Another tragedy tells us hard things about ourselves

The recent horrific shooting spree at a Florida high school impacts all of us because we know it could have been members of our community hovering outside the perimeter of yellow tape, wondering if our kids were OK and grieving over those who were not.

The fact that mass shootings, which we’ll define as incidents in which at least four people were murdered with a firearm, have increased in recent years is alarming. We’ve become more aware of such incidents in recent years, but they are also proliferating, even as gun violence in the United States has precipitously declined over the past two decades, according to an analysis last year by the Pew Research Center of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Nobody, even the most ardent gun-rights supporters, can deny the horror of these events. Part of what makes them even more alarming is how visible they are – we’re on the scene within seconds, thanks to live media coverage that is facilitated by social media and cellphones. We literally watch it happening, in some cases.

Of course, proposed solutions to this violence are widely varied and the causes are complex and – and not reassuring. We don’t have to have Ph.D.s to recognized that societal and individual forces conspire together to create these scenarios.

Clearly, the instigators in these tragedies have thrown off whatever restraints they might at one time have experienced, in favor of venting their anger or desire for recognition in a grotesquely evil manner.

What’s going on? What’s happened to us? It was hardly a generation ago when nobody batted an eye when a kid drove a battered pickup into a high school parking lot with a rifle on the rack.

In the short course of this editorial, we obviously can’t flesh out what root causes lead to where we are today – that question baffles experts – but we will observe that there are likely a variety of ingredients to this toxic mix.

One might be our society’s preoccupation with personal primacy and pleasure. We’re told from birth how special we are, how good. Then we are surrounded by encouragements – open or subliminal – to seek pleasure and happiness that we deserve.

Even our educational system has morphed over the years to reflect those presumptions. That’s one reason why it’s gotten tougher to be a teacher: Society tells us that kids are basically good and has removed many options educators once had for discipline.

Those of us who remember the principal with the paddle may feel relief, but schools must now provide “carrot”-type incentives to our young people so they learn to be considerate, respectful, responsible and otherwise (which suggests that those are not natural proclivities for us). Meanwhile, helicopter parents hover, making sure everything’s perfect for their child.

We’re surrounded by social media in which posts and opinions – too often disparaging of others’ – reflect those societal values. In other words, what – a generation or two ago – might have served as a restraint to uninhibited, insolent self-promotion, appears to be increasingly lost.

We’re surrounded by movies, TV, video games that promote violence as entertainment, and while purveyors of such have adamantly denied its influence on the hearts and minds of the public, trotting out studies that can prove conclusively that such is the case, who among us really thinks these things have no effect on our moral sensitivities?

After all, when any of us can pull the trigger at will and watch our “opponents” – with incredible realism – get blown to smithereens on the screen, or when we consistently watch people being killed – almost routinely – in the dramas we see on the screens of our TVs, our cellphones or tablets, our theaters, it’s hard to honestly argue that it has no effect on us or our children. All this has to scar us at some level.

When someone, exposed to all these forces and energized by mental illness, irrational anger or some other evil motive, takes this to a level of reality, we’re terrified, but should we be shocked?

The fact that firearms are used in these incidents is troubling, but someone’s finger pulled the trigger. Those guns in the rifle racks in the parking lot didn’t shoot people. To ignore that is the height of folly. Yes, we could react emotionally and blindly pass legislation prohibiting the manufacture or sale of semi-automatic rifles, which have been used in the last four major shootings – at the Orlando nightclub, the country music festival in Las Vegas, the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and now the high school in Coral Springs, Fla. But this is a deeper problem – it’s us, not some dangerous machine.

What’s behind all this is something that must be addressed at a much deeper level than just legislation. It gets down to who we are, and that’s where we should start.