The Corner

A Note on Today’s Knife Attacks

Horrible news from Pennsylvania:

Twenty people were injured — four critically — when a teenager wielding two knives started attacking students at Franklin Regional Senior High School in Murrysville. All of the injured were students with the exception of an adult security guard.

Westmoreland County public safety spokesman Dan Stevens said the suspect, a 16-year-old, is in custody and was questioned by Murrysville police and Westmoreland County detectives before being taken to a hospital for treatment of minor injuries to his hands.

As I write, the dumb side of the conservative movement is tripping over itself to link the incident to gun-control, generally issuing some variation of “hey, maybe we should ban knives, too!” This, to put it kindly, is not a strong argument. That an individual can do a great deal of damage with a knife does not in and of itself mean that individuals should be able to own and carry firearms, nor does it mean that knives and firearms represent the same threat. All things being equal, they do not, and I think that critics of America’s gun laws are correct to point out that, had the assailant been carrying, say, a handgun, we would almost certainly be hearing reports of deaths, not injuries.

Now, for a veritable feast of legal, philosophical, and practical reasons — all of which I lay out in these pages on a regular basis – I think that, in the American context at least, the gun-control movement is wrongheaded in almost every single one of its instincts. But, as a matter of general principle, it’s really not inherently silly to want a country in which knives are easily available but firearms are not. Pretending that there exists no hierarchy within the world of weaponry tools just makes us look fanatical.

All of this notwithstanding, the incident does remind us of a couple of important truths: 1) that one really cannot stop bad things from happening, however hard one tries; and 2) that America has a problem with its schools more than it has a problem with inanimate objects. When someone truly wishes to kill someone else, he will usually manage to do so — especially in a soft target such a classroom. If it’s not guns, it will be knives; and if it’s not knives it will be explosives; and it’s not explosives it will be poison. The largest school massacre in American history, do not forget, was carried out in 1927 with a bomb made from dynamite and pyrotol. Today’s attack could have happened in England or in Australia or Japan, none of which countries have very many firearms; or it could have happened in Switzerland, which country’s population is armed to the teeth. And yet, as a rule, those countries do not play host to such attacks in anything approaching the same way as does America. (If culture played no role here, one would expect the Swiss murder rate to be much, much higher than it is.) 

For some reason, a tiny minority of American children have got into the habit of trying to massacre people in the classroom – and nobody is quite sure why. Yes, as is all crime, school-violence is diminishing, and it is frustrating that the public is unaware of this. Yes, our newfound interest in the area is in part the product of heightened media coverage and in part the product of political posturing. But it is still pretty high, and schools are still hit with an alarming regularity. While we continue to fight over what role the nature of the weaponry plays in the execution, shouldn’t we all be trying to work out what we can do to stop the desire?


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