January 12, 2011
Lost in Modern AmericaBy J. Robert Smith
Old America -- pre-World War II -- had its Jared Loughners, George Hennards, James Oliver Hubertys, and Charles Whitmans. But no one ever heard of them. They never went to parking lots or restaurants or schools to kill. Old America was a much different place from modern America. It was a rooted place, a connected place. The crazies weren't permitted to act out their craziness -- not in ways that harmed others. The Angry Loner was a rarity.
The inescapable truth is that public mass murders are periodic features of modern America, whether at fast food joints, post offices, malls, factories, business offices -- you name it. Modern America -- whatever its virtues -- lacks many of the restraints that made public mass murders practically unknown in old America.
There's no turning back the clock to old America -- no more than we can turn back the clock on our lives. But we can learn what was right about old America that kept the Loughners from violently acting out their delusions or seeking to rectify grudges by murdering strangers. It's possible -- very possible -- for Americans to recapture the virtues of the old America, virtues that could diminish the phenomenon of the public mass murderer.
You don't recall Hennard, Huberty, and Whitman? Each of these men mass-murdered in public places within the lifetimes of many of us.
In 1966, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower and began shooting. Fifteen people died. In 1984, James Oliver Huberty entered a McDonald's at San Ysidro, California, and slaughtered twenty-one innocents. In 1991, George Hennard drove his pickup truck through the plate-glass window of a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and then blasted away. Twenty-four people died. These are only a few names from modern America's rogue's gallery of public mass murderers.
What does it say about the regularity of public mass killings that many of us don't recall Huberty, Hennard, and Whitman? Or have we pushed these men and their acts of wanton violence and murder from our minds, finding it all too appalling to deal with?
But forgetting -- for whatever reason -- won't help stop mass murderers. Shrugging our shoulders and throwing up our hands won't stop senseless violence; doing so is moral abdication. Dealing just with effects and not causes of mass murder will not lead to lasting solutions.
The solutions won't be found in politics -- not many, anyway. Americans who live for politics will find that the solutions to public mass murders lack the panache of a presidential signing ceremony. Gun bans won't stop public killers (guns are gettable on the black market). Congress can't legislate against such random violence. Nor can presidents issue executive orders stopping the violence (short of trashing the Constitution and moving to some sort of police state).
Certainly, as Bernie Reeves wrote on AT's pages on Tuesday, one practical solution is for local communities to reinstitute policies that take the mentally ill off the streets. Governments can do that. It may prove that Jared Loughner is the most dangerous of the mentally ill: the paranoid schizophrenic. Paranoid schizophrenics -- for the public's sake and their own -- need not be roaming streets.
But not all mass murderers are deranged, despite how unfathomable it is to most of us that some killers are in some way sane. Some killers are simply angry men -- mostly men -- who nurse grudges against employers who fire them, wives and girlfriends who spurn them, and groups that don't accept them. Might Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold -- the infamous Columbine High School killers -- fit this category?
Society can't lock up angry men. Anger isn't grounds for incarceration. Overwhelmingly, most angry men don't become killers. With due process, rights can be taken in some measure from the unhinged, but a man possessing an angry, rational mind is another matter.
Old America was a physically rooted and connected place. Pre-World War II, small towns and farm communities were largely the nation's backbone, sinew, and tissue. Families were intact and extended. Neighbors knew one another intimately. The greater community was tightly knitted together through face-to-face commerce, clubs, and churches.
Crazy Uncle Phineas wasn't going to be permitted to tramp into the haberdasher's shop on Main Street, gun blazing. Phineas' family kept him on a short leash (they may have locked him in the attic, if necessary); friends and neighbors played backup. Angry young men had dads, Dutch uncles, men of the cloth, and hard work to set them straight.
But even in pre-World War II, urbanizing America -- say, in New York's Bronx Borough -- neighborhoods of Italians and Jews were mostly rooted affairs, much in the same way as the nation's small towns and farm communities. People watched out for one another; that was the old American way.
After World War II, America became mobile, transient. People began moving for opportunity (not unheard of in earlier chapters of American history, and certainly not all bad). But disconnection and anonymity grew. Perhaps Phineas' family left him behind when they moved from Evansville to Los Angeles. Or the angry young man left Scranton for parts unknown.
Moreover, post-World War II America witnessed the rise of the counterculture (a far worse development than dislocation). The counterculture aimed to topple traditional America -- to loosen and discard the morals, values, virtues, and faith that had been woven into the nation's fabric; those vital things were the inheritance of Western civilization and kept America whole and strong.
Following World War II came the fashion of existentialism (the vain attempt to find meaning in a meaninglessness world). God was dead; churches and synagogues stifled free expression, said the rebels; adolescent self-fulfillment was ballyhooed. Don't trust anyone over thirty. Permissiveness became regent. Doing your own thing and satisfying your immediate pleasures trumped self-discipline, deferral of pleasure, sacrifice, commitment, and responsibility.
America is still in the grips of the counterculture ethos. Families, neighborhoods, and communities are still being degraded and undone. Self-gratification permeates the popular culture. Half of all marriages fail; too many families are fragmented and scattered. Busy parents leave their kids to be raised by others, or worse, they leave their kids to raise themselves. Too many children are illegitimate.
The nation's social fabric is tattered. Is it really surprising that today, sick-minded men and women are loosed to wander our streets? Championing the mentally ill's freedom is easier than monitoring and caring for these most unfortunate -- and perhaps dangerous -- people. And are we really surprised that shattered families produce angry young men, a few of whom are warped enough to kill? And others who commit lesser, often unreported, acts of violence?
What old America had in spades were the values, virtues, morals, and faith that modern America lacks; old America built character, knitted people together, and gave purpose and direction to lives. Not perfectly, mind you, but much better.
No legislation or law can restore the old America. What modern Americans have is the power to reject today's dominant counterculture ethos, which, in large measure, permits the Loughners. Old America's uprightness is there to be rediscovered and reclaimed. With time, determination, and patience, America can be virtuous again -- and safer.