but I was struck by the article’s analytical, non-rhetorical approach to the issue, and I think we have to look at things analytically and empirically to find the best mix of solutions. The worst, I think, is watching pundits like Piers Morgan argue solely from an emotional point of view (e.g., gun advocates have “blood on their hands”, he will say) and yell at anyone who disagrees. The fact remains that people in rural parts of the country view gun bans with more suspicion than urban areas; they don’t want people like Mayor Bloomberg lecturing them. So we have to approach it cool-headed. Have Australia’s bans worked? (Gun people say no, that the numbers are misleading; but let’s check out the numbers scientifically) Will letting more people “conceal-carry” work? Gun-control advocates freak out at the suggestion; but what do the numbers of past instances say? We do these type of analyses all the time in other areas, such as auto safety.

  7. John Neff

    The real problem is that it is not a rational process. Fear is a great motivator and they are afraid we will take away their guns. I don’t think anyone knows how many privately owned firearms there are but it has to be more than 200 million. It is not practical or even necessary to take away peoples guns.

    You need a large magazine it the other side can shoot back. How many people have legitimate reason to be in a situation when the other side can shoot back?

  8. Bruce Coulson

    The problem with the Franklin quote (which I agree with), is that somehow the word ‘essential’ always gets translated to ‘my liberties are essential; yours, however, can be sacrificed for the greater good’.

    And the real problem is that we (as human beings) don’t want to accept that there may not be an answer to a problem. Or that the cost of solving the problem may be higher than anyone truly wants to pay.

  9. Wyrd

    @Sgt. Schultz

    Yeah, it does seem like Brett’s just doing his own personal “The real problem is…” to priority thing.

  10. SHG

    You should see some of the batshit crazy comments I tossed. This post has caused me enormous regret, having accomplished exactly the opposite of what I hoped it would. Notably, most are non-lawyers who can’t miss an opportunity to grind whatever absurd ax they have. It makes me want to shut down comments altogether.

  11. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    If I may, I’ll come at this with only lonely words in the form of an enigma/question/paradox/thought – whatever the right way to describe it may be. And also prefaced with the fact that I am not a lawyer (though I do often dream of playing one on T.V.) . . .

    It is a dilemma that I call “Einstein’s Next Move??™ . . .”

    Imagine that you are playing a game of chess against an opponent. The moves both of you have taken to this point have resulted in the unfortunate situation which, as a result of your opponent’s last move, is called checkmate . . .

    At that exact moment, Albert Einstein enters the room. You, not ever wanting to accept defeat in any form in your life, ask your close friend, who you affectionately refer to as “The Stein-Meister™”, to sit in your chair and continue the game on your behalf . . .

    So the question(s) I’ll pose to the peanut gallery is(are) this(these): What is “The Stein-Meister’s™” next move and when and how does it occur?? . . .

    I’ve thought a lot about a set of potential answers and believe I have quite the handle on them, though I’m now thinking that revealing such answers too quickly is not as helpful as first pondering it some more myself for awhile longer . . .

  12. SHG

    One of my college roommates was a math major. He told me about a discussion in one of his classes. A guy buys a barometer from Sears, guaranteed to work.  He brings it home to his lovely bungalow on the seashore, but it fails to function properly. He returns to Sears and explains the problem, that the barometer won’t work properly in his lovely bungalow on the seashore. 

    The Sears fellow listens sympathetically, and tells the fellow to wait there a few minutes. He walks away and speaks to another man, who immediately leaves the store.  He tells the customer that his problem with the barometer not functioning properly in his home is solved. When the customer arrives home, his lovely bungalow on the seashore has been blown up, totally destroyed, leaving him homeless. 

    He no longer has a barometer that won’t work properly in his lovely bungalow on the seashore. Problem solved.

  13. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    So what I think you’re trying to say, Greenfield, is that that “The Stein-Meister’s™” next moves are to use a barometer as a rectal thermometer and then blowup the room — the game, his/my opponent included, and G-d forbid, me too?? . . .

