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The tragedy in Newtown, CT, and a tragic national response

There have been a num­ber of [1] mis­lead­ing [2] reports, trou­bling [3] anom­alies [4], and out­right hoax­es [5] fol­low­ing the tragedy in New­town, CT. To some extent this is to be expect­ed giv­en the sud­den­ness of the event and the scale and nature of the tragedy although the vol­ume of faulty infor­ma­tion has still been per­plex­ing. But beyond the con­fu­sion and mis­in­for­ma­tion regard­ing basic facts of the event there has also been a pecu­liar focus on what could only be described as junk-analy­sis on the part of the main­stream media when it comes to the ques­tions over why this took place and how we can pre­vent fur­ther tragedies of this nature. The sud­den media fix­a­tion the shooter’s alleged diag­no­sis with Asperg­er’s Syn­drome has been one of the most promi­nent exam­ples of this curi­ous behav­ior. Human­i­ty has been liv­ing with peo­ple with Asperg­er’s Syn­drome vir­tu­al­ly for­ev­er and there is no mean­ing­ful evi­dence that such indi­vid­u­als have a ten­den­cy towards mass killings. And con­sid­er­ing that a mass shoot­ing attempt at a mall just days ear­li­er was car­ried out by an indi­vid­ual that appeared to be quite social and out­go­ing [6], the sud­den focus on the shooter’s appar­ent social awk­ward­ness has been a trou­bling devel­op­ment. Not unprece­dent­ed [7] but still trou­bling giv­en the long-term dam­age such stereo­typ­ing could have on a soci­ety.

With this in mind, there is a sec­ond deeply dis­turb­ing response to this tragedy that has to be addressed: the attempts to find a “bio­log­i­cal” expla­na­tion for the attack. If there was a sin­gle phrase that could sum­ma­rize the absur­di­ties in the plans to find this bio­log­i­cal expla­na­tion, the phase ‘OMFG’ might suf­fice [8]:

DNA of New­town Shoot­er Adam Lan­za to Be Stud­ied by Geneti­cists
ABC World News

By SHUSHANNAH WALSHE (@shushwalshe)
Dece. 27, 2012

Geneti­cists have been asked to study the DNA of Adam Lan­za, the Con­necti­cut man whose shoot­ing ram­page killed 27 peo­ple, includ­ing an entire first grade class.

The study, which experts believe may be the first of its kind, is expect­ed to be look­ing for abnor­mal­i­ties or muta­tions in Lan­za­’s DNA.

Con­necti­cut Med­ical Exam­in­er H. Wayne Carv­er has reached out to Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut’s geneti­cists to con­duct the study.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut spokesper­son Tom Green says Carv­er “has asked for help from our depart­ment of genet­ics” and they are “will­ing to give any assis­tance they can.”

Green said he could not pro­vide details on the project, but said it has not begun and they are “stand­ing by wait­ing to assist in any way we can.”

Lan­za, 20, car­ried out the mas­sacre at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School in New­town, Conn., just days before Christ­mas. His motives for the slaugh­ter remain a mys­tery.

Geneti­cists not direct­ly involved in the study said they are like­ly look­ing at Lan­za­’s DNA to detect a muta­tion or abnor­mal­i­ty that could increase the risk of aggres­sive or vio­lent behav­ior. They could ana­lyze Lan­za­’s entire genome in great detail and try to find unex­pect­ed muta­tions.

This seems to be the first time a study of this nature has been con­duct­ed, but it rais­es con­cerns in some geneti­cists and oth­ers in the field that there could be a stig­ma attached to peo­ple with these genet­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics if they are able to be nar­rowed down.

...

Just a note: not only does this study appear to be the first of its kind in the field of genet­ics, it’s also appar­ent­ly quite ground­break­ing in the field of sta­tis­tics. After all, every­one has MILLIONS of indi­vid­ual base-pair muta­tions in their DNA that devi­ates from the ‘norm’. So appar­ent­ly these crack sci­en­tists are pos­si­bly going to look through the shooter’s entire genome and in order to iden­ti­fy the ‘evil’ [9] muta­tion. And, of course, being respon­si­ble sci­en­tists they would want to employ robust sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis to iden­ti­fy these ‘evil’ muta­tions, you know, like a stan­dard [10] case/control sort of study. The con­trol group would be easy to get. You just need to get some DNA from non-evil peo­ple that don’t go around killing peo­ple. You know, non-evil peo­ple like this [11] guy [12]. And for the ‘case’ cohort they’ll have....hmmmm....A SINGLE PERSON. Ok, maybe they’ll throw in some rel­a­tives and just assume they’re evil too because, you know, genet­ics is all about hered­i­ty, right? Yes, it’s a brave new world of sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis! How excit­ing!

