Tragedies and Technical Solutions – Homicide in Newtown to Rape in New Delhi

In 1968, Science published an article by Garrett Hardin which popularized the term ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. There is very little in Hardin’s article that I find useful or worthy – in fact I think of it as reactionary, regressive, and wrong-headed.  However it did bring into prominence the notion initially propounded by Wiesner and York (Scientific American, 1964) that there exists a class of problems for which there may exist no technical solutions. In the context of the twin tragedies of the school killings in Newtown CT, and the gang rape in New Delhi, it is worth asking what role technical solutions can play in public policy responses.

Wiesner and York defined a technical solution as a solution “in the area of science and technology only,” and Hardin defined it as, “one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”   To Hardin’s techniques of the natural sciences, I’ll add legal and administrative steps that the state and civil society can take to influence the actions of individual and develop social institutions . Such technical solutions can include laws, incentive mechanisms, administrative changes, educational programs, etc. In contrast to technical solutions one can think of attitudinal transformations – changes that come about due to events and circumstances that result in paradigmatic shifts in social norms and mores. Japan’s stance on nuclear weapons post Hiroshima-Nagasaki, and the American public’s acceptance of security measures post-9/11 are possible examples of attitudinal transformations. Clearly in some cases changes that occur can be ascribed to both technical changes and to attitudinal transformations; but for the most part, these are clearly distinguishable.

There is much in common between the circumstances and reactions in both the U.S. and India to the tragedies. Some of these similarities are:

  • The Magnitude of the Problem: In both cases the particular incident is not a rare event – they are simply extreme examples of the norm. Gun violence in America occurs daily with the President’s home town Chicago itself registering over 500 gun related homicides in 2012 – or approximately 18 per 100,000 people. In a speech in Newtown following the tragedy President Obama said, “…there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and in big cities all across America, victims whose — much of the time their only fault was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”  The level of homicides in America is in order of magnitude greater than that in comparable countries like Canada, Germany, Britian…trust me, it is a pretty large list.When it comes to rape and the abuse of women in India one needs no data to make the case that the every part of the country, rural, urban, wealthy, and poor, has a deep problem. A recent Reuters Thomson Foundation poll ranked India last when it came to the status and condition of women among the G20 countries. An article more than six months ago points out that, “Reports of women being snatched from the streets and gang-raped in moving cars are frequent in Delhi and surrounding areas.”
  •  Shame, Outrage over the ‘Normal: In both cases, the incidents (Newtown and New Delhi) have resulted in dramatic outpourings of national shame, anger and outrage. Following the Newtown tragedy the American media – visual and print – had wall to wall coverage of the tragedy. From talking heads to columnists to letters to the editor, in one voice everybody agreed that what happened in Newtown reflected the worst of America and that things should change. In his speech President Obama declared, “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.” The gunning down of 20 kids and 6 of their teachers is a matter of shame and outrage. But they are simply another, albeit gruesome, chapter in a series of events which should have evoked such shame and outrage all along.The reaction in India to the gang rape in Delhi has resulted in a media blitz. Television programs are full of discussions about the maltreatment of women and what should be done about it. Constant reference is made to the oppressive, patriarchal nature of society in general, and the ineffectiveness of the police and judicial system to deal with rape and other atrocities against women. Leading newspapers have dubbed the event a national shame and a reflection of the ugliest aspects of society. The young woman who was raped and who has now died is being hailed a fighter and martyr whose death should not be in vain. Her death is a matter of shame and outrage. It is simply another, albeit gruesome, chapter in a series of events which should have evoked such shame and outrage all along.

Put simply, in both cases there is a realization that there is a serious problem, reflecting badly on the country and society. Across the board people would like to stop these frequently occurring tragedies. What can be done?

The Newtown tragedy has resulted in calls for at least two legal and/or administrative changes. The first is the age-old call for gun legislation. The most probable change that will happen now is a reinstatement of the federal ban on automatic assault weapons. The evidence suggests that this will do very little to deal with the fundamental problem. More stringent measures like banning all guns except those suitable for hunting and sport will simply not see the light of day. The honest debate as to whether such measures will make much of a difference (the evidence is mixed), coupled with the axiomatic American attitude about the sanctity of the right to bear arms ensures that even if banning guns is a solution to gun violence, it is a non-starter.

The NRA’s response to the tragedy has been to call for the posting of armed guards in schools. If they are consistent and have been following the string of shootings in the U.S. recently they should also advocate for armed guards in theatres (Denver), shopping malls (Arizona), and colleges (Virginia Tech.). In fact the NRA’s suggestion simply doesn’t pass the laugh test and is clearly a defensive response to the public mood for some sort of gun legislation.

In India there have been calls for all sorts of changes to combat the rape epidemic. They range from calls for retributive justice – castration, emasculation, the death penalty – to more sober measures like increased policing, and paying greater attention to the criminal prosecution of accused rapists.  It is indeed appalling that there should be calls for what I call the ‘more sober measures’. The probability of getting convicted of rape in India is so small, that it would be wrong to suggest that accused rapists get due process; it simply is the case that rape victims get no process.

The measures outlined above are far from all the technical solutions that can be implemented to try to deal with the problems of homicides in America, and rape in India. This is not the place to outline all the possible actions that can be taken by the state or civil society. However I predict that both in the context of guns in America and rape in India two things will be true. First it is far from clear that undertaking the actions that are called for will result in the outcomes one hopes for. At the best of times it is difficult to clearly sketch out the results of a policy measure given the omnipresent law of unintended consequences. But the deeper tragedy is that most measures that many are calling for will not see the light of day. America will not see meaningful gun legislation. India will not see the suggested changes in the public safety and judicial infrastructure that may make things better. Outrage, a sense of shame, and call for change are low hanging fruit which are easily captured. The possibly more meaningful fruit are pretty high up and a combination of social and historical forces will ensure that they are not plucked. The seeds of technical solutions at least need a non-hostile, if not cooperative soil to bloom. Unfortunately in the case of homicides and gun legislation in the U.S., and issues of rape and women’s safety in India the soil is far from conducive to plant any seeds from the technical solutions seed bank.

As much as it saddens me to say it, in years to come we will all see more homicides and mass shootings in America, and hear of how common rape and atrocities against women are in India. It seems both these are problems without technical solutions. The present tragedies are not enough to effect attitudinal transformations. They have affected many and society is deeply saddened by them; just not deep enough to make changes or change ourselves.


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