    Do I intuit your answer correctly, or am I reading too much into it?? . . .

  14. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Actually, when I first read your responsive allegory, it was all clear to me. Then I started thinking about it some more (it really hurts when I do that), and I became all confused about everything!!

    And now I realize why – my final sentence contained a compound question while you replied with only a “yes” answer. What I really needed from you, counselor, was a proper objection. But what I got instead was a trip down the rabbit whole.

    You see, my initial reaction to your response was that I was correct, needing only to adjust my understanding by changing some small details and making those details a lot less vivid. But then, I said to myself, “Self, what if SHG was answering that I wasn’t reading his story correctly?? That to be accurate, I actually needed to add MORE vivid detail to my interpretation to capture his essence??” Mind. was. then. blown. . .
    .

  15. Adam

    Was it subtle authorial intent that the only “the real problem” not in quotations is “Sometimes the real problem is that we fail to honor the constitutional right to keep and bear arms?” Or simply an error?

  16. Brett Middleton

    I fully understand that there is not a simple, single “real problem” at which to point. I fully understand that there may not even be a workable answer to a complex, multi-faceted problem.

    However, if there is an answer, we will never find it if we start the process by ruling out whole areas of questioning. Even a batshit-crazy question might point our inquiry in a fruitful direction if it causes us to re-evaluate fundamental assumptions that are making us blind to the solution.

  17. SHG

    Then you need to re-evaluate your original comment. When you use language like “child-prisons,” it doesn’t invite re-evaluation of anything. Should assumptions about schools be open to question? Sure. Why not? But that closes discussion and is so overloaded with bias as to foreclose discussion.

    So while your second comment reflects the point, your first did just the opposite.

  18. Nigel Declan

    ‘Many have already laid claim to their positions, and will spend the rest of the discussion arguing why theirs fixes the “real problem”‘

    It is this sentence that truly underlines the sense of despair I feel about the about the potential for this tragedy to somehow facilitate meaningful discussion and analysis of the true nature of the problem and what solutions, if any, there may be. My greatest fear is that nothing will change and that this process of ideological retrenchment will continue until we confront another event like this, though I pray that I am wrong about this.

  19. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Are you stipulating right here, on this public forum — the blawg Simple Justice — that you have Intentionally Inflected Emotional Distress upon me — better known as the common law tort of Outrage (my favorite tort, BTW; I love the label OUTRAGE)?? If so, that’s truly outrageous and thus, I’m suitably outraged . . .
    .

  20. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    The worst elementary school terror incident in U.S. history took place in Michigan, in 1927. The murder count?? 38 children dead at the school, plus two teachers, and four other adults.

    A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, killing more people, including the terrorist. The action taken by the government afterward to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again?? None . . .

    To this day, even with the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, there has not been another elementary school terror event that comes even close to its swath of destruction and death . . .

    Three points to make: 1) terrible stuff has always happened; 2) doing nothing afterward is sometimes an acceptable response to the risk presented; and 3) knee-jerk reactions and quick legislative fixes aren’t likely to provide any real benefits and may, based on the law of unintended consequences, actually make things worse in ways we cannot yet predict . . .
    .

  21. Shawn McManus

    I’m sorry that this isn’t directly related to the post, Scott, but I have to ask…

    Is it too much to expect America’s elected leaders to default to “more freedom” to solve problems than look for ways to curtail it to achieve the same ends?

    RP’s point about examining data scientifically is a great start. I understand that’s hard to do when emotions run high. But when they do, why can’t “greater freedom” be synonymous with “erring to the side of caution.”

  22. SHG

    Hey Shawn. Nice to have you back. It’s been a while.

    If we’re going to try to think something through to find a solution that has eluded us since the beginning of time, I would think that it would be best to have no default, but rather have everything on the table. The only thing untouchable would be the fundamental rules of the game, those being the Constitution in our world.  In a sense, it accomplished the same thing, if one understands the Constitution to protect the freedom of the People from government.

