Mass Shootings

It Isn't 'Divisive Rhetoric' That Kills People

Plus: kids and screen time, banks and the FBI, and more...


A gunman carrying a rifle emblazoned with a swastika killed three people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday before taking his own life.

The shooter, 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmete, was white. All of his victims—52-year-old Angela Michelle Carr, 19-year-old Anolt Joseph "AJ" Laguerre Jr., and 29-year-old Jerrald Gallion—were black. Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters has said that the murder spree was racially motivated and Palmete specifically targeted black people. The sheriff also noted that the guns Palmete was carrying were legally purchased.

As is so often the case with crimes like these, people are casting about for someone other than one racist psychopath—or "deranged scumbag," as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis put it—to blame. Some have settled on "divisive rhetoric" as the culprit.

"When we have this kind of divisive rhetoric, this is exactly what happens," journalism professor and Jacksonville councilmember Rahman Johnson told MSNBC's Symone Sanders-Townsend. He mentioned Florida's attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings, African-American studies programs in schools, and transgender people.

"The division has to stop, the hate has to stop, the rhetoric has to stop," Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan said.

An op-ed in the Florida Times-Union blamed the city's reaction to antisemitic banners and light displays, saying the response wasn't "forceful enough." Those "public demonstrations look like terrible harbingers of what was to come," wrote columnist Nate Monroe.

Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon blamed attacks on "wokeness," which she called "a dog whistle. That wokeness that they want to die is Black people, and it was evident yesterday by what happened," Nixon said.

Needless to say, plenty of people hear the same rhetoric Palmete may have heard about diversity trainings, wokeness, and so on but don't go on to commit atrocities. And openly bigoted speech, as represented by those antisemitic banners, is much less common now than at most points in U.S. history past.

We do not know what route Palmete took to the politics of the swastika, nor what combustible collection of mental health issues those politics may have ignited. But laying the blame on the political rhetoric or actions of state or city leaders both overplays the role of policy makers and absolves Palmete of too much responsibility. "Divisive rhetoric" didn't kill three people on Saturday. Palmete did.


More panic about kids and screen time. A widely covered study published last week purportedly showed more dangers from letting very young children be exposed to screens—TVs, phones, etc.—in any capacity. "Age 1 is too young for any amount of screen time," Fast Company reported of the findings. "'iPad kids,' or babies and young children who have access to more screen time have a higher likelihood of developmental delays," reported Fox News.

Once again, the actual findings behind the headlines are rather mundane.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that one-year-olds exposed to more screen time had "a higher risk of developmental delay at age 2 years in the communication, fine motor, problem-solving, and personal and social skills domains." By age four, delays in fine motor, personal, and social skills had disappeared but children with more screen time were still at higher risk for communication and problem-solving deficits. "In particular, more than 4 hours of screen time per day was associated with developmental delays in communication and problem-solving across ages 2 and 4 years," the researchers say.

It doesn't take special training to see some problems with using this study to draw major conclusions about kids and screen time in general, or using it to demonize any and all screen exposure for very young children. For one thing, the effects may not be so much about the detrimental effects of TV or the internet but the fact that more time spent doing that means less time for other developmentally enriching activities. A young kid who spent four hours per day on any one activity to the exclusion of others may experience delays in certain cognitive or physical domains.

The bigger problem is that families who let very young children spend a lot of time in front of screens tend to differ in a lot of other ways from those who do not. And indeed, "mothers of children with high levels of screen time were characterized as being younger…and having a lower household income, lower maternal education level, and having postpartum depression" than mothers of children with less screen time. There were also differences in number of siblings and presence of a grandparent.

The researchers attempted to control for some of these differences, but "we should continue to worry that there are significant other unobserved differences," economist Emily Oster points out. She concludes:

Correlation is not causation, and it's hard to convince yourself that the choice of an hour a day versus four hours a day of television for a 1-year-old is a random choice. To be clear: four hours of screens a day for a 1-year-old will leave relatively little time for other things, so it is worth being intentional about how you use screen time. But this study shouldn't change how you think about that.

It's also worth noting that the researchers didn't differentiate between types of screen time. It's possible some types have a negative effect and some have a positive effect. A meta-analysis published last year, for instance, looked at 478 studies on small children and exposure to television and found watching TV linked to both positive and negative effects, depending on the type of programming that was viewed and the circumstances of that viewing.


Did banks hand private financial data to the FBI without legal process? The House Judiciary Committee is currently investigating that question. But "there's no doubt about the threat to civil liberties posed by the government's leverage over the financial industry; that's long established," writes J.D. Tuccille. And while the current investigation is focused on whether banks were too quick to share data related to the January 6 riots, the larger problem needs to be fixed no matter what lawmakers discover in this instance.

"Financial institutions have long operated as surveillance arms of the state, tracking transactions and movements, making assumptions about what they might mean, then turning that information over to government officials under regulatory pressure," notes Tuccille. The government exerts this pressure through customer due diligence rules, the Bank Secrecy Act, mandated suspicious activity reports, and the USA PATRIOT Act. The results have included the Obama-era Operation Chokepoint and the exclusion of sex workers from risk-averse banks and payment processors.

"Just as politicians have leaned on the tech sector to muzzle speech, they have long pressured banks to spy on customers and deny services to people whose existence offends officialdom," Tuccille points out.

Whether or not the House Judiciary Committee Chairman finds evidence of "a dangerous escalation in the abuse of government officials' leverage over the financial industry," this issue deserves as much attention as government pressure on tech platforms.


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