Do Food and Health Policy Have Anything to do with the Arizona Murders?

There’s something a tad self-absorbed about the outpouring of media grief and analysis over a shooting rampage that left six dead in Arizona.

Analysis is normally reserved for things that have larger numbers attached to them, like the uneventful and painfully slow death from starvation each day of at least 16,000 children (some reputable agencies put the number at 32,000 a day in case the first number seems maudlin). If reality were such that a mere six children died abruptly of hunger one weekend, it would be unusual and therefore tragic, but not fit for too much in the way of broad analysis.

Pardon my analytical hardheadedness, but I’m trying to figure out what is getting analyzed — and more suggestively, what isn’t getting analyzed – in the aftermath of six people being killed in an Arizona shopping mall on January 8, murders that rate numerically as personal tragedies.

The first thing that stands out is that those who rush to throw the first stone are those with an axe to grind.  Republican leaders, feeling a bit under the gun, as it were, rushed to denounce the wicked act of an individual, a wicked white male individual who therefore did not warrant any group to associate guilt with, as a wicked Black or Hispanic male may have.

Working the blame game, Democrats are talking about the need to control toxic and violent words and appeals increasingly used in far-right political attacks on them.

History offers us teachable moments, but for some, there are only spinnable moments.

Professional social analysts wring their hands when they have to suffer through ersatz theories that Isolate one cause and explanation for essentially random violence, especially in a society where brutal violence is featured unceremoniously in everyday rounds of video games, cartoons, movies, and gun ads, not to mention real-life wars, all of which model gun violence as casual and even appropriate behavior. The violent language of Tea Party and talk (yell??)radio whackjobs merely expresses the social legitimacy of that titillating violence.

Explaining the violence of one person at one time is a bit like trying to explain alcoholic individuals in a society that flaunts alcohol, or to explain individual obesity in an obesogenic society that privileges fat and sugary foods with agricultural subsidies and uncontrolled marketing to children. There’s a background that requires general analysis of the high level of individual instances of harmful behavior so the context can be set for helpful analysis of individuals who go off the rails of the acceptable but very high norm.

I’d like to raise two possible background factors that quite rightly have not been discussed as direct causes of the Arizona killings. But these factors deserve some thought when considering environments conducive to unhinged and outraged (aka blind) violence. As people who know the axe I grind will guess, I think that the connections between food and social equity shouldn’t be excluded from the analysis.

A chance visit this week by Christopher, my wife’s cousin from Germany, helped me make the equity connection to the chronically high level of personal rage, some of which spills over in violence. Christopher is a truck engineer in Stuttgart, centre of Germany’s high-wage industrial companies that are creating good local jobs by winning exports everywhere around the world. When he transferred in from Japan, his new boss thought the first thing Christopher needed to know was that six weeks holidays are obligatory, not just paid for, in Germany.  That and the German norm of 35 hours maximum per week might lower stress levels and take road rage down a notch  in North America, I thought.

But what impressed me most was Christopher’s payroll stub, which refers to a one per cent deduction called “solidarity surcharge.” I’ve never seen such a deduction on a North American payroll stub.  The surcharge goes to raise living standards in former East Germany so everyone there can be lifted to the level of the former West Germany.

In North America, such a way of thinking about proper relationship with the less fortunate is practiced only in Quebec. Anywhere else, people down on their luck might get to feel the stigma of charitable compassion, but mostly are left on their own, wondering why the job-rich economic recoveries of the 1950s and ‘60s got replaced by jobless recoveries of the 1990s and today. They have few social connections that help them get beyond envy at all the breaks that go to the group one level up from where they are or bitterness at the easy life of those just below.

Almost two-thirds of U.S. economic gains since 2002 have gone to the top one per cent of earners, and over 25 hedge fund managers who got pilloried for their role in the mass layoffs and mortgage foreclosures of 2008 are back on billion a year salaries, leading business journalist Chrysta Freeland writes in this issue of the Atlantic. As if anticipating the murderous weekend, she challenges the mainstream notion that the world has become flatter, and argues instead it has gotten “spikier.”

Equally prescient, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff wrote in a Sunday January 9 column about the mental health consequences of garish inequality. Murderer Jared Loughner was identified as having severe mental health problems by classmates and authorities, none of whom evidently referred him to help, perhaps for the very wicked reason that no-one in authority cares enough to help someone with mental illness or because no free and accessible help exists.

To go further out on a limb: the connection between violence and food system products is popularly understood when booze is involved in a fight. By contrast, hamburgers and fries are rarely accused of causing violent behavior by white male youth who subsist on them. But the standard junkfood diet of North America is dangerously low in many nutrients, notably omega fatty acids found most easily in fish and walnuts, fats that were likely crucial in early human evolution. I say dangerously low not only because of the body’s physical need for such fats, essential to heart health, but because these fats deliver mental health benefits that counter depression and expression.

Washington-based National Institute of Health clinician Dr. Joseph Hibbeln created a momentary stir in 2001 with research showing lower murder rates by prisoners who ate fish regularly. Harvard’s Dr. Andrew Stoll wrote about EFAs as “the new pharmacology of aggression” in his 2001 book, The Omega-3 Connection, and expressed “hope that at least part of the answer” to such problems as “intermittent explosive disorder” “may be as simple as omega-3 fatty acid.”

I am not remotely suggesting that Tea party talkshow hosts should chill on salmon, and I am aware that the ready availability of salmon has not brought out Sarah Palin’s inner peacenik. But when talking about all the angry people who live in one of the most blessed and wealthy countries in the world, we need to picture people who go through a regular day feeling unnerved, edgy, out of sorts, enraged and close to the boiling point because antacids and laxatives can’t overcome the absence of any fiber, calming B vitamins and balancing omega fats.

No reason to get too sociological about the causes of these tragedies, or even to look inward, as if  personal defects are the cause of the problem. But there is much to think about.

(adapted from NOW Magazine, January  13-19, 2011; see the original at


  1. Fern says:

    Thank you for your insightful thoughts and expanding this conversation. There are many levels to what happened and this is one the also needs to be included.

  2. Michael Robertson says:

    Right on brother – i’m by the calming Pacific right now. Have you seen this little beauty about the soft-wiring of empathy? …it’s excellent kinda like ‘storyofstuff’ but wilder funnier more articulate renderings.

    I can never understand why humans don’t get that extra small step from group/national compassion to world/earth compassion.
    Can’t wait for our 100 years of peace and sure hope you and i make (next lifetime if not this:)

    be well

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