Con­tin­u­ing...

...
Arthur Beaudet, a pro­fes­sor at Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine, said the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut geneti­cists are most like­ly try­ing to “detect clear abnor­mal­i­ties of what we would call a muta­tion in a gene…or gene abnor­mal­i­ties and there are some abnor­mal­i­ties that are relat­ed to aggres­sive behav­ior.”

“They might look for muta­tions that might be asso­ci­at­ed with men­tal ill­ness­es and ones that might also increase the risk for vio­lence,” said Beaudet, who is also the chair­man of Bay­lor Col­lege of Med­i­cine’s depart­ment of mol­e­c­u­lar and human genet­ics.

Beaudet believes geneti­cists should be doing this type of research because there are “some muta­tions that are known to be asso­ci­at­ed with at least aggres­sive behav­ior if not vio­lent behav­ior.”

“I don’t think any one of these muta­tions would explain all of (the mass shoot­ers), but some of them would have muta­tions that might be caus­ing both schiz­o­phre­nia and relat­ed schiz­o­phre­nia vio­lent behav­ior,” Beaudet said. “I think we could learn more about it and we should learn more about it.”

Beaudet not­ed that study­ing the genes of mur­der­ers is con­tro­ver­sial because there is a risk that those with sim­i­lar genet­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics could pos­si­bly be dis­crim­i­nat­ed against or stig­ma­tized, but he still thinks the research would be help­ful even if only a “frac­tion” may have the abnor­mal­i­ty or muta­tion.

“Not all of these peo­ple will have iden­ti­fi­able genet­ic abnor­mal­i­ties,” Beaudet said, adding that even if a genet­ic abnor­mal­i­ty is found it may not be relat­ed to a “spe­cif­ic risk.”

“By study­ing genet­ic abnor­mal­i­ties we can learn more about con­di­tions bet­ter and who is at risk and what might be dra­mat­ic treat­ments,” Beaudet said, adding if the gene abnor­mal­i­ty is defined the “treat­ment to stop” oth­er mass shoot­ings or “decrease the risk is much approved.”
...

Ok, so we now have a geneti­cist that’s endors­ing the approach of going “muta­tion fish­ing” in the DNA of mur­der­ers that’s asso­ci­at­ed with aggres­sive­ness and vio­lence and if we find a genet­ic vari­ant that a “frac­tion” of mur­der­ers have it’s “much approved” to apply “treat­ment to stop” oth­er peo­ple with the same genet­ic vari­ants. Also, let’s recall that the shoot­er had no record­ed his­to­ry of vio­lence so we’ll just have to “treat” EVERYONE with these new­ly dis­cov­ered genet­ic vari­ants regard­less of their his­to­ry of vio­lence. A brave new world indeed!

Con­tin­u­ing...

...

Oth­ers in the field aren’t so sure.

Dr. Harold Bursz­ta­jn, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Har­vard Med­ical School, is a leader in his field on this issue writ­ing exten­sive­ly on genet­ic dis­crim­i­na­tion. He ques­tions what the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut researchers could “even be look­ing for at this point.”

“Giv­en how wide the net would have to be cast and giv­en the prob­lem of false pos­i­tives in test­ing it is much more like­ly we would go ahead and find some mis­lead­ing genet­ic mark­ers, which would lat­er be proven false while unnec­es­sar­i­ly stig­ma­tiz­ing a very large group of peo­ple,” Bursz­ta­jn said.

Bursz­ta­jn also cau­tions there are oth­er risks to this kind of study: that oth­er warn­ing signs could be ignored.

“It’s too risky from the stand point of undu­ly stig­ma­tiz­ing peo­ple, but also from dis­tract­ing us from real red flags to pre­vent vio­lence from occur­ring,” Bursz­ta­jn said. “The last thing we need when peo­ple are in the midst of grief is offer­ing peo­ple quick fix­es which may help our anx­i­ety, but can be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to our long term safe­ty and ethics.”

