The news of the world is so instantaneous, multifarious and bizarre that it provides corroboration for almost any mood. Maybe it’s just my temperament, but when I feel disgruntled, instead of looking at my own choices, I am often tempted to lay it off on man’s inhumanity to man, and the news usually gives me ample ammunition. So I have learned to question my own misery or indignation, just to be sure I am responding to events and not simply using them to justify my kvetch.
Today, I baked hamantashen — Haman’s purses — the three-cornered fruit-filled cakes that are traditional for the Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins this evening. For company, I turned on the radio, and what I heard there alarmed me.
Friends, I am worried and confused and this time, I don’t think it’s me.
Today I learned that the three network news programs have been averaging an hour of Terry Schiavo coverage per night. I’m getting mental whiplash, bouncing between feeling for her parents, who so desperately want to keep their daughter alive, for her husband, who seems equally desperate to care for her in the way he feels is best, or recoiling in horror from the cynical puppetry through which politicians and media personalities have made use of one who is entirely unable to speak for herself.
I learned that opposition leaders in Kyrgyzstan had forced the government out of office, instead electing former opposition lawmaker Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, a Communist and appointing opposition leader Felix Kulov, who had just been released from prison, as head of the police. (All this may have changed by the time you read it, so don’t take my word for it.) Regardless of the media’s preference for individual cases, social movements persist in asserting their members’ right to self-determination, however weird their ideas or affiliations might be. Just beneath the shrill media-generated melodies resounding from the individual tragedy of the moment, social upheaval provides a consistent backbeat.
The stories that shook me the most concerned Red Lake, Minnesota, 10th-grader Jeff Weise, who went on a shooting rampage Monday, killing his grandfather, his grandfather’s girlfriend, a teacher, a security guard, five fellow students and himself. As the terrible facts of Weise’s life are revealed — his father’s suicide following a standoff with police, the brain damage suffered by his mother in an accident caused by drunk driving, the remarkable lack of attention by both fellow students and adults to his advocacy of Neo-Nazi ideology, his Goth dress in the midst of a small and secluded reservation-based community, his self-mutilation and frequent talk of death and violence — a picture takes shape of a society so skewed in its perspective I wonder that it can hold. While young people like Weise consume a steady diet of violent video games and interact anonymously with insane ideologies on the Web, our collective attention is focused elsewhere. To the individuals directly involved, the intrusion of this madness into real life seems always to come as a big surprise. “I never thought he would do this,” said one of Weise’s victims; “Everyone is just in shock,” said a relative.
PBS’s NewsHour featured two experts on how to prevent future incidents like the shootings in Columbine and Red Lake. One spoke about security guards and screening devices, the other about the human heart. It’s too soon for a transcript, so I am paraphrasing, but the second expert talked about the ways males in our society are taught to cover their pain with anger. “It’s not surprising,” he said of Weise’s bloody rampage, “that it would take this form for an American boy wrestling with his sadness.”
My fellow Americans, we are sad. We have good reason to be sad, and we are covering it, sometimes with anger, sometimes with extravagant caring for symbolic individuals that masks indifference to anonymous millions. We are not wrestling effectively with our sadness, and it scares me to contemplate the scale of the surprise that may await us if we don’t start now.