So we’re left asking “why”? Particularly, why did this malcontent decide to direct his rage at all of those innocent people, and spur him to kill more than thirty innocent people?
The country and the world is full of teenagers who feel like no one understands them, who feel picked on, who feel anger at their peers and want to lash out at everyone – so what makes two in Columbine decide to plan a massacre?
The following thoughts were inspired by an essay about the alienation of young people back in the 80s - written by a psychologist named Urie Bronfenbrenner. He said the way many Americans live our lives today - in disconnected houses, getting into our car for long commutes, dealing with other people as frustrating obstacles going from point A to point B, then going to work, staring at a computer screen, getting back into car, getting angry at the other people on the road again, before coming home and settling in front of our home entertainment center, in which we stare at a screen for more hours before going to bed - disconnects us from any sense of community.
The best things that develop a person’s identity is walking around their community. If they do that, they see their neighbors, and stop and say “hi.” They’re connected to younger people, older people, people who have similar interests and different interests. If you’re driving, you don’t stop and talk to anyone. When you stop and talk to these people, you get a sense of interconnectivity and value in the people you encounter – the shopkeeper sweeping his stoop, the cop on the beat, the old man feeding the pigeons on the park bench (yes - I know, a pretty romantic vision of urban life, but you get the idea).
Anyway, the thinking was, that when you don’t connect to anyone, you grow increasingly isolated. Your interaction with people is reduced to words and images on screen, and irritation and sometimes rage at the other cars on the road. You don’t even see the drivers as people; they’re just disembodied shoulders and heads behind the wheel of a massive machine that just cut you off and who now you’re flipping the bird at. You don’t think of others, because you’re not really communicating with others; you grow self-obsessed and alienated and narcissistic. Violence against others suddenly seems more plausible, since the capacity for empathy has disappeared.
In these shootings, we usually hear similar refrains from the perpetrator’s neighbors: “He was a quiet, loner type… kept to himself, pretty much.” Has there ever been a gregarious, popular, well-liked shooting-spree murderer? If you’ve got a lot of friends, or a family close by, or a support network, chances are your problem-solving options don’t include killing everyone you can find.
I have no idea whether this is what happened in the case of the Virginia Tech shooter. There’s a part of me that resents that anyone in society has to exert any effort to figure out what was going on in his head. But when the consequences of a loner suddenly deciding that mass murder is the solution of his problems is more than thirty dead, somebody should try to figure this guy out.
Maybe something about the way we’ve structured our society has expanded the number of people who feel isolated and disconnected from others, and that somehow impacts the phenomenon of those who decide to lash out at the innocent.