Bursz­ta­jn is also the pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Unit of the Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic and Cul­tur­al Orga­ni­za­tion (UNESCO) Bioethics Chair and in that role he teach­es health care pro­fes­sion­als about respon­si­ble genet­ic edu­ca­tion includ­ing the his­to­ry of eugen­ics in this coun­try in the 1920s and Nazi Ger­many. He cau­tions against the slip­pery slope that the kind of research that could be involved in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut’s study could lead to.

Dr. Hei­di Tis­senbaum, a geneti­cist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts med­ical school, agrees the research is risky say­ing an accu­rate study just can­not be com­plet­ed on one per­son.

“The prob­lem is there might be a genet­ic com­po­nent, but we don’t have enough of a sam­ple size,” Tis­senbaum said. “I think it’s much more than a sim­ple genet­ic answer, but an inter­play between genet­ics and envi­ron­ment.”

“One sam­ple, what’s that going to tell you,” Tis­senbaum said, refer­ring to Lan­za­’s DNA. “You nev­er do an exper­i­ment with one, you can’t con­clude any­thing… The ques­tion is what are they com­par­ing his DNA against? Are they going to con­trol to ran­dom peo­ple? Match­ing for age or soci­ety? We just don’t have enough (of a sam­ple).”

...

Well, it looks like oth­er experts aren’t as opti­mistic about the prospects of con­duct­ing a genet­ics asso­ci­a­tion study on a one per­son. It looks like our brave new world of sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis will have to wait.

This sto­ry is rem­i­nis­cent of a series of inter­est­ing — but some­times trou­bling — inter­views that were shown last week on Erin Bur­net­t’s “Out Front” CNN show. There are a num­ber of clips avail­able that are worth view­ing to get a sense of the how the nat­ur­al desire to “find a solu­tion” to mass killings is play­ing itself out in the nation­al dis­course:
1. First, watch this Dec 18th clip [13] from her show where she inter­views “Dr. Oz” about the minds of mass killers. Dr Oz makes the case that “anti­so­cial” peo­ple have dif­fer­ent brains than nor­mal peo­ple and we need to have “a Home­land Secu­ri­ty approach” to men­tal health. He does, for­tu­nate­ly, make the point that kids with Asperg­er’s Syn­drome do, indeed, exhib­it com­pas­sion, so at least one group that would prob­a­bly fall into the “anti­so­cial” cat­e­go­ry in many peo­ple’s minds was giv­en the “non-psy­cho” pass by this Doc­tor. But let’s just take a step back and con­sid­er what a “Home­land Secu­ri­ty” approach to “anti­so­cial” peo­ple might entail.

2. On the Wed­snes­day (Dec 19th) show Ms. Bur­nett (now Mrs. Bur­nett [14], BTW) had a seg­ment [15] where she raised the ques­tion “are autis­tic peo­ple REALLY not a threat? after all, part of the descrip­tion of this con­di­tion is a lack of empa­thy...” (this isn’t in the clip but I saw it live) and then she she inter­viewed an autism advo­cate and leads in with “I asked him how he’s so sure that autism was­n’t a part of why this tragedy hap­pened”. The inter­view worth watch­ing as a great exam­ple of, how shall we puts this, a lack of empa­thy.

3. Next, watch this clip [16] from lat­er in that same Dec. 19th show where Ms. Bur­nett inter­view Dr. Drew about how to iden­ti­fy a psy­chopath and whether or not peo­ple can be born psy­chopaths. It’s an inter­est­ing seg­ment that includes a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry about Dr. Jim Fal­lon, a sci­en­tist that spe­cial­izes in study­ing the minds of psy­chopaths. Part of that research involves using brain scans (fMRI) that has shown dis­tinct pat­terns of brain func­tion­ing that is found in psy­cho­path­ic indi­vid­u­als. As Dr. Drew also points out, the sci­en­tist that did the brain scan­ning research also has the brain match­ing the psy­chopath pro­file. Fas­ci­nat­ing, no?

