Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Fatally Besotted

July 20th, 2009 · 10 Comments

Upon reading this tragic yet all-too-common tale from this morning’s New York Times, we were reminded of our long-held hypothesis that a huge number of homicides would never occur were it not for the ingestion of alcohol. Yet we’ve never really had a good sense of what percentage of killings involve inebriated parties—at least until we read this recent paper from the Australian Institute of Criminology:

The current study sought to build on the limited Australian research on alcohol-related homicide by examining solved homicides recorded in the National Homicide Monitoring Program over a six year period. Of the 1,565 homicides, nearly half (47%) of the incidents were classified as alcohol related and of those, over half involved both the victim and offender consuming alcohol prior to the incident.

The paper’s two tables are fascinating, especially the one that breaks down the analyzed homicides by date, time, and place. The most dangerous place to drink? In your very own home, between 6 p.m. and midnight on a weekend night, with friends. And if you’re unemployed, you’re twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide than one of your working peers.

The looming question, of course, is how to reduce the number of such homicides—a tough assignment, given that so many of the violent incidents take place in private quarters. We’ll surely be exploring some possible solutions in future posts, so please keep an eye peeled.

And please note that Microkhan is a devoted aficionado of hops, the grape, and distilled spirits, and so is not proposing any kind of prohibition. As we’ve stated before, we blanch at the thought of living in a dry town.

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Lennox

    The only issue I’d take with this survey is the whole ‘correlation not equal to causation’ thing. In other words, I can’t help but wonder how many of the ‘alchohol related’ homicides would have occurred even if the people involved had been drinking O’doul’s.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Lennox: That’s a really good point. This type of research, alas, is always gonna ripe for that sort of critique, as there’s no way to design an appropriately controlled study. (See my post re: cloud seeding from last week for another example of such research.)

    I think we can all speak from experience, though, in affirming that we’re much more likely to escalate pointless arguments when we’re drunk than when we’re sober. I mean, how many times have you gotten in a spat while drinking, only to wake up the next day and think, “Why the hell did I keep on arguing about that?” Add in some borderline personalities and/or weapons, and things can get real hairy, real fast.

  • Captured Shadow

    This is kind of an interesting paper. Since it is retrospective it can’t really prove causation. At first glance it seems like you should be able to draw conclusions about alcohol and homicide by looking at the homicides that involved alcohol and those that didn’t but that bivariate odds ratio is not really informative. For example, in table 1, looking at the day of the week, the incidence for alcohol related homicide is significantly above average on Sunday and below average on Monday. Assuming that more people drink on Sunday than on Monday you might conclude that more booze lead to more death. However, since you don’t know the rates of drinking you can’t know for sure. Just like the number of accidents is higher, on higher traffic days, but you don’t know the rate without adjusting for the number of cars on the road. Some low traffic days can have higher accident rates, even with fewer accidents. Some high boozing days might have lower rates of alcohol related homicide than low boozing days. Tying the numbers to a survey of alcohol consumption broken down by the same categories would be really revealing.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Thanks for the good statistical points, per the usual. Def. see your point re: lack of data regarding consumption.

    I sympathize with criminologists who tackle research tasks such as this, because they obviously have to deal with the filter of the cops–that is, the people who actually make the first contact with the incidents, and thus collect all of the relevant data. Because it’s not SOP for cops to conduct Breathalyzers with homicide suspects, the researchers can only go by self-report surveys. Not the case with the victims, though–I was struck by this tidbit, referencing back to an earlier study:

    “The third and most recent study was conducted by Darke and Duflou (2008) and examined 473 toxicological reports for homicide victims in New South Wales. They estimated that 42 percent of homicide victims had been drinking alcohol prior to their death and had a median blood alcohol content of 0.14g/100ml, which is nearly three times over the legal limit for driving in Australia.”

    I still think alcohol is at the root of a lot of homicides–the old two-buddies-and-a-12-pack-leading-to-tragedy scenario. My question now is how we limit such incidents without resorting to self-defeating measures such as prohibition. Hmmmm….

  • Lennox

    @Brendan: While I definitely agree that alcohol often escalates as per anecdotal evidence, I would point out that the same logic can be used to make the opposite point, in that there’s been several times that a friend and I have squashed escalating tension at the bottom of a bottle of something or other (‘nah man, I’m sorry’ ‘nah bruh, I’m the asshole, I’m sorry’ ad nauseum).

    Now with these situations, we already had the desire and motivation to reconcile, and used the alcohol as a means of suppressing our inhibitions of being open to each other (cause e’erbody knows that when two dudes talk about how they feel about each other it gives them teh ghey), whereas our two buddies-and-a-12-pack(and-presumably-a-shotgun) leading to tragedy example probably includes a latent animosity in the relationship. And in this case, the alcohol suppresses the inhibition of letting that underlying animosity out into the open.

