March 20, 2001
Mass Shootings, Car Killings Signs of a Very Sick Society
by Joseph P. Tartaro
The American writer-poet Edgar Allan Poe is credited with saying that all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
His comments on reality seem to track the musings of other philosophersboth secular and theistwho have pondered the nature of reality.
Most of them, however, have not come to grips with the nature of reality in our present era. To do that, one must focus on the nature of television and how it has changed not only teen-age attitudes about violence, but the very nature of reality for all age groups. Both victims and witnesses rush forward to eagerly satisfy the cameras and microphones.
Recent tragic events involving mass murders bring this into focus.
Because of television news decision-makers, the recent murderous rampage at the high school in Santee, CA, became not just a news story but part of the very fabric of peoples lives. The actors in that drama, however minor, came into homes, offices, stores, waiting rooms and taverns all across America and the world. Because of television, they appeared not just on the news but sandwiched between the mindless banter of the morning network shows. They were not just the objects of a story, but subjectively active participants, like those who knew of the Santee shooters intentions.
The networks and cable news shows brought the Santana High School scene and players into constant focus and interspersed their coverage with replays of clips from the April 1999 murder spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO.
Car Murders Ignored
The focus was on a crime committed with a firearm, and the clear message that was intentionally conveyed was that the two people who were killed and 13 wounded at Santee were special symbols of our society specifically because a firearm was the criminals tool. Almost totally ignored by television news and print reporters was another crime committed just hours earlier about 200 miles away from Santee in Santa Barbara. In that multiple murder of four college-age students, the murder weapon was an automobile. The alleged driver-assailant in the Santa Barbara case was being arraigned on four counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder in that city even as Santana High School was being re-opened in the wake of that shooting.
The Santa Barbara mass vehicular homicides never got the extensive front-page treatment and wall-to-wall camera coverage that the shooting did.
Maybe thats because the media is still pushing its gun prohibition agenda in the face of a major change in the Washington, DC. Certainly the most rabid anti-gunners, people like Rosie ODonnell, havent given up on their agenda. They see one lesson in the Santee murders and none in the Santa Barbara murders.
Maybe the car violence was largely ignored because the automotive industry is a major source of advertising revenues for all media, and management doesnt want to offend their major clients.
But even more probable is the fact that media decision makers are looking for answers in the wrong place. If they took the two mass murder incidents together, they might offer the public more food for thought. The fact that a gun was a weapon in one case and a vehicle in the other is irrelevant. What is significant is that both assailants made premeditated attacks on their peers, using entirely different weapons.
Vehicles as Weapons
Ford, GM or Chrysler would probably object if cars and trucks were always referred to as weapons. But the fact is that they can be weaponsjust as firearms, or baseball bats, kitchen knives, screwdrivers and hammers can be weapons. But by themselves none of the items I have mentionednot vehicles, firearms nor toolsare, until an individual employs it to threaten, attack, injure or kill one or more other persons.
It is not the tool or the number of fatalities that make a crime so newsworthy, and thats where many in the media keep missing the boat. A few years back, a woman in Las Vegasdeliberately and with pre-meditationkilled 27 people by driving an automobile into a crowd. And of this nations largest mass murders, the two greatest involved a bomb in a Michigan school and gasoline and a match in a Bronx, NY, dance club.
We all need to look at what causes more and more people, particularly young people, to commit multiple murders so callously and with such increasing frequency. Some may not want to face it, but there is a sickness in our society. And it is unlikely that the sickness has one simple cause, as is suggested by those who blame the entertainment media. Violent movies, television, CDs and music lyrics may be part of the cause, but certainly cannot be the only cause.
Broken homes, out-of-wedlock births, single parenthood and even a culture tolerant of drug and alcohol abuse may also be part of the cause, but are unlikely to be the real causes by themselves.
A lack of respect for all other people, not just parents, teachers, police and other authority figures may also be causes, but also not by themselves.
Suburban livingwhere lifestyles are much more mobile and complacently comfortable than the more closely-knit neighborhoods of the pastmay also be part of the problem.
Im sure there are many other things that have changed since I was a kid. You can think of your own possible causes for the undesirable part of the changes in our society. But certainly it has changed in the last 30 to 40 years.
When I was a teen-ager, guns were more commonly available than they are today, but cars and trucks were scarce. Young people then didnt have the disposable income they do today. Nor were we able to go almost anywhere without neighbors, teachers and other people observing what we were up to and being willing to report it to parents.
All of the things I have mentioned may be part of the problem, or merely symbols of change, but by themselves, none provides an easy answer.
Television, movies, music, comic books and other forms of suspect entertainment are consumed regularly by people who never think of murdering their fellow students. Millions of people grow up in poor, in broken homes, without both parents, with and without money, cars and freedom who never think of murdering or even injuring fellow human beings.
Some people blame a change in our access to religious teachings as a cause of the current spate of mayhem, but for centuries some people have grown up totally without religious underpinnings to their moral make-up without ever thinking of murdering their fellow students, or injuring either strangers or friends.
Even as I was writing this column, John Krull came into my office to report that two girls in a Catholic School in Pennsylvania had gotten into a dispute and one shot the other. Thus it is not just boys who are the problem and apparently a reemphasis on religious training is not the answer either.
We can look in many places in an attempt to cast blame for the causes of the increasing random violence we observe around us these days. The answers, when they come, may prove to be more obscure or simple than we imagine. But look we must, especially inwardly at our society, for we must find the answers and make a serious effort to correct our problems.
Among the leaders in this quest for answers should be the mass media people who continue to treat it all with such glossy detachment and simple-minded solutions.
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