News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Losing another one and the Columbine Syndrome

An update on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Mass killing has moved out of the status of an anomaly into that of being an American tradition.  Firearms and bombs are essential parts of the ritual.

In the minds of people, mass shooters and bombers seem to be two different species.  But at Columbine, both guns, especially assault rifles, and bombs were equal parts of the plans.  The bombs did not work, but the trusty assault rifles made a high kill count possible.  In mass killings, kill counts are the point.

Another assumption is that mass killers have mental anomalies.  But mass killings are getting so common that maybe the minds of the killers are a new normal.  

People who have known 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have generally commented on what a nice boy he seemed.  The bombings and shootings of which he is accused are not the acts of a nice boy in our customary way of thinking.  And he was not a person who seemed bullied by or estranged from his peers.  He was successful and popular in high school. He seemed to be having academic problems in college, however.   His friends commented that he did not seem to possess any hint of malice.  However, the experts who have analyzed his social media accounts, noted more that a trace of anger or bitterness in some recent entries.  

Dzhokhar appears to be one of those nice boys that we lost.  It is not something professors talk about much, but the occasions that weigh dark and heavy on the academic soul is when  students of ability,  good will and good purpose  go awry.  Usually, drugs or alcohol  or personal relationships with damaging people are involved.  Most dismaying and depressing is when a student pursues some ideology that leads to destruction.  

The late adolescent and early adult years are times when thinking young people get earnest about formulating values and investigating their options.  They tend to try out philosophies and life-styles, often motivated by aspects they did not like during their upbringing.  The hippy era was a mass revolt from the bourgeois values that middle class kids found repressing and unjust.  But the revolt was premised on a superficial, peer-determined set of values which were conditioned by the very forces of trivial materialism that the kids were revolting against. During that age of funky armpits, the absence of personal hygiene was often mistaken for the presence of discerning intellects.   Revolt and experimentation are a part of adolescence and early adulthood, but knowledge and intelligence tend to prevail over the immature posturings for the most part.  

Our times have brought a different social dynamic as the shaping force in young peopleTeachers and astute parents note that values and conduct demonstrated in the home are overruled by their children's peer culture.  Young people respond to peer cliques much the same way that inner city youths respond to gangs.  In dealing with bullying, some high school counselors have observed that the brutality and hostility apparent in some school cliques approaches the intensity of gangs.  In effect, some of our children are living a massive Lord of the Flies, estranged from the cultural institutions that focus on the better angels of human nature, and for some the demons of conflict and destruction become operating principles.  A couple of generations have grown up in the presence of near-constant terror attacks and their motivating hatreds.  Those attacks have contributed to, if not caused, a prevailing attitude of belligerence and domination in our culture. What we call bullying is a form of that other phenomenon we call culture war.  They both stem from a divisive impulse through which productive communication and reasoning are displaced by slogans and stereotypes that have no intellectual content, but serve to divide people into factions driven by malice toward other factions.  When the factions act out on that malice, we call it radicalization.  

The investigators of the Boston Marathon bombing are probing to see if the radicalization of the accused bombers was brought about by foreign influences. It is difficult for Americans to acknowledge that the motives for radicalization are present in abundance in our own society.  The divide that has developed and is growing wider each day in American society is reflected in our politics and in the propaganda strategies that drive it. Cable television news, talk radio, and the Internet are primarily occupied with accounts of the fabricated accusations and malicious lies of one faction trying to discredit another faction.  Trafficking in malice is the major commodity flowing through the media, and the halls of Congress provide a steady contribution to the inflammatory assaults on groups and individuals.  

Last year's election campaign provided many substantial reasons for some people to decide it might be time to get radical.  Our economy is not able to provide jobs through which people can support families.  Students burdened with college loan debts have to take jobs that do not provide enough to pay off those debts.  South Dakota is one of the leading states in which people work two or more jobs to try to get by, but still come up short.  Mitt Romney lumped these people into the 47 percent he dismissed as slackers.  Paul Ryan included them in the 30 percent he said were takers, not makers.  It does not take some Islamic imam to make these people feel disrespected and dismissed.  They can hear it constantly on cable news tv, talk radio, and read it on the Internet.  

The real puzzler is why these people have not already shown more radical tendencies.  A recent poll showed that Americans are very concerned about income inequality, but are reluctant about the government doing anything about it.  With the very low opinion the public has of Congress,  one must wonder why the pollsters expected the  public to put any trust in government.  With 90 percent of the public supporting full background checks on gun purchases and Congress unwilling and unable to address the public's interest, it seems more than a bit absurd that anyone would expect government to to anything about income inequality, particularly with the Republican presidential candidates dissing those who feel this inequality most acutely.  
The Occupy Wall Street movement took up the issue of inequality with peaceful protests that provoked more insult and abuse from those in power.  After officials took militant actions against the movement, it receded from public action.  But it is not gone, and a few thinkers and commentators are beginning to grasp why the movement did not announce an agenda of purposes or anoint leaders.  It wanted at all costs to avoid politics-as-usual.  People who participated in and supported the movement understand that government is too gridlocked to accomplish anything for anyone but its corporate sponsors.  The Occupy people see another form of participatory democracy as the way to realizing what was once the American promise. The Tsarnaev brothers apparently found no way of realization in sight.  

Given the hate speech that has become such a part of our culture, the wonder is that more young people have not chosen radical responses to it.  Lincoln's "malice toward none and charity for all" has become codified as malice toward everyone different from you, and charity is an entitlement of the takers.  And "firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right" is, if you hate, God has given you that as a right.  American Christian fundamentalism is more related to the Taliban than to anything Christ practiced or preached. 

As the season of graduations is upon us,  the question of how many young people we have lost weighs more heavily than what successes our young people will create for the nation.  The question is whether the graduates will take a side in the divide, or, like the Occupy movement, realize that our Republic has failed and needs some very fundamental changes.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States