March 1, 2015
Six people were killed Sunday in Crandon, Wisconsin, by a guy who was upset that his girlfriend had moved on. (Can't imagine why she would have done that.) The shooter was also killed after opening fire on a police car. Not the brightest guy in the neighborhood.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the forties, I can't recall any hearing about any mass shootings. Now we have kids taking guns into schools and attacking everyone in sight. Lunatics opening up in movie theaters. People with rifles picking off drivers they know nothing about. When I was teaching, during the sixties and seventies, that sort of behavior was unheard of. My first recollection of a mass shooting anywhere in the United States dates from 1966. A nutcase with a deer rifle climbed to the top of a water tower in Austin, Texas, and killed fourteen strangers. We were horrified. It was, to the best of my knowledge, thought of across the country as a unique incident.
I haven't heard anyone attempt to explain what's changed in our culture. Are we simply producing more lunatics now because something's gotten into the drinking water? Is it because guns are relatively easy for anyone to acquire? (That, as far as I'm aware, was also the case in 1946.) Is it because movies have become more violent? Or a lot of kids grow up with violent games and don't see the difference between taking out a figure on a computer screen and actually putting a bullet into a guy down in the parking lot?
One thing seems certain: The country is angrier now than it used to be. We're divided by all sorts of cultural issues, political, religious, ethical, whatever. Reporters are asking politicians whether they believe in evolution, cable shows with a need to fill time give us people arguing a wide range of subjects, while rarely calling in experts. We live in an age during which people with scientific training in a given area are treated with contempt and usually brushed aside.
And the internet takes everything a step farther. Terrorist groups are now seeking support for their maniacal operations by encouraging, apparently with some success, people to sign up for the cause, and either head for Syria or attack their local mall. None of this could have been imagined by any science fiction writer seventy years ago in Startling Stories. Flying cars were one thing. But nobody would have believed this other stuff. If nothing else, there's a serious lesson here regarding how difficult it is to predict the future.
The real lesson, though, might be that technology inevitably has a down side. With people attacking each other nightly on TV over issues like immigration and government assistance for health care, it shouldn't come as a surprise that eventually we buy into the outrage. The issues being debated –if that is the right word-- can seldom be proved one way or another. Do we accept a person's right to end his life? Or should he hang on as long as possible? Do we opt for a woman's right to choose?
We have a tendency to assume whatever conclusion we arrive at is correct, and the other side is simply wrong. And stupid. That was probably just as true in 1946 as it is now, but we tended to keep quiet about it. It wasn't all over the news. We didn't discuss it at the dinner table. In fact, aside from the newspapers, which tended to be factual and quiet, there wasn't much news. Fifteen minutes here and there on radio. We had Eric Sevareid, H. V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow, and a few others. Walter Winchell provided the latest gossip. But they were only voices. We didn't see angry people going after one another. And they were attempting to inform us about what was happening. Today, cable news is a 24-hour show and they have to fill the time.
One thinks that, with all that time available, we should be getting better coverage of events. But anyone who pays attention will discover that some very big stories are going unreported. Does the Pentagon really spend all that money on weapons it doesn't need? Does Gaza have a serious problem with clean drinking water? Is it true that the nuclear industry is not responsible for an accident? We all know there's a substantial amount of corruption in government, but where are the details? Who's paying off which politicians? And for what?
It's hard to see any reason that the atmosphere will calm down in the near future.