An epidemic is an affliction, often understood as a “disease”, which spreads geographically, killing or maiming any number of people in its wake. The Black Death of the Middle Ages reduced the population of Europe by a tenth. Smallpox decimated British troops during the American Revolution. It does not matter whether the vector of spread is regarded as a swampy miasma or microbes. The point is that something is spreading the harmful disorder. The Black Plague moved from Southern Italy through Italy and France to England, and so people looked for and continue to look for a way to stop its spread, just as when they build firebreaks to keep forest fires from jumping from one place to another. Dennis Defoe records in his “A Journal of the Plague Year” how people were not allowed to leave houses that were quarantined because an infected individual was in there. The residents could only put out their dead bodies for disposal upon the arrival of wagons designated for that purpose.
Not all social problems are epidemics even if they are, for a while, so identified. Crime is, by and large, not an epidemic because it largely takes place in circumscribed areas and tends not to jump beyond those. These areas have high levels of poverty and gang membership. Downtown Chicago is safe while South Side Chicago is crime ridden, and the violence does not move to the safe areas partly because of policing practice but also because the gangsters don’t feel safe going downtown, even though the Chicago of the Twenties was portrayed as suffering from an epidemic of criminality when what it suffered from at the time was a very different social structural problem, which was the imposition of Prohibition on a population willing to pay money for liquor as it did and does for other illicit pleasures, such as prostitution, gambling and drugs.
A current example of an epidemic is that of large scale gun violence. There have been 250 instances of mass shootings this year, that defined as four or more people shot in a particular incident. The spread is across territory but not on to contingent areas because people can “infect” one another at a distance through the Internet. The Christchurch, New Zealand shooter who attacked people in a mosque inspired the guy who shot Latinos in El Paso, and the New Zealand shooter was also inspired by Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The way epidemics have been dealt with in the past offers some clues to how to understand this current epidemic.
Europe by the time of the Black Plague had developed two institutions that had not been available for dealing with previous plagues in Constantinople and Cairo. There was, first of all, the Church, which took upon itself the burden of calming the population so as to keep normal life going on as much as possible. Popes issued edicts saying that Heretics were not to be regarded as responsible for the plague so as to keep superstitious people from rampaging and so making things even worse. To similar purposes, earlier Popes blamed the Jews for a plague because they were not so available for persecution and that framework would make the population less likely to panic because now they had a reason for what was going on.
The second institution was what we would now call a public health service which took upon itself very general powers to see to the control of the plague. These included not just quarantine but also picking up and disposing of the dead, when all the public authorities in Cairo had done was to open up more cemeteries in which the dead could be deposited. This very general public health function, not much constrained by concerns about civil liberties, operates into the present, so that a Typhoid Mary can be incarcerated or hospitalized against her will and a health department can insist that all students in schools, both public and private, have to be inoculated against measles and the mumps if they want to attend school, even though the public health authorities today rely more on persuasion than coercion to have their edicts carried out.
Now apply this double pronged public action to the present case of mass shootings. The Trump Administration has taken on the role of the Church. It wants to see life go on without any measures taken to treat mass shooting as an epidemic. The public is calmed by being told that these shootings are the result of mental illnesses or video games, and so not much can be done to stop them. Mass shootings therefore become as normal as automobile accident fatalities, just part of the normal risks of life. Now, of course, the Trump administration has a reason for this posture, which is that gun supporters vote Republicans into office, but that does not detract from thinking this a way to deal with the problem: neglect it, tamp it down, until it rears its head again. That was certainly true in the case of road violence where the number of deaths every year on the highways started coming down only because of increased car safety mechanisms such as seatbelts and padded dashboards. You can avoid a problem until it goes away for other reasons, and that might well be true of gun violence, which is an affliction that seems to be caught only by young white males and may end when the culture changes, the practice having caught on after Columbine High School was shot up in 1999. The copycatting will end and that will be the end of it even as going into the street protests have largely ended in the United States even though there are numerous reasons to protest. Protests were big in the Sixties and Seventies and now are again big in Hong Kong but don’t seem to make many waves in the United States. Certainly the demonstrations for gun control do not seem to have any appreciable effect except perhaps to bring more voters to the polls in the 2016 Midterm Elections, not because the demonstrations prompted Congress or the President to do anything.
The social role of the Medieval public health officials seems now to have been taken up by policy analysts who do indeed want to treat mass shootings as an epidemic and have a series of measures that they think can build a firewall between past incidents and future ones. They make distinctions between likelier and less likely places in the causal chain to intervene, just as epidemiologists decided that covering malarial swamps with oil was the most efficient way to disrupt the life cycle of the anopheles mosquito that bore the disease. So going after mental illness doesn’t make sense because the rate of mental illness among mass shooters is no higher than in the general population. Instead, go after assault weapons, even though that flies in the face of the gun lobby, because mass shooters seem to have an affinity for new assault rifles, and so a ban on selling them would have an effect even though there are already old assault rifles in circulation. Such a ban does not impact on drive-by shootings or domestic violence or suicide because those are done with pistols and other easily available arms but such a ban would at least mean that the number of people killed in any particular mass shooting incident would go down because of the lack of time to reload. Taking a cold-blooded technical approach is the way policy analysts deal with all social problems, whether poverty or prostitution or racism. It is at the heart of what Western Europe invented in the Middle Ages.
Usually, epidemics are treated as non-political issues. Everyone wants to cooperate to bring an epidemic to an end. There are no Republican or Democratic solutions to epidemics any more than there are Democratic versus republican solutions on how to pick up garbage. (I suppose someone might suggest that a free market approach to garbage would be different from the solution offered by a government Sanitation Department, but I haven’t heard anyone recently take that radically Libertarian position.) We all want to think that everyone is cooperating in their common humanity to address an epidemic or any other disaster. That is what President Obama and Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie did in the face of Hurricane Sandy. They made common cause, just as we do with epidemics overseas, when we offer aid and succor to Africa or Bangladesh or even the Soviet Union, when we offered assistance in dealing with Chernobyl.
At the moment, however, the issue of how to deal with the mass shooting epidemic has become deeply politicized. The Republicans take the role of calming the waters while the Democrats take the role of only advocating solutions because they are not in a position to pass legislation to carry out their prescriptions. So rather than there being a dual set of institutions, each one concerned about its own perview, there are conflicting institutions, and that hardly leads to public confidence that anything can be done or that we can come to peace with the issue until it goes away on its own. The mass shooting epidemic is therefore very strong evidence of just how messed up are our political institutions, Congress unable to pass legislation, expertise shunned, the President an epidemic denier. That should upset people more than the fact that the President speaks meanly about people, but it doesn’t because people are willing to put up with lessened expectations from government, lesser than even of what was expected from Medieval governments, so long as they can keep up the patter of rancor.