04/20/2007 12:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tradition, Tragedy and Trivia

In 1968, the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were
assassinated, I was living in Brussels. I was driving my American car
with New York license plates. I realized how visible I was, how
identifiable, and I was ashamed of that identity -- an ugly American.

Today, living in Paris, I might feel a similar malaise, following the
Virginia Tech massacre. Virtually every country in the world is shocked
over the event, and critical of the United States: Its lax gun laws, its
culture of violence. They are absolutely correct. But my feelings now
are slightly different than before.

Because I am viewing America now as an alien country. It was the
place of my birth, and my education. But it is no longer my country.
It has morphed into a land of arrogance, ignorance, greed, senseless
violence and trivial amusements.

Yes, there are a few pockets of exceptions, and still some
exceptional people. But the overall zeitgeist is one of decline and
degeneracy and denial. The moral fiber that held families and communities
and the nation together has disintegrated. "Things fall apart; the center
cannot hold," as the poet wrote.

The glue that holds things together is usually tradition; America has
virtually no traditions. (The Fourth of July? Thanksgiving?) Americans
tear down 30-year old buildings to construct something new. Americans
throw out entire school curricula to try out new programs. Americans are
constantly updating, revising, reinventing, renewing -- which means the
old ways get forsaken and forgotten.

The other adhesive that holds a nation together is a common sense of
tragedy -- an awareness or a memory of shared adversity and grief. Every
European nation can relate to this in one way or another: the devastating
wars, the revolutions. The only lasting, significant tragedy in American
history is our Civil War. We had a president then who articulated,
embodied and immortalized that shattering experience.

America's crises since then have shaken us up, but have left no
permanent scars, and no defining shift in consciousness. The two World
Wars faded into history as survivors passed away. The wars and
assassinations since then have had little permanent impact on the national
psyche. Even the two atomic bombs we dropped on Japan have not shaken our
moral complacency. And the horror of 9/11 -- which could have generated a
serious examination of ourselves in the world -- merely turned into an
excuse to wage another war.

More than ever, it seems, Americans are running from reality, and
experiencing tragedy and thrills secondhand -- through television, films
and video games that both titillate our senses and inure us to real life.
And we fast-forward and trivialize whatever is unpalatable or unpopular:
The morning headlines become the afternoon's 30-second sound-bite which
becomes a rollicking joke on the late night show.

Will there one day be a catastrophe of such magnitude that our games
and diversions will be blown apart? Or will the American civilization end
not with a bang..... but a woeful whimper?