Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Bullets from heaven

When it comes to a loved one, death never makes sense, but there are certain ways of dying that just seem to be more difficult to accept than others. Sudden, unexpected deaths, for example, seem to leave deeper, coarser scars than gradual, anticipated deaths. Painful and violent deaths can jar loved ones as if they themselves were stricken. Most frustrating, perhaps, are preventable deaths, which tease us with the possibility that they might never have happened at all. Medical errors are a common reason for such deaths, but at least these are generally good-faith errors; more infuriating are those preventable deaths that result from carelessness, recklessness, or just sheer stupidity. In the movie Babel, when the little boy shoots his father’s new rifle at the travel bus, it is excruciating to watch. We expect to suffer loss from evil, but idiocy makes a surprising and thereby bewildering foe; a terrorist purposefully shooting at the bus would have seemed less senseless and been easier to stomach.

Death by indirect gunfire, thus, may be even more of an outrage to decency than a shooting in cold blood. I for one would rather go by the latter – at least someone will be held to account. We needn’t look far, though, before we see a systemic problem of unchecked indirect gun violence. One can hardly turn on a television of the Middle East without seeing young men firing rifles joyously into the air in celebration of some event or piece of news. I’m sure that for them it’s elating, but there can't be many ways of dying that are more ironic or pointless than being struck down by a stray celebratory bullet. Following the Iraqi soccer team’s victory in the Asian Cup this summer, four people were killed in such a manner. What an odd but horrible piece of knowledge for Iraqi star player Younis Mahmoud that his championship goal resulted in these deaths. Why does the practice continue, you may ask? Ignorance seems to play a large role; a common misconception appears to be that bullets fired skywards will simply continue outward into space. (Ordog) This, unfortunately, turns out not to be the case:

The escape velocity of a bullet has been calculated at more than 7 miles per second. Thus a bullet would have to be fired at a muzzle velocity of greater than 36,766 fps to escape the gravitational pull of the earth and end up in space. Obviously conventional small-arms weapons that we see in civilian practice cannot achieve this type of velocity, so the possibility of escape from the earth is nonexistent. Thus all spent bullets will return to earth. (Ordog)

Examining the physics a little bit more closely:

When a bullet is fired vertically into the air at >2500 feet per second (fps), the air resistance slows the bullet down about 60 times as fast as does gravity. When the velocity decreases, air resistance decreases and has less effect. Gravity reduces the upward velocity at the rate of 32 fps until the bullet has stopped its upward flight; then gravity starts it toward earth at 32 fps, and then there is a 32 fps increase for every second that the bullet drops, less the amount that air resistance holds it back. When the bullet reaches the top of its flight, it is still spinning, and if it is stable it falls back base first. Occasionally, it falls back either point first or tumbles, thus either decreasing or increasing its flight time. With a very sharply pointed bullet, the resistance on the bullet is less, and on the square base much greater, so that bullets coming down nose first fall faster than those that fall base first, but even so, a 150-grain, .30-caliber bullet tends to balance its weight against the air resistance at a velocity of about 300 fps. (Ordog)

This, the CDC summarizes, is a force “sufficient. . .to penetrate the human skull and cause serious injury or death.” In Puerto Rico, where celebratory gunfire is quite common, the news media has estimated that on New Year’s Eve, approximately two people die each year and 25 more are injured.

In a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan, the threat of raining bullets is only one of your concerns when firing weapons into the air. More dangerous is the worry that you might give someone the wrong impression. In 2002, 48 Afghanis were killed and 117 wounded when U.S. airmen mistook their celebratory gunfire at a wedding party for hostile fire. The same sad story has played out in Iraq several times since then. What, also, about that other presence in the sky? You would think that the deeply religious, before firing their weapons skywards, might pause in fear that God would misinterpret their intentions. What if He thought you were actually firing at Him? Would you not expect Him to return fire?

After the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, a close friend of mine with connections there told me that the faithful reacted in three different ways. One group found its faith to be a source of strength to get through the crisis. Another lost its faith entirely. A third, moved to extreme anger, fought back by shooting weapons into the sky. How people could have that kind of courage, to take on their god face-to-face, is beyond me. As much respect as I have for their bravery, though, I was also just relieved to finally discover a group of people who were firing shells into the air and knowing exactly what they were doing.

Celebratory gunfire obviously needs to end, and the sooner the better. Following the Iraqi soccer victory, I was glad to see mosque leaders strongly condemn it, but unfortunately, their efforts didn’t seem to have much immediate effect. The practice may already have taken too strong of a cultural hold for it to be vanquished overnight. Where young men have guns, they will likely fire them. While that remains the case, perhaps both the Kashmiris and the wild type gunmen would do well to replace their steel bullets with rubber ones; neither deicide nor manslaughter is a crime that weighs lightly on the conscience.