4. Now watch this clip [17] from the Dec. 21st show where Ms. Bur­nett inter­view Dr. Jim Fal­lon about his research and the dis­cov­ery that he also has a brain that exhibits sim­i­lar fMRI pat­terns to that of a psy­chopath. Part of what makes this inter­view so fas­ci­nat­ing is that we see an indi­vid­ual with a sup­posed “psy­chopath” brain, Dr. Fal­lon, basi­cal­ly mak­ing a per­son­al sac­ri­fice by telling the world that he has the traits of the psy­chopath even though he clear­ly isn’t a psy­chopath in order to make the impor­tant point that peo­ple may share these same traits as a psy­chopath aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly psy­chopaths. Per­haps there’s a les­son or two here for any psychopaths/sociopaths in Wash­ing­ton DC that may be tempt­ed to imple­ment brain scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy in a “Home­land Secu­ri­ty” approach to men­tal ill­ness? First, our brave pol­i­cy mak­ers should real­ize that the the imple­men­ta­tion of such scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy would be fraught with great eth­i­cal per­il, although that may not par­tic­u­lar­ly care if they were psychopaths/sociopaths. But, they should also real­ize that when they, them­selves, get revealed as hav­ing psy­cho­path­ic brains (because we’re all going to want to brain scan on Con­gress first) these hid­den psy­chos in Con­gress could at least say “aha, but as Dr. Fal­lon has shown, hav­ing a ‘psy­chopath brain’ does­n’t mean I’m a psy­chopath!”. Isn’t sci­ence fun?

Final­ly, let’s take a look at anoth­er arti­cle about Dr. Fal­lon’s find­ings. It con­tains a impor­tant les­son that should not only be inter­nal­ized by all pol­i­cy mak­ers (psy­cho or not) but it also needs to be inter­nal­ized by the rest of us. It a reminder that psy­chopaths are a prod­uct of nature (genes) AND nur­ture [18]:

Nation­al Pub­lic Radio
A Neu­ro­sci­en­tist Uncov­ers A Dark Secret

by Bar­bara Bradley Hager­ty
June 29, 2010 12:00 AM

The crim­i­nal brain has always held a fas­ci­na­tion for James Fal­lon. For near­ly 20 years, the neu­ro­sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Irvine has stud­ied the brains of psy­chopaths. He stud­ies the bio­log­i­cal basis for behav­ior, and one of his spe­cial­ties is to try to fig­ure out how a killer’s brain dif­fers from yours and mine.

About four years ago, Fal­lon made a star­tling dis­cov­ery. It hap­pened dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with his then 88-year-old moth­er, Jen­ny, at a fam­i­ly bar­be­cue.

...

“There’s a whole lin­eage of very vio­lent peo­ple — killers,” he says.

One of his direct great-grand­fa­thers, Thomas Cor­nell, was hanged in 1667 for mur­der­ing his moth­er. That line of Cor­nells pro­duced sev­en oth­er alleged mur­der­ers, includ­ing Lizzy Bor­den. “Cousin Lizzy,” as Fal­lon wry­ly calls her, was accused (and con­tro­ver­sial­ly acquit­ted) of killing her father and step­moth­er with an ax in Fall Riv­er, Mass., in 1882.

A lit­tle spooked by his ances­try, Fal­lon set out to see whether any­one in his fam­i­ly pos­sess­es the brain of a ser­i­al killer. Because he has stud­ied the brains of dozens of psy­chopaths, he knew pre­cise­ly what to look for. To demon­strate, he opened his lap­top and called up an image of a brain on his com­put­er screen.

...

Fal­lon’s Scans

...

Fal­lon says nobody in his fam­i­ly has real prob­lems with those behav­iors. But he want­ed to be sure. Con­ve­nient­ly, he had every­thing he need­ed: Pre­vi­ous­ly, he had per­suad­ed 10 of his close rel­a­tives to sub­mit to a PET brain scan and give a blood sam­ple as part of a project to see whether his fam­i­ly had a risk for devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

After learn­ing his vio­lent fam­i­ly his­to­ry, he exam­ined the images and com­pared them with the brains of psy­chopaths. His wife’s scan was nor­mal. His moth­er: nor­mal. His sib­lings: nor­mal. His chil­dren: nor­mal.

“And I took a look at my own PET scan and saw some­thing dis­turb­ing that I did not talk about,” he says.

What he did­n’t want to reveal was that his orbital cor­tex looks inac­tive.

“If you look at the PET scan, I look just like one of those killers.”

Fal­lon cau­tions that this is a young field. Sci­en­tists are just begin­ning to study this area of the brain — much less the brains of crim­i­nals. Still, he says the evi­dence is accu­mu­lat­ing that some peo­ple’s brains pre­dis­pose them toward vio­lence and that psy­cho­path­ic ten­den­cies may be passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to anoth­er.