    The problem, as you know, is that the People can be just as much a threat to freedom as the government. For whatever reason, the knee-jerk reaction to tragedy has always been curtailment of freedom, the belief that greater control over individuals will save us from ourselves. Since it’s never worked before, maybe you’re right that we need to change that mind-set. Or maybe it’s just another wrong answer along the spectrum of wrong answers.

  23. John

    Well my bat-crazy post got pitched, but I’ll try again.

    Ok the big problem is

    [Ed, Note: And the balance of this comment gets tossed as well, and you've been banned from commenting here.]

  24. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Again, I’m OUTRAGED at your complete lack of cooperation. I want sanctions!! Lots of sanctions!!! . . . You have now driven my self-esteem to an all-time low . . . lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon wheel rut . . .
    .

  25. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    Hey, I knew Scrivener. Scrivener was a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no scrivener . . .

    BTW — why is Scrivener always getting blamed for everything?? Is it because he isn’t around to defend himself?? . . .

  26. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    To be totally honest, Scrivener was a real asshat who engaged in jackassery of all sorts — let’s not kid ourselves about that, but still . . .

  27. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Harsh?? Hardly. You are making false assumptions and leaping to wrong conclusions . . .

    It is apparent you, sir, are not a textualist, like that Scalia dude and me. So let’s break it down properly, why don’t we?? . . .

    It was indeed a fact — I did know Scrivener; we fought in ‘Nam together. It is also a fact that he was my friend; all my friends are like him, to a large or small degree. And finally, I was actually paying you, Greenfield, a compliment of sorts by stating you’re no Scrivener — meaning you don’t seem quite the asshat that I knew Scrivener to be; not that there’s anything wrong with being an asshat. Like I said, some of my best friends are big asshats . . .
    .

  28. Todd E.

    What I’ve found myself struggling with the most in the wake of this event (and with others in the last decade) is our inability as a population to be able to converse about the issue.

    You’ve commented that you’ve really come to regret this post, because people have come out of the woodwork to grind axes, none of whom really want to address your point, but instead want to prove it, and that seems to be the case across all forms of media.

    Is it even possible to begin to reclaim (if we ever actually had it) the ability to converse in a way which recognizes both our emotions and attempts at rationality, and deals with them functionally? We can’t be computers about it, but we should be able, surely, to find the maturity to listen, and to actually respond to what each other says, rather than what we want each other to say…

  29. SHG


    Is it even possible to begin to reclaim (if we ever actually had it) the ability to converse in a way which recognizes both our emotions and attempts at rationality, and deals with them functionally?

    Emotions, no, but no one was ever able to functionally deal with emotions.  By definition, they’re ours and require neither explanation nor compromise.

    Rationality, yes, but there aren’t too many people (as demonstrated by the reaction to this post) capable of rational thought, even though they are absolutely certain that whatever happens in their heads is totally rational. Most people confuse reason and emotion, and waste time arguing their emotion.

    Can it change? I dunno. It didn’t work here.

  30. Shawn McManus

    Thanks, Scott. I try to make a point to read all of the posts but don’t always and less often have anything relevant to add.

    If I were to approach the problem from an engineering point of view, I would first have to determine what “the real problem is.” Instead of focusing on a singular problem though, I’d look at the goals to accomplish and parameters within to work.

    In this case, I think that the answers might not be wrong, per se, but most in attaining the overall solution would seem irrelevant to “the real solution.” For example, make school uniforms mandatory (at the local level of course). It might not seem like much – because it isn’t – but it doesn’t impinge on freedom and is perhaps a small step toward attaining a massive goal.

    The cancer analogy was spot on.

  31. SHG

    If only people were more like materials, and calculations were reliable.  Thanks, Shawn. I miss your comments.

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