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.