    I’m kind of playing drunken devil’s advocate here, as I agree with you alot more than my argument would seem to indicate, but I have a real problem with the tendency of our culture to seek an external cause of things that are the manifestation of the darkness that lives in the heart of mankind (it should be said here that – contrary to modern Christian orthodoxy – I believe the potential for ‘good’ also exists within us in equal portion). But if a human being has given their mind over to their inner demons, no sobriety (or religion) will prevent that from manifesting in some way at some point. People don’t shoot someone, or bash their head in with a blunt object, or do any of the other myriad things we’ve figured to kill each other, without some serious psychological prep work. It takes more than a bottle of tequilla. Perhaps the alcohol suppresses inhibitions enough to allow that final step (especially when anger and other such emotions are stirred up) but the path to that homicide was started long before, in my opinion.

    You could make a parallel to that greatest of morality fables, Star Wars. If you make Palpatine represent alcohol, you could put the responsibility for Anakin (Lord Vader, at that point) rampaging through the Jedi Academy, murdering the younglings, at his feet. It would be similar to blaming the whiskey when old Larry decides to off Billy Bob for saying his momma was a cheap barnyard whore. And, sure the whiskey probably suppressed inhibition enough for Larry to make that final step. But I would bet a dollar or two that Larry had taken many steps before then in his own mind to prepare for him to take the plunge into the Dark Side, just as Anakin had taken his own steps (such as murdering the sand-people and so forth).

    Also, a preview button would really spruce up the place :) Also.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Lennox: Ah, yes, a preview button–good idea. Will be added soon–we’ve been meaning to do some WordPress maintenance.

    I agree 100 percent that alcohol itself can never be the true culprit in a homicide. I’m a big fan of the personal-responsibility theory, too, and I think the law reflects this–diminished capacity due to alcohol is not a defense in the American legal system, correct? While alcohol may serve to push someone over the edge, the substance only teases out certain sinister tendencies that were already present.

    What’s fascinating about the Australian data is that the majority of the homicides involved either beatings or stabbings, rather than firearms. Strikes me that there’s a lot less impulsiveness involved in non-firearms murders, which doesn’t speak well of the perpetrators of the homicides detailed in the report.

    (By this I mean the fact that stabbing someone strikes me as a much tougher means of killing than simply squeezing a trigger. And using one’s fists or feet, well…)

    Not sure how you’d construct a study to determine whether any homicides have been prevented by alcohol use. But if anyone knows of such research out there, by all means, please let me know–true Microkhan fodder.

  • Captured Shadow

    I agree that alcohol can lower inhibitions, so if you really want to kill somebody, alcohol should help you get over your resistance to doing it. In that way, I think it plays a big role in homicides. But this study didn’t really look at other substances that might contribute – like cocaine, or meth, or twinkies.

    I’m not sure how you reduce the number of drunken stabbings. I kind of think you might get some interesting correlations with socio-economic status. (I don’t recall CEOs in the news for getting drunk and stabbing a spouse very often). So just make everyone rich and famous?

  • Lennox

    Synchronicity is a motherfucker and I’m slightly inebriated… But in working on a certain aspect of teleplay I’m in the stages of writing, this conversation came front and center.

    Essentially, the character I’m working with is gonna do some horrible, evil-heart-of-man shit, and he’s gonna be drunk when he does it. But in the case of the incident in question, he will choose to ‘crack the bottle’ so as to unleash the beast that his sober self is afraid to allow control. This individual character has so much hatred and rage within him that he needs to let it breathe, but he is acculturated in such as way as to prevent that, so he gets smashed because he knows that’s the only way he can let this demon speaking in his ear have the wheel.

    So in this instance, the alcohol most certainly makes the homicide possible, but the choice to drink it happens well aware of this fact, so the true choice to commit murder happens while sober. The character just needs the booze to suppress that inner Jimminy Cricket, and he knows it.

    Anyway, so as with most drunken blog comments I can’t be sure if this is some deep shit or the most asinine thing I’ve ever written until I reexamine tomorrow, but I figured the Micromongolians out there may enjoy the food for thought.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Lennox: Okay, I hear you–the guy drinks with the intention of overcoming whatever inhibitions have kept him out of prison so far. Sort of like how the rest of us drink to work up the courage to, say, talk to ladies or deal with family reunions.

    Sounds like we’ve got a classic psychopath on our hands here, but a more interesting one than is commonly portrayed in popular entertainment. Because as you note, he’s only about 95 percent off the rails–he still has that part of him that is cowed by society’s norms. (Or is it that he’s simply afraid of punishment?)

    Trying to think of a movie analogue, but can’t come up with one. Just keep on thinking about that scene in “Poltergeist II” where Craig T. Nelson drinks the demonic worm out of his tequila bottle. No clue why.

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