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  • Michael Milgraum

Posted on December 31, 2012 by Dr.Milgraum

I am not sure what haunts me more—the horrendous news from Connecticut or the incomprehensible fact that we must now be on the lookout for copycats, jealous of the attention given to an insane killer, itching to have their own moment of glory in the evening news. Already, there have been multiple reports of potential copycats out there since the mass slaying. What is going on in this world? We need to think and to think hard about this insanity. I will put down some of my own thoughts herein, which will hopefully spawn more thought and discussion.

Everyone is talking about gun control now. I will, thus, make my comments about guns brief, because there are so many other things that need to be addressed. Suffice it to say that assault rifles are designed to do the maximum amount of damage in the minimal amount of time. They should not be in general circulation. Period. We can go hunting and defend our homes with much more modest firearms.

That being said, we must realize that we delude ourselves if we think that this is just an issue of firearms. There are other vital issues at play now, such as the state of many American youths, the cult of violence, obsession with celebrity/publicity, isolation, glorification of pleasure seeking, and our “me” culture.

Let’s start with the cult of violence. From video games to the latest over-the-top violent movie thriller to sensationalism in the news media, graphic images of violence, gore, and death have saturated our culture. Images of violence have become like the thrill of a roller coaster– they scare you, but, knowing that you are really safe the whole time, you experience it instead like a fun ride. We use violence, or, more accurately, the media uses violence, to use us and to generate a willing pair of eyes to which our consumer society can market. But we do not seem to realize that if we do not treat human destruction with the sensitivity it deserves, we lose our sensitivity entirely and become merely callous and heartless consumers of it.

The obsession with celebrity and publicity is at the heart of those copycat killers we fear. But what we might be loath to face is that, in a sense, they are just a logical conclusion of the thrust of American culture. How many celebrities have profited from the maxim that any press is good press? In the world of celebrity, we seem to find that reputation, morals, and integrity are so much less important than that just being noticed. In fact, as many rappers have demonstrated, the “badder” you are, the more you are noticed and the bigger you become. But that is the vexing problem in this country. With a new twist on the maxim “might makes right,” our actions now proclaim “sight makes right,” meaning that “as long as I get you to notice me, you might buy what I’m selling, thus increasing my strength.” Well, nothing makes anyone take notice more than a gun.

What about isolation? I will tell you that, as a therapist, I see, day after day, that isolation is one of the number one problems in this country, especially amongst American youth. People are burrowed into their little technological worlds, using Facebook, texting, email, Twitter, etc. to limit how much face-to-face contact they have with others. These technological hideaways allow us to recreate ourselves, show only as much as we would like others to see. Our hideaways make it much more difficult for family and friends to have some actual authentic access to us and perhaps intervene if we are unstable or in crisis.

All this technology facilitates our isolation, but it did not cause it. In fact, when the Internet came on the scene, American culture was already a fractured landscape, populated by many isolated and hurting people. The astounding rates of divorce (driven by many people who enter marriage thinking that it is supposed to gratify all their needs) has gone a long way in shattering social connections. In its wake are countless hurting children who do not understand why they have become negotiable commodities in legal battles, where the “best interests of the child” is only a slogan. But it goes beyond the ravages of divorce. There is far too little awareness of our responsibility to be involved in our communities. Many people withdraw and just don’t bother. But the sad truth is that the easy way is many times not the healthy way. We withdraw, self-isolate and consequently, contribute to the atrophy of social networks which make up society.

The fabric of American society is also suffering because we are spoiled. We believe that pain is intolerable and that it is our right to be happy. (Jefferson said our right was the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself.) Further, our culture goes the next step and equates happiness with physical pleasure. That is why recreational drugs and promiscuity capture so much American interest. They promise us physical pleasure, which we believe to be the pathway to happiness. But the truth about physical pleasure is that if it is not balanced with a meaningful life, it will always disappoint. And when they are disappointed, people either ramp up their stimulating activity of choice or seek something more stimulating, like violence and fame, combined—perhaps the ultimate in stimulation.

How are our American youth doing? Not well. Our youths are the canaries in the coal mine. They are the impressionable minds, the ones who reflect our worst and best traits back to us. They are absorbing all of these influences and it is dehumanizing them, just as we are being dehumanized. Many of them have looked into the heart of the meaninglessness of our culture and they do not know any way back from the abyss. Some fall in and then we all must pay the price.

This article was published on and in the Washington Jewish Week.

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