Observations on the Newtown Tragedy and its Larger Societal Implications

Shady Hook School, Newtown, CTI’m going to take a step away from the usual focus of my blog posts to address the larger cultural factors that really need to be on everyone’s radar screen as we “process” the horrific actions in Newtown, CT. The school massacre has left a community reeling and I’m sure many are re-examining their thinking about what this all means in the “larger context” of our society and culture.

A good friend of mine I’ve known since college, Wesley Green, is someone whose opinion I value highly. He’s been a “media person” for decades and always has interesting observations to share about the “bigger meaning” of events as they occur.

Wes sent me his observations about Newtown, meant for my eyes only, but I found them thought-provoking and compelling enough to want to share with my blog audience. With his permission, here is what Wes shared with me:

We all wonder how something like this could happen …

The natural disposition of humans is to be compassionate and outward looking. We are by nature people of community—predisposed to love and take care of each other. But … when afflicted by a psychological or neurological injury, humans lurch towards some form of narcissism.

Common in small children whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, narcissism re-emerges, sometimes with a vengeance, in adults as an unconscious reaction to neurological/psychological disequilibrium. As far as I can tell, all mental illness is accompanied by some form of narcissism in that one’s capacity for empathy is somehow impaired.

How narcissistic tendencies are enabled …

The modern world unfortunately gives people novel opportunities to indulge any narcissistic tendencies. Video games allow people to be the heroes of their own virtual worlds – worlds in which they have power and prestige.

Websites, including social sites, also allow people to feel more … consequential.

But I think the most insidious modern innovation remains television. Not only does TV blur the lines between fantasy and reality, it can actually turn fantasy into reality.

Why TV may be a linchpin …

More than any other media, television has the power to take “nobodies” and transform them into “somebodies” almost overnight. We see it on American Idol, The X-Factor, and a host of reality TV shows (Jersey Shore, anyone?). So much celebrity is doled out, it becomes an achievable goal to many – including people with weapons.

TV also has power no other media have to legitimize formerly illegitimate behavior. The Brady Bunch did more than people realize to legitimize blended families. Years later, shows like Modern Family and Glee helped change our attitudes about gays.

But … there is a flip side: Behaviors once considered not just off-limits but barbaric also have gained some legitimacy when those behaviors are seen to bring global attention to a “worthy” cause and thus advance it. For years now, violent demonstrations and terrorist attacks have been scripted to maximize broadcast exposure.

It doesn’t take much imagination for a narcissist to connect dots and suffuse his/her own personal fantasies with the same import. “Round-the-clock international newsfeeds” and “deadly impulses” make for a combustible mixture.

Newtown TragedySo, what does this mean?

It seems to me that the problem isn’t that these “suburban terrorists” see too much violence on television and in the news. It’s that they yearn to see themselves on television and in the news.

While they may have an impulse to vent their rage, what they really covet is the immortality that comes with a leading role in some sort of Götterdämmerung—in prime time.

Regulating automatic weapons may help, but when glory beckons a twisted ego, I suspect that ego will find a way to answer the call.

Alas, ironically, as we become increasingly connected to each other through technology, we’re being forced to put up new barricades to protect ourselves from those who want to use that “connectedness” to advertise their own perverse agendas and/or raise their own humiliatingly low profiles.

Is it something particular about America and our culture?

It’s too pat a response to contend that more restrictive gun control laws are all that stand in the way of solving the problems of mass shooting in the United States. I think that answer is deceptively easy – and insufficient.

The more I think about this, I suspect there may be one more important ingredient in the toxic brew: the central place of “aspiration” in the American psyche.

In the U.S., self-worth is largely defined by achievement. We are what we manage to accomplish in life. (Not so much in most other countries/cultures. At least, not historically.) All of us — except African-Americans and Native Americans — are descended from people who came here chasing dreams.

Even today, we measure ourselves by milestones along similar personal journeys. In fact, so important is “accomplishment” in our culture that we now have a website that purports to be able to quantify it: Klout.

It is instructive, I think, that all the young gunmen who have perpetrated these awful acts are males of European or Asian descent. They come out of middle-class, strongly aspirational cultures. It leaves one to wonder if the same ethos that drives innovation in Silicon Valley and entrepreneurial activity coast to coast also factors heavily into the narcissistic fantasies of disturbed young men. Mass murder is simply the shadow side of headline personal success: headline personal failure.

Remember this line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman:

“I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have — to come out Number One man.”

Interesting, no?

When you understand the strong impulse middle-class Americans have to make a splash in life — our fascination with the BIG statement … and then factor in the disorientation of mental illness and the opportunities for really big statements afforded by the modern media, maybe the questions “Why in America?” and “Why these middle-class young men?” begin to answer themselves a little more easily.

What’s ahead?

It’s chilling to contemplate, but the future may look a lot like this:

We’ll increasingly live in gated communities.
 We’ll increasingly shop in malls with airport-like security.
 We’ll increasingly worship behind doors outfitted with metal detectors.
 We’ll increasingly send our kids to schools that look like Fort Knox.
 Our physical connectedness will dissipate even as our virtual connectedness expands.

