Exploring Human Potential

America’s Children Succumb To “The Great Oppressor” Writ Large

Posted on | December 18, 2012 | Comments Off on America’s Children Succumb To “The Great Oppressor” Writ Large

Mike Magee

Sunday night, while attending the Memorial above in my home town, I wondered, “Did we as a nation do all that was possible to avoid the disaster in Newtown, CT?” Clearly no. A second question: “Do the issues of what we didn’t do – manage our guns, manage our mentally ill, manage our violent culture – require elaborate study?” Not really. What we require is thoughtful and deliberate action.

Policy defines action. Actions seek to alter or curtail human behavior – move us forward toward our finer selves in the interest of the collective good. Public health leaders are more than familiar with this concept of managing our human weaknesses and disability.

Back in 1996, 100 collaborators from more than 20 countries worldwide attempted to measure the world’s current and future health needs. The creation of a unit of measure – the DALY or Disability Adjusted Life Year, the equivalent of one year of active living lost to poor heath – provided a method of comparing and prioritizing the many competing health needs of the world’s population.(1)

Dr. Lopez, one of the lead authors of the study said at the time, “Development of healthcare policy is not about predictions or wish lists for the future. Rather, it is a process that aims to challenge assumptions and encourage fresh thinking to better understand the future.”(1)

One of the insights of that study was that the greatest loss of DALY’s occurred as a result of conditions or threats that struck early in life. Thus, the failure of America to prevent the attack on the Newtown school ended the lives of twenty (20) six and seven year olds, thus eliminating all of their future promise to our nation. In short the cost was enormous, even if one does not calculate in the collateral damage to all of us who share in the shame and grief of this event.

In the 1996 study, it was clear that active and enlightened government was essential for progress. To turn words into action required knowledge of what works and how much it costs. In developing countries, resources were required to create infrastructure for clean water, sanitation, adequate nutrition and medical supplies. Equally necessary were strategies that curtailed violence and successfully accomplished vaccination, maternal education and safe sex education. In developed countries, the resources to educate, diagnose and treat, long term, a population currently overwhelmed by diabetes, heart disease, cancer and depression; and more importantly, to develop educational and motivational tools that successfully promoted a peaceful, non-violent society along with healthy diets, exercise, early screening, and treatment compliance, were all required.

In short, there was and is the need to finance and execute programs that address acute threats and promote healthy behaviors. What do we know works? First, facts, in the form of statistics and hard data, that are accurate, up-to-date and compelling. We have plenty of that when it comes to gun violence.

Second, stories, true stories that put a human face on data. Sadly, we have 26 new tragic stories – 20 of which are accompanied by angelic little faces – hopeful, innocent, beloved.

Third, political pressure, the ability to mobilize a constituency around a concrete goal and objective, with a target time for completion. Dear God, if we Americans don’t have that now, I’m not sure what it will take.

We would like a “knight in shining armor,” to lead us forward. Wouldn’t that be easy – you know, someone like us – from the same geography, race, or religion – someone with a reassuring regional accent, our unique brand of diplomacy, who wouldn’t offend. But in America, we are defined by our differences. Action requires agreement.

A decade ago, John Seffrin, president of the American Cancer Society, called the Global Burden of Disease “the great oppressor, perhaps the single greatest cause of loss of personal freedom.” In the death of these children, due to our inability to adequately address gun violence, mental illness, and a culture of aggression we see our oppressor writ large.

It is clear that a challenge of this magnitude requires cross-sector platforms and cooperative partnerships.(2) What might each sector contribute? Government can provide consistent high yield objectives, presidential leadership and bi-partisan agreements. Academics can provide ongoing research, proven strategies and outcome measurements. Non-governmental organizations, or NGO’s, can provide services on the ground, real-time surveillance, and expertise in advocacy and communications. And industry can provide financial and human resources,  political contacts and reach to encourage swift action.

We are an oppressed people. Violence steals our future potential, our freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. If we allow these children to die in vain, we will have forfeited any hope of American exceptionalism. This is our moment.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Murray CJL, Lopez AD. Evidence-based health policy-lessons from the Global Burden of Disease Study. Science. 1996; 274:740-743.

2. Magee, M. Qualities of enduring cross-sector partnerships in public health. The American Journal of Surgery. 185(2003) 26-29.


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