Food for Thought

by Eric Hamilton

During a recent conversation I had with my father, the two of us speculated about the trend that’s occurred throughout this millennium, of disturbed individuals walking into public places (particularly schools) and randomly shooting people. Our conversation was inspired in large part by the recent tragic story of a young woman who journeyed to Colorado in an attempt to reenact the Columbine school-massacre on its twentieth anniversary. When she was prevented from doing so, the eighteen-year-old woman (a Florida high school student) committed suicide.

The obvious ‘liberal’ answer to this mystery is that it is too easy for people to buy guns—and while the public’s access to military-grade weapons does seem to be a real problem, I think the question of random shootings is far more complicated than guns.

One obvious ‘conservative’ answer to the problem is that ‘there are too many violent video-games’. And while such violent games are also a problem, I don’t think they come close to solving the mystery.

One popular answer, cited by both liberals and conservatives alike, is that our society isn’t doing enough to ‘manage’ its mentally ill. And I find this answer alarming, due to the fact that most of us (myself included) are ‘mentally ill’ in one way or another. The idea of the ‘psychologically normal’ person is, after all, a myth. What’s more, the idea that ‘normal people’ need to be protected from the mentally ill (who typically aren’t violent) is misleading and stigmatizes mental illness. Worse, such negative attitudes about mental illness often prevent genuinely disturbed people from seeking help. And of course, there is the basic truth that mental illness isn’t new—yet mass-shootings are.

So what’s causing this relatively new, violent trend?

My father suggested that random shootings are expressions of despair, and this is certainly true. Yet what is the root of this despair? And what does it say about the society at large?

It would be far, far too easy to attribute the despair of school-shooters to current events or to the current political climate (to Donald Trump or Speaker Pelosi, depending on your party affiliation). Similarly, it would be all too easy to invoke popular music or video-games or the decline of organized religion (particularly among the young), but really, I think that something far subtler is going on.

I would say that random violence is the result of a culture that combines self-consciousness with isolation.

The 24-hour news cycle of the ‘90’s has been sped up—first by the internet, then by social media. We no longer wait for ‘breaking news’—we break our own news on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, sometimes tweeting in-depth ‘reports’ about what we’ve had for lunch. And in some ways, this makes us feel more connected to each other—but maybe not ‘connected’ in the right ways.

I think Facebook is a little bit like voyeurism…and exhibitionism. Like leafing through a stranger’s photo-album (remember those?), or leaving your curtains open so that your neighbors can watch while you change clothes.

We seem to be living in a screen-based world…and the screens are getting smaller, so that now we can watch TV on our phones in the supermarket, rather than at home in our living rooms. We become addicted to (and hyperaware of) what’s going on in the electronic world, and less aware of each other in the real world, and this can lead to loneliness…and loneliness can lead to irrational rage.

Keep in mind—I’m not condemning people who use smart-phones or Facebook, and I, myself, love the internet. There are definite benefits to all the new innovations and most people are not warped by the new media environment. However, due to this ‘information revolution’, social interaction has changed radically in a very short time, and I’m afraid that outbreaks of random violence may be part of the subsequent ‘growing-pains’.