This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Friday, November 25, 2011

Basing Policy on Bad Movie Plots

            In two decades of working for a daily newspaper, I can tell you without checking how many stories we ran during that time about someone in our community who used a gun to defend himself and his family in his house. Exactly one.
            Over that same period we ran quite a few stories about people who shot spouses, family members, fellow card players, innocent bystanders and themselves with a gun. There were so many of those I couldn’t give you an exact number.
            So now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that there is an individual right to own a gun, by all means go ahead and buy one if you want. It may make you feel better and more secure, and good for you if it does. But please try not to forget the statistical reality: Having a gun for protection is a comforting illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
            There’s an obvious reason that guns are so rarely used in self-defense, and no one ever seems to mention it. Simply put, any villain that you need a gun to deal with isn’t likely to give you a chance to use it. Whether he’s breaking into your house or leaping from a dark alley to mug you, he’s going to try to get the drop on you.
            Of course you may be lucky and get enough advance warning to draw your weapon in time. Long odds, but it does happen. You still have to be a better shooter than the bad guy, and you have to be sure you’re really getting the bad guy. One of the stories I wrote for the paper had to do with a kid under the age of 10 who saw a burglar outside, grabbed a gun that was in the house and plugged the intruder — who turned out to be a member of the household who had, fatally as it turned out, lost his key and was looking for another way in on a dark and fateful night.
            In the national security realm, there’s a similarly ogical fallacy involving torture. How many times have you heard someone say, arguing against the non-torture crowd, what if you’d captured a terrorist who knew where a nuclear device was about to be detonated in a major city. Wouldn’t torturing that terrorist to get the information be morally acceptable in the name of saving millions of innocents?
            Perhaps, with grave reservations, it would in theory. But how would such a situation plausibly arise in the real world? To know, with the certainty the situation would require, that the person in custody is a terrorist and is involved in a nuclear bomb plot, you would have to have been tracking that individual and his associates for some time. Any competent police or intelligence agency would round them all up the minute a nuclear plot was suspected, not let them all get away except for the poor wretch headed for the rack.
            And even supposing the other conspirators slipped through the dragnet, they would have to know that their missing comrade might be compromising the mission. He, for his part, might figure that all he has to do is send his interrogators to the wrong place once, giving his people a chance to detonate the bomb. The odds that he’d spill the details of the plot in time for authorities to stop the bombers and save millions are not good. In fact, they’re about as good as the odds that having a gun in your house will some day protect you against a criminal.