Perpective

04.07.14

Let’s Put Things in Perspective: You’re Still Safer on a Military Base

On average, military bases are safer than similarly sized American cities. The violence at Fort Hood may best be explained as a workplace shooting, not a uniquely military tragedy.

When we talk about the Fort Hood shooting, where Army Spc. Ivan Lopez turned on his co-workers in a senseless killing spree last Wednesday, we need to understand that it happened in an American city.

You wouldn’t know this from watching the news lately, but military bases are actually, on average, safer than comparably sized American cities. And mass shootings aren’t some unique monstrosity the military has unleashed, they’re an American problem.

Fort Hood is not an isolated military outpost, in most essential ways it resembles a living situation that Americans will find familiar. There are grocery stores, a movie theater, houses and schools. People live, eat and work at them. They catch up on T.V. shows in their spare time. Drivers can bring their car in for a tune-up at the base’s auto repair shop. Roughly 45,000 soldiers work there alongside another 9,000 civilian employees, making it equivalent to a mid-sized American city.

I wrote about this topic for War is Boring last week. But I didn’t fully explain why the media has a problem with how it talks about mass shootings and workplace violence—particularly when it happens within the military.

We search in vain for answers to explain why the shooter did it. And because the killing erupted on a military base, we other-ize the environment, blame it and conceptualize the violence as different from similar workplace shootings in the civilian world. This clouds understanding and reveals little.

War and service in the military both put a unique set of stresses on service members. But the media’s rush to blame Lopez’s service and his presumptive PTSD for his killing ignored the particulars of his case  “to treat “a tour in Iraq” as if a deployment was the murder weapon,” as Marine veteran, Thomas M. Gibbons-Neff wrote at the time.

An individual killer’s motivations are always personal and opaque. Finding the single cause makes for good headlines but it doesn’t lead to real insight.

Mass shootings are statistically rare and occur in highly public settings, which gives them an inherent national news value not seen following many other forms of violent crime. This combination, plus the competition to make the quickest pronouncement about why the shooter did it, leads us to reach for explanations that are the most broadly applicable. Lopez was a veteran. He may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, though there is no proof of this yet. But these are such general categories that they’re useless for explaining any individual’s actions.

Truth has rights in a situation like this, and the story deserves some statistical perspective.

Workplace violence happens in both the private and public sector. Since 2009, there have been at least four mass shootings at military installations inside the United States. There have been attacks related to inter-personal disputes, but in these four cases the shooters killed at least three or more people, as they aimed indiscriminately at anyone around them.

Because the killing erupted on a military base, we other-ize the environment, blame it and conceptualize the violence as different from similar workplace shootings in the civilian world

In 2009, former Army psychiatrist Nidal Hassan, an al Qaeda sympathizer, killed 13 people at Fort Hood in an insider jihadist attack. In March 2013, Marine Sgt. Eusebio Lopez shot two people over an interpersonal dispute at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, then shot himself. In September 2013, former Navy electrician Aaron Alexis took the lives of 13 people, including his own, at the Washington Navy Yard.

Lopez may prove to be most similar to Alexis of the three, someone whose escalating mental health issues went unchecked. Did Lopez’s psychological issues predate his service? That’s true in the case of Alexis. Neither acted out for the sake of a political cause, like Hassan. They may have struggled with anxiety and depression. But the underlying cause remains inscrutable—and still too dissimilar to draw general conclusions.

And military bases remain quite safe.

The homicide rate for resident military personnel is lower than the national average for civilians. In 2009, 2.3 service members per 100,000 were victims of homicide, compared to five civilians per 100,000 in 2010, according to the FBI.  This means you’re more likely to be the victim of a homicide if you’re a civilian than a soldier.

The total number of military workplace fatalities—which includes homicides—is also falling. On bases outside of combat zones, "fatal injuries to resident military personnel reached a series low in 2012, dropping 25 percent from 57 fatalities in 2011 to 43," stated the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The military is an enormous organization. Active-duty personnel alone amount to more than 1.3 million people, augmented by another 800,000 reservists. If we include civilian employees of the Department of Defense, the number increases to 3.2 million. That’s a million more people than Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, which employs 2.2 million.

In short, if there’s a statistical chance of something happening in a population size of more than three million people, it will probably happen in the military. The largest bases—like Fort Hood—will also by size and circumstance be the likeliest targets for a shooter.

Why? In a 2013 study for Skeptic magazine, author David Hillshafer compiled data from decades of mass shootings and found that killers tend to attack familiar locations. Student killers will likely target their school or former school. Workplace rage will most likely occur at a shooter’s former or current workplace. That a soldier targeted an Army base is not a mystery because he targeted an Army base or because he was a soldier—the mystery is why this specific individual turned to violence.

These facts also complicate questions about how to stop more shootings by detecting the killers in advance. Law enforcement has had successes catching terrorists and anti-government extremists before they commit violence. But workplace violence is both too rare, mass shootings amount to fewer than one percent of all annual homicides, and too random to detect with any certainty.

The population is too large, the motivations are too unclear and the events are too uncommon. “Predicting which week, much less which day and where the mass murders will occur is not possible,” science writer Michael Shermer wrote in a follow-up Skeptic article last year.

Mental illness is a recurring presence in the psychology of mass killers. There’s been more than enough media speculation that PTSD contributed cause to last week’s shooting, without any clear evidence that Lopez was suffering from it. There is some evidence linking PTSD in veterans to higher rates of interpersonal violence, but other studies show that the condition is a weak indicator of violence and that veterans with PTSD have lower rates of pre-meditated aggression than those without it.

The exact psychological processes of PTSD are poorly understood and the overwhelming majority of veterans never act out violently. Nor does the presence of a psychological disorder predict the specific actions of any individual—this is known as the ecological fallacy.

At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for inaction, or a judgment that the Army is blameless. The armed forces are different from ordinary employers. We order troops to carry out actions not required of civilians. The military also has the capability to provide for regular screening and assessment of psychological problems that might come up among those in its ranks. It has an obligation to offer support to those who are struggling with mental and emotional problems and  to discharge troops who are unfit or a risk to others.

But we should try to demystify the military, and understand that many of its problems are not so unique. Improved screening and assistance to troubled troops isn’t a perfect solution. There are no perfect solutions.

Improved mental health screening and treatment may not stop the next shooting, or the one after that, but it’s still worth doing. While we’re working to make that happen, a little perspective about mas shootings and the military might stop us from making sweeping claims about veterans, and help solve the actual problems that lead to this kind of tragedy.