The Three Ingre­di­ents

And that brings us to the next part of Jim Fal­lon’s fam­i­ly exper­i­ment. Along with brain scans, Fal­lon also test­ed each fam­i­ly mem­ber’s DNA for genes that are asso­ci­at­ed with vio­lence. He looked at 12 genes relat­ed to aggres­sion and vio­lence and zeroed in on the MAO‑A gene (monoamine oxi­dase A). This gene, which has been the tar­get of con­sid­er­able research, is also known as the “war­rior gene” because it reg­u­lates sero­tonin in the brain. Sero­tonin affects your mood — think Prozac — and many sci­en­tists believe that if you have a cer­tain ver­sion of the war­rior gene, your brain won’t respond to the calm­ing effects of sero­tonin.

Fal­lon calls up anoth­er slide on his com­put­er. It has a list of fam­i­ly mem­bers’ names, and next to them, the results of the geno­typ­ing. Every­one in his fam­i­ly has the low-aggres­sion vari­ant of the MAO‑A gene, except for one per­son.

“You see that? I’m 100 per­cent. I have the pat­tern, the risky pat­tern,” he says, then paus­es. “In a sense, I’m a born killer.”

Fal­lon’s being tongue-in-cheek — sort of. He does­n’t believe his fate or any­one else’s is entire­ly deter­mined by genes. They mere­ly tip you in one direc­tion or anoth­er.

And yet: “When I put the two togeth­er, it was frankly a lit­tle dis­turb­ing,” Fal­lon says with a laugh. “You start to look at your­self and you say, ‘I may be a sociopath.’ I don’t think I am, but this looks exact­ly like [the brains of] the psy­chopaths, the sociopaths, that I’ve seen before.”

I asked his wife, Diane, what she thought of the result.

“I was­n’t too con­cerned,” she says, laugh­ing. “I mean, I’ve known him since I was 12.”

Diane prob­a­bly does not need to wor­ry, accord­ing to sci­en­tists who study this area. They believe that brain pat­terns and genet­ic make­up are not enough to make any­one a psy­chopath. You need a third ingre­di­ent: abuse or vio­lence in one’s child­hood.

“And for­tu­nate­ly, he was­n’t abused as a young per­son,” Diane says, “so I’ve lived to be a ripe old age so far.”

The New World of ‘Neu­ro­law’

Jim Fal­lon says he had a ter­rif­ic child­hood; he was dot­ed on by his par­ents and had lov­ing rela­tion­ships with his broth­ers and sis­ters and entire extend­ed fam­i­ly. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, he says this jour­ney through his brain has changed the way he thinks about nature and nur­ture. He once believed that genes and brain func­tion could deter­mine every­thing about us. But now he thinks his child­hood may have made all the dif­fer­ence.

“We’ll nev­er know, but the way these pat­terns are look­ing in gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, had I been abused, we might not be sit­ting here today,” he says.

As for the psy­chopaths he stud­ies, Fal­lon feels some com­pas­sion for these peo­ple who, he says, got “a bad roll of the dice.”

“It’s an unlucky day when all of these three things come togeth­er in a bad way, and I think one has to empathize with what hap­pened to them,” he says.

...

Greater soci­etal empa­thy for psy­chopaths and oth­er vio­lent crim­i­nals may not be the first response that peo­ple have when try­ing to come to grips with the phe­nom­e­na of mass mur­der, but if we real­ly want to address these issues and find a solu­tion that does­n’t resem­ble some sort of Minor­i­ty Report-meets-Gat­ta­ca dystopia, per­haps greater empa­thy for the many peo­ple exhibit­ing psychopathic/sociopathic per­son­al­i­ty traits can lead us towards a rea­son­able solu­tion? For instance, it’s cer­tain­ly true that the Unit­ed States has an abun­dance of high­ly pow­er­ful weapon­ry avail­able and some sort of bal­ance in how we reg­u­late that weapon­ry is a clear part of any long-term solu­tion. But we might also want to remind our­selves that the Unit­ed States has the high­est rates of child­hood pover­ty in the devel­oped world [19]. We might also want to remind our­selves that child abuse is also mas­sive prob­lem this soci­ety [20] and it can impact chil­dren across the [21] socioe­co­nom­ic [22] spec­trum [23]. And what about the ongo­ing dis­grace of major insti­tu­tions that appear to have pro­tect­ed [24] and cov­ered up [25] these crimes? And, of course, what about all the oth­er hor­rif­ic [26] sys­temic abus­es [27] that take place to chil­dren and adults that rarely, if ever, get addressed. Obvi­ous­ly, the vast vast major­i­ty of vic­tims of abuse don’t turn out to be psy­chopaths — oth­er­wise we would have MUCH BIGGER prob­lems in this soci­ety. But we have to keep in mind that there is going to be a small sub­set of abuse vic­tims that are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the stress­es and hor­rors of child abuse and those vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren may be more prone towards grow­ing up into psy­cho­path­ic adults.

