by Judith Gorman
"It can't happen here," but it already has.
Schoolyard shootings are becoming the car wrecks of the 90's. We can't stop gawking, rubbernecking, and offering advice, opinion, cheap psychology, and pointless palliatives. All the traffic in the country comes to a screeching halt, while the media inflicts relentless wall-to-wall coverage.
By now, everybody with a pulse has weighed in with theories about the tragedy in Littleton. Incarcerated teenage murderers, primatologists, neurologists, behaviorists, the clueless, the self-promoting and the lunatic fringe, plus Sharon Stone, Marilyn Manson, Charlton Heston and a battalion of apologists for the NRA. So many space to fill, so little to say.
In the heady admixture that passes for American culture these days, it has been a week of wretched excess. Instant psychoanalysis from camera-ready members of the healing professions; touching on-the-spot reminiscences from such supernumeraries as uncles, cousins, friends of friends, and former next-door neighbors; mawkish sentimentality with a few a cappella choruses of Amazing Grace.
CNN sent 70 staffers to Littleton, and NBC and ABC counterpunched with another 50 apiece. With a hearty anchors aweigh, Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw arrived on the day after the shootings to offer low seriousness and live standups in front of Columbine High. A mobius strip of Dateline, 20/20, and Inside Edition squeezed excruciating sound bites out of grief stricken relatives and hospitalized victims, in what has become an obligatory exercise in televised vivisection.
The President issued the usual lip service, a proclamation entitled "Helping To Keep Our Schools Safe," Sam and Cokie chaired another colloquy on forensic psychology, and Ted Koppel hosted his umpteenth inspirational town meeting in a Unitarian Church, in which the parents of murderers were urged to apologize to the parents of victims.
Television trivializes tragedies like this one, reducing them to an on air version of a national high colonic. It offers a chance to purge the harmful toxins from the system by expiating guilt, pointing the finger of blame, finishing off with a restorative all-American group hug.
If you wonder why children have trouble distinguishing between fantasy and reality, consider that the first principle of our society is reductio ad absurdum, the propensity to cheapen every event, no matter how great its magnitude, into slogans, bumper stickers and 30 second TV teasers. What more can you expect from a culture that turned the croissant into the croissanwich?
As a society, we are developing increasingly shorter attention spans and lower threshholds for rage. Stopping too long at a red light is enough to cause some drivers to attempt vehicular homicide. So it's not hard to see why some kids might find it easier to become a famous murderer than a scholar, a scientist or a statesman.
When we put teenage killers on the cover of Time and People Magazine, we exacerbate an already volatile situation, and bestow a twisted credibility upon violent antisocial behavior. In so doing, we reward the aberrant few, and ignore the majority of decent honorable kids. By giving voice to the unspeakable, and trumpeting the rise in school shootings we are in grave danger of creating self-fulfilling prophecy.
Adolescent fantasies often revolve around elaborate scenarios of revenge and suicide. Acting out is a classic means of getting attention, and kids are not always capable of discriminating between celebrity and notoriety. Personal mortality seems to be irrelevant, since these kids also describe attending their own funerals, overhearing all the apologies and teary regrets, and seeing their own pictures on the evening news.
There is a line between legitimate reporting and pandering, and the media, with its voracious need to fill airtime, has crossed that line. We are perilously close to creating a new outlet for teenage angst, more compelling than movies, more interactive than video games. Copycat schoolyard massacres, the thrill ride of the 90's.
Newsweek, this week, quotes a young killer: "I'd rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all." If we are looking for reasons, that might be a good place to start.
May 3, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.