On being … the right question

By Ingrid Sapona 

Who, what, where, when, and why – the five Ws, as we referred to them in journalism school. These are the basic questions one strives to answer for every news story. The exact ordering of the questions depends on the news item, but “why” is almost always the last – and most enduring – question. It definitely is the trickiest to get a grip on because it’s often open to interpretation. It’s especially difficult if it involves trying to understand motive. But, as I’ll explain, I think there are many situations where society should focus more on “how”. This non-W question is especially worth reflecting on because it often involves opportunity, which is usually easier to influence. 

More-and-more lately, mental illness is an explanation offered up for why someone commits an unspeakable crime or act. On one hand, it’s encouraging that mental illness is no longer the taboo it once was. But I worry that it’s being used as a generic catch-all that’s becoming meaningless. I’m not saying that I don’t believe that mental illness is real. But, it’s becoming a term like “algorithm” that people have heard about but that is often a smokescreen to hide many harms. Mental illness is surely the underlying cause of some anti-social and criminal behaviour, but I don’t think it’s the only – or necessarily the main – explanation. 

One rationale for “why” that I don’t think gets enough attention is the idea that sometimes people do things because they can. Take Jack Teixeira, the 21-year-old National Guard member who was just arrested for posting classified documents in a chat group called Thug Shaker Central. From the initial accounts it sounds like Teixeira posted the stuff to gain street cred among the others (many of whom were teenagers, apparently) on Thug Shaker. In other words, able to get his hands on classified documents, Teixeira thought it would be cool to show them off to his friends. (Sounds like when Trump shared classified documents and information with Lavrov back in 2017, doesn’t it?)  

Sure, it might come to pass that Teixeira had some political or ideological reason to leak the documents (along the lines of Edward Snowden), but we downplay the opportunity angle to this story at our peril. Indeed, the day after the story about the documents was reported by the Washington Post, in a news crawl BBC noted that something like 4.2 million Americans have security clearance. Mind you, the BBC didn’t distinguish between the different levels of security clearance, so that number likely includes military contractors, think tank analysts, and so on, but still… 

Regardless of why Teixeira did what he did, the good news is that folks have already started focusing on the how. As a result, the government is looking at steps and controls it can take to circumscribe the opportunity people like Teixeira have to access – and illegally share – certain kinds of information. 

Another recent news story that may be impolitic to describe as happening “because he could” is the horrific shooting of a Virginia elementary school teacher by a first grade student. The child, who was under an intensive care plan at the school, was described by his parents as having an “acute disability” (which has not, as far as I’ve seen, been further explained). The child’s mother had bought the gun the child used. She says she stored it on a top shelf of her bedroom closet and that it had a trigger lock. None-the-less, her six-year-old was able to retrieve the gun and bring it to school. Apparently during recess, he showed the gun to another boy and threatened to shoot the kid if he told anyone. Later that day the child pulled out the gun and shot his teacher, wounding her in the hand and chest. 

It’s not surprising – indeed, it seems quite appropriate in this case – that the question of mental illness has been raised. But, getting a handle on whether the child has some sort of mental illness, how to treat it, and what changes might be instituted to intervene early in such cases will be difficult and time consuming. Addressing the issue of how a gun got into the child’s hands seems straightforward by comparison: his Mom kept a gun in their house. But, of course, in the U.S. nothing having to do with guns is straightforward. That said, I was pleased to hear that a Grand Jury indicted the child’s mother on one felony charge of child neglect and a misdemeanor charge of child endangerment involving a loaded weapon. This news makes it clear that the local prosecutor is at least trying to address the how. Hopefully these charges will drive home to parents the legal risks they may face if their children get hold of their parents’ guns. I know, it’s a long shot – but it’s a concrete action that may help while others try to figure out the why. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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