Are we going to include these top­ics in our nation­al dia­logue over ‘men­tal health’ in the Unit­ed States? And does soci­ety even have the capac­i­ty for empa­thy for those that com­mit hor­ri­ble crimes? How about empathiz­ing with some­one like Dr. Fal­lon? We will be miss­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty if we don’t rec­og­nize that the world we are col­lec­tive­ly cre­at­ing can make a BIG dif­fer­ence in whether or not a kid with Dr. Fal­lon’s genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion turns out to be a cool doc­tor that makes a per­son­al sac­ri­fice for oth­ers or a vio­lent psy­chopath. Pro­posed [28] Mass school screen­ings for men­tal ill­ness in chil­dren will no doubt do some good for some kids at risk and in need of help but it’s also guar­an­teed to result in a num­ber of ‘false pos­i­tive’ diag­noses that could be pro­found­ly detri­men­tal to a child’s psy­cho­log­i­cal devel­op­ment (just imag­ine get­ting the “we think you may be a psy­cho” talk from the coun­selor and how hav­ing that on your per­ma­nent record would impact you). So per­haps we should also con­sid­er approach­es that don’t have near­ly as many down­sides like address­ing grow­ing pover­ty and stun­ning rates of child abuse.

How many of today’s psy­chopaths and sociopaths could have end­ed up like Dr. Fal­lon but instead are either walk­ing the streets or rot­ting in jail due, in part, to life expe­ri­ences com­plete­ly out­side of their con­trol? Could Dr. Fal­lon even have become a doc­tor or even gone to col­lege if he was found to have the ‘evil gene’? Kids don’t ask for their genes...they just get them. And no one asks for abuse, espe­cial­ly child abuse. And most abusers were, them­selves, vic­tims of abuse or awful cir­cum­stance. How do we han­dle and empathize with abused abusers? Awful ques­tions regard­ing the cul­pa­bil­i­ty of those caught in hor­rif­ic crim­i­nal act have always been with us. But the devel­op­ment of new ‘pre­dic­tive’ tech­nolo­gies like genet­ic screen­ing and fMRI brain scan­ning made it a ques­tion of “when” not “if” soci­eties were going to have to face a choice of real­ly going to go down the Minor­i­ty Report-meets-Gat­ta­ca approach to crime pre­ven­tion. The dan­gers that arise from the mis­use or abuse of these tech­nolo­gies are only going grow as the pow­er of these [29] tech­nolo­gies [30] also grow in both scope and ease of admin­is­tra­tion. Like many of the tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tions on the hori­zon [31], brain scan­ning and genet­ic analy­sis tech­nolo­gies could and should be incred­i­ble tools that could help future indi­vid­u­als learn more about them­selves, cure dis­eases, and increase our over­all lev­el of self aware­ness and poten­tial. Sci­ence can be fun like that. But these same tech­nolo­gies could also become traps, where super­fi­cial met­rics like genes and brain scans are used to sin­gle out and destroy those that devi­ate from a pre­scribed ‘norm’ or ‘raise red flags’, regard­less of how impre­cise those ‘red flags’ may be.

Sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, and pub­lic pol­i­cy is often a scary mix. Sci­ence involv­ing pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies that delve into the most inti­mate aspects of our­selves — our bod­ies and minds — has immense poten­tial for harm if mis­used. When cou­pled with pub­lic pol­i­cy relat­ed to emo­tion­al­ly charged top­ics like mass killers — espe­cial­ly mass child killers — pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies are quite pos­si­bly one of the most volatile mix­es human­i­ty has ever faced. These kinds of top­ics aren’t new [32]. We know where this can go. Soci­eties are going to have the abil­i­ty to poke and prod inside the bod­ies and minds of indi­vid­u­als in ways few imag­ined as the future unfolds. If the nation­al debate that fol­lowed this tragedy in New­town is any indi­ca­tion of what to expect as these pre­dic­tive sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies become avail­able, future soci­eties may not be the kinds of places where any­one would want to raise a child.