When explanation fails

After Jonesboro, everyone feels the need to understand but, says John Forrester, we never will
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"PLEASE, pray for us," said a mother of a child at the Jonesboro school where four children and a teacher were shot dead on Tuesday by two boys from the school. One's heart goes out to the people of the town. And those who are good at praying should do so. But what else should we do?

Bill Clinton has set up an inquiry to determine if any lessons about violence in schools can be learnt. The inquiry will be conducted by those professionally involved with the police, with children, with education, with medical groups concerned at the increase in gun crime. The experts will, as we have grown to expect on such occasions, gather.

The response in Britain has been sympathetic yet predictable. We are still living close to our memories of Dunblane. Many people perceive the similarity between the events - children mown down by sophisticated modern weapons - and, not always without a hint of sanctimoniousness, convert the British response to Dunblane into recommendations to the Americans. Instead of experts investigating, they imply, the British parliament acted to outlaw all handguns.

What is striking about our responses is how quick-fire they are. Even before experts have offered their more considered and researched opinions, everyone has their own instant diagnosis and solution: gun culture; working parents and a lack of communication between children and adults; the absence of biological fathers as role models for their sons; violence at home; violence in the media (the magic word "video" always comes up here); a crisis of cultural identity in the southern states of the US, where the word "militia" may evoke the Yankees as well as the British. Spree culture - whether it's shopping malls or murder in the schoolyard.

And when the experts chime in, the opinions get more recondite and sometimes more extreme. Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in Sacramento, who has conducted more than 6,000 evaluations of adult and juvenile criminals for 15 northern California counties, postulates "quirks of genetics", which in some young people have "provoked a taste for thrills and danger". Stanton Samenow, an Alexandria psychologist who works with teenagers and adults in the criminal justice system and who wrote Before It's Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble and What Parents Can Do About It, reflects: "I myself have seen youngsters who, for lack of a better term, I would call incipient sociopaths ... In my great-grandfather's day, everyone would have agreed, 'This boy was born to hang'. Such human beings just exist. We're just fooling ourselves if we don't admit that."

So it may not be long before an expert or a protest group will call for the identification of the gene that produces the thirst for thrills and dangers, and another expert or group campaigns for the introduction of the death penalty for children.

It is also a salient feature of the response to the Jonesboro school killings that, while President Clinton calls for experts to offer advice to prevent a repetition of an armed juvenile militia going on the rampage, his Attorney General is trying to twist the law to put the children on trial as adults - and no doubt sentence them as adults. The reflex vindictiveness of many politicians and commentators is alarming in its passion and its lack of moral reflection.

One of the more surreal aftermaths of such a starkly horrible event is that those who are most active in campaigns against such violence are also those most likely to tell us that this is not a rare and horrible moment, but an everyday part of modern American life. Some US schoolchildren will shrug their shoulders and say that they have grown used to everyday violence in their schools, whether of gun, gang or knife. But there are experts who tell us that there is no evidence that violence has been increasing in American schools - if anything, the trend over the last few years has been downwards. While 5,280 children under the age of 19 died in 1995 from firearm injuries - a vast increase on figures from the mid-1980s - juvenile homicide arrests in the US have decreased by 30 per cent in the period between 1994 and 1996.

With anything remotely like British or Australian legislation against handguns a political and cultural impossibility, American experts will consider other courses of action: metal detectors in schools; stricter surveillance by school police of those who enter and leave the premises; anti-gun classes modelled on the anti-drugs classes that form a regular part of the school curriculum. The father of one of the murdered children is taking out a law suit against the gun manufacturers, with the aim of imposing a new safety mechanism - a trigger-lock - on guns sold. To British eyes, this appears a piece of optimistic fine tuning of a system that is inherently biased towards the person who holds the gun, as opposed to those at whom the guns are trained.

In fact, when we find our moral consciousness rivetted by these stories, when we find ourselves involuntarily turning them into the moral fables of our time, we are prey to two opposing explanatory imperatives. From one side, the experts call on us to place this in the wider context - of murders, of juvenile murders, of gun crime, of violence in schools, of copycat killings. They ask us to see these events in the venerable sociological sense - as part of the statistical laws that describe our collective moral lives.

In the early 19th century, the discovery by the first statisticians that the suicide rate, the crime rate and the marriage rate were constant year on year was as profound a blow to the doctrine of free will and individual moral responsibility as anything the Darwinians were later to claim about our continuity with the animal order. Doesn't the fact that roughly the same number of murders or suicides take place every year show that moral choice and individual rational action is a mirage? We are familiar with this mode of apprehension of the world and rely on it; we know and acquiesce in the actuarial calculation, no matter how horrifying, whereby so many social facts - from the statistical regularities governing the murder of young children to the differential rates of car theft in Bolton and Bristol - are given in advance.

The opposing explanatory imperative is the drive to particularise. When an event is assumed to be rare, the case is plumbed for its everyday detail, which will reveal the moral lesson hidden in the folds of its heart-rending detail. Of course, the more detail we are given, the more we are able to empathise and shiver at the malevolence of fortune; and the more we secretly hope that we will find the one fact or set of facts that makes this event completely distinctive and sets it off from all other similar cases.

Having satisfied our thirst for the details that particularise, it is the analogies drawn with other similar events which frame discussion. In Britain, Dunblane and the Bulger case are the immediate points of triangulation as we grope towards locating the events in our moral universe. But our analogies do not always serve us well. The British response focusing on gun culture is not sufficient to answer the questions posed by focusing on the analogy between the Jonesboro murders and the Bulger case (where guns were not a feature).

Our moral consciousness is much more akin to our legal consciousness than it is to our scientific one. Large swathes of science are now statistical in character, self-consciously refusing recognition of the individual case as misleading and "anecdotal", hardly deserving the name "knowledge". What happens when a rare and shocking event impinges on us, like the meteorite that changed the climate of the earth and killed off the dinosaurs, is that we seek reasons and causes beyond the immediate facts, when such causes may not be of the right sort to satisfy our need for moral justice and emotional catharsis.

The desire to tame and change these singular events tempts us to bemoan the fact that there is never enough properly funded institutional knowledge. But I may not be alone in fearing that some forms of knowledge and action may be entirely inappropriate and even counter- productive when we attempt to deal with such rare and unusual events.

The moral fable that comes to my mind is Michel Foucault's description of a dangerous individual in the early 19th century - a woman who killed and cut up her child and cooked her up as soup. The sign of her madness was that she insisted that, if she were released from prison, she would do it again. Mad not bad, the authorities concluded, and declined to execute her. Eventually she was released from prison, became pregnant, gave birth - and murdered her child to make another soup.

Our stricken moral consciousness often demands an easy answer. But perhaps we should take heed of the parent who asked us to pray.

John Forrester is Reader in the history and philosophy of the sciences at Cambridge University.