A horrific thought. What’s worse, I suspect there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it – gun control regulations or no.

In addition to Wesley’s observations above, I’d be interested in your own views about Newtown and what it says about our society and culture. Please share your thoughts below if you feel so inclined.

3 thoughts on “Observations on the Newtown Tragedy and its Larger Societal Implications

  1. Well stated, especially in the context of “accomplishment” in the U.S. versus other societies — at least until our influence on their society changes their definition of accomplishment to the proverbial Warhol quarter hour. And it does put “gun control” or dynamite control, for that matter, in perspective.

    Isn’t the problem, really, that a free society will always have statistical outliers? So, access to guns or dynamite or blunt objects is meaningless for those within the bell curve; indeed, they will bicker about gun or broadsword availability from the perspective of those who wouldn’t abuse them under any condition.

    The problem is not unlike the nuclear threat of North Korea — sadly, the country is a staticstical outlier, laughable were it not for the suffering of its citizens. But when you put the opportunity for nuclear weapons in the mix, the laughter dies quickly.

    So how do we control the entropy of a free society? We obviously do that already; that’s what prisons are for.

    In the case of these mass murders, do we just accept the acts as an unfortunate part of the cultural fabric? Do we eliminate the means of expression of the antisocial behavior — mainly guns, but I’m sure there are other ways of accomplishing the same horrible goals? Vastly restrict the freedoms of potential perpetrators, but recognize that we might have to restrict 100 or 1,000 innocent nerds (what if they’re like me and you?) for every legitimate hazard?

    Or do we, as responsible citizens, refuse to sponsor in any way the garbage that passes as entertainment or social currency, mostly by making them economically unprofitable?

    Should we have some personal, self-imposed (not legal, just ethical) standards established on the concept that things that show a society that is stupid or callous or violent will utlmately encourage some in that society to be stupid, callous or violent?

    I know it sounds kinda 1950’s … but the passage of time shows that there were some merits to that decade.

  2. I love the use of the term “toxic brew.” I’d like to add another element to that brew that doesn’t get enough discussion.

    There are millions of boys and young men who have been placed on stimulants and/or powerful antidepressants. The number of these new “disorders” muddies the waters when it comes to how we deal with severe psychosis and biological chemical imbalance.

    The side effects of some of these chemicals include aggression and detachment from reality. As a matter of fact, the military may disqualify a young man who is or has been on certain of these “medications” for a period of time.

    Fantasy, gratuitous violence on TV and video games combined with no exercise, fresh air, proper diet, absence of faith and family involvement — putting this all together equals an unhealthy existence. Relationships being replaced by anonymous electronic contact is real detachment. Combine that with chemical detachment and one of the results is the absence of empathy.

    Mr. Green uses the words “narcissistic tendencies,” and I agree. Jessie James defined himself — and found his fame and relevance — through notorious acts of violence. In his day, he was just an evil criminal living in the Wild West. No one thought that access to guns was the problem. Because it wasn’t.

  3. As the facts become known, I am sure there will be many factors that contributed to this tragedy but it seems to me those that have been mentioned are just contributing factors and do not address the root cause.

    Just as we all have the capacity to love and be compassionate, each of us also has the capacity to hate and cause harm. I make choices everyday on how to react to the world around me. My choices are influenced by many complex factors – belief system, experiences, learned behavior, societal norms, etc… As we learn more about the life of Adam Lanza we will know much of what influenced his choice to take these lives. One thing that we know, he was intelligent and cognitive, despite his disorder. In the end, his was a choice made easier by a culture that blurs the distinction of right from wrong.

    I observe the truth of “garbage in, garbage out” everyday in the behavior of others. If we over indulge in our eating habits this holiday, we not surprised by our weight gain.

    Why then, should we be surprised by someone who kills, when they have the innate capacity and have been feed, by our culture, a diet of “toxic brew”? Here’s the recipe …

    1) moral relativism (do your own thing, make up your own truth)

    2) violent video games and TV programming (numbness to violence)

    3) drugs to control behavior (convenient solution but does not meet the real human desire for purpose, meaning, belonging, and to be loved)

    4) a culture that puts a very low value on human life (examples are evolution and abortion)

    5) narcissism (already mentioned in this blog)

    6) gun culture (where guns are commonplace, not used by some with respect and constraint and their misuse highly publicized)

    7) divorce and broken homes (pain and loss of parental leadership)

    Adam Lanza made a dreadful and tragic decision fueled by many aspects of his personal life and the culture he grew up in. We can do something individually and as a society to stop feeding our children this toxic brew and teach them there are lines in this world that should never be crossed. We as a society should strongly condemn this kind of behavior, stop feeding our youth toxic brew and show them there are better choices.

    My wife and I are very active in the lives of youth, not just our own. We provide them an alternate place to hang out, have fun, be cool no matter who you are, and to be lead by others who take an active role in their lives so that they can learn how to effectively and rightly deal with the problems/challenges that life presents.

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