Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Guns, germs and mosquitoes

Twenty students, or 4.4% of Sandy Hook Elementary's student body, lost their lives in this terrible tragedy. My heart goes out to them.

Emotions are powerful motivators, but people only have so much emotional energy to spend.  So whenever feelings are running particularly strong, we should ask ourselves what is the best way to direct all that energy.

Here are some numbers to put things in perspective.  According to wikipedia, the average infant mortality rate in the United States is .68%.  This is incredibly low, and you could be forgiven for not thinking much about infant mortality in daily life.  By contrast, Sierra Leone has an infant mortality rate of about 11.3%.  In fact, the UN estimates the average infant mortality rate for the world to be 4.9%.

Imagine that everyone in our country had to spend the first year of their life in a replica of Sandy Hook Elementary, each of which featured an annual school shooting.  In terms of mortality, this horrific scenario is far better than living for one's first year in Sierra Leone, or perhaps even a randomly chosen country in the world.

It can be difficult to care about that which is not seen.  You are here, not there, and I am not insensitive to that.  Millions of Americans are in very real pain right now, and that pain is something to take as seriously as all the other problems in the world.  A consequence of this pain is that people would pay enormous amounts of money to stop the Sandy Hook shooting from happening, and it is maddening that we just can't do that.  Even so, we can do something similar and perhaps even more meaningful.  Because the entire country of Sierra Leone is a thousandfold replica of Sandy Hook that keeps on going.

Overall there isn't much you can do to allay the pain of the current tragedy or deter future shootings.  You can spend your time clamoring loudly for gun control on Facebook and in public and to your congressman.  But you will be a voice among many and they will either listen to you or not.

Or you can go to GiveWell right now, and pick a high-impact charity right now. Such as, say, the Against Malaria Foundation.  You don't have to convince anyone of anything, you just give the money and make a difference.  GiveWell estimates that you can actually save a life for about $2,300 towards Long-Lasting Insecticide-Treated Nets.  You will find no reservoir of lives so cheaply saved on American soil.

This is not a responsibility.  It is a choice.  If you want to go on caring about those strangers less than one thousandth as much as you care about these strangers, fine.  It doesn't make you a bad person.  But if you feel a little miscalibrated, like there really shouldn't be a thousandfold difference even though there is, then perhaps you should take this opportunity to consciously redirect some of your feelings about the recent shooting, toward a cause where those feelings can really and truly do a lot of good.

Closed eyes do not stop a bullet, though a bullet can stop those eyes from opening again.  And somewhere out there, thousands of invisible mosquitoes are biting thousands of invisible children in their sleep.