No sooner had Gabrielle Gifford been rushed to the hospital with a massive gunshot wound to the head when the blame game got into full swing. Egged on by the comments of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik the theory quickly emerged that right-wing conservative Tea Party rhetoric had all but pulled the trigger. Conservatives shot back that the accusation was a "blood libel," bereft of evidence and designed to score political points. Moreover, they argued, the left had spewed far more venom during the presidency of George W. Bush than anything the Tea Party could be accused of.
In the hyper-politicized climate of modern America it is not surprising that everyone would point to a political cause for what is essentially a values-based issue. I do not believe for a moment that political rhetoric was responsible for Jared Lee Loughner's murderous rampage and there is as yet little evidence to suggest that he was very politically engaged.
But he was growing up in a culture where millions of men are beginning to feel disenfranchised and insignificant leading to frightening manifestations of anger and rage.
The values that our culture uses to define male success is becoming ever more extreme. If you turn on the TV or browse the Internet you could be forgiven if you were to quickly conclude that the only men that matter in America are Wall Street bankers, high tech entrepreneurs, sports stars, and Hollywood heroes. Yes, I know that in times past the same values of wealth, fame, and power also prevailed. But there was also the pervasive influence of religion to counteract that soul-destroying message. The essential point of every religious tradition is that human beings are created in the image of G-d and are born possessed of limitless value. Anything they add in their lifetime -- from Internet billions to Super Bowl rings -- is just icing on the cake.
Yes, Europe was dominated for centuries by royalty and gold. But there were always stories of saints like St Francis of Assisi who was distinguished by his commitment to the poor. The Jews told stories of holy men like Rabbi Israel Baal Shem who roved the countryside reminding farmers and beggars how much they mattered to G-d. But I search in vain in modern America for personalities who are celebrated for anything but fame, politics, and wealth to counteract the prevailing notion that money and power are the sole currencies by which a man purchases self-esteem. The net result is a growing feeling among many men that they are losers and the dangerous extremes they are prepared to employ against a culture they blame for belittling them.
It is in this context that we should understand the press reports that Loughner had attended one of Gifford's Congress on the Your Corner events in 2007. Apparently, he had asked the Congresswoman the following question: "How do you know words mean anything?" Gifford ignored him and did not answer the question. Loughner's friends say that from then on he was possessed of a particularly virulent antipathy toward the Congresswoman and had vowed revenge.
In other words, a young man nursing feelings of worthlessness and concluding, in his deranged mind, that Gifford had robbed him of his dignity, vowed to teach her a lesson. He was going to show her that he was to be taken seriously. Ignore me at your peril. I am not to be trifled with.
Many recent murderous rampages display the same patterns of a shooter feeling degraded by society, friends, or a boss. In the Cleveland Elementary School Massacre in San Diego of 1989, Patrick Purdy, who had experienced a childhood of abuse, shot and killed five school children and wounded 29 others before committing suicide.
In the Columbine massacre of 1999 Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold had been bullied mercilessly at school. Their murderous rampage became a game not only of payback but a case of reversing humiliation. You thought you could demean us. Now look who's boss.
The same pattern seems to have been present with Seung Hui Cho who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007. The massacre made history as the deadliest peacetime shooting in US history on or off a school campus. Cho, who was mentally ill and diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, was harassed and bullied by his peers at school.
In 1991 in Kileen Texas, Ex-Navy enlistee George Jo Hennard, Jr. slammed his truck into a Luby's restaurant and murdered 23 people with a pair of handguns before killing himself. Like Seung Hui Cho he was said to have been harassed and bullied by his peers.
To be sure each of these murderers was either deeply deranged, exceedingly evil, or both. Any motive we ascribe to their killings is merely speculative.
What we do know, however, is that there is a dangerous trend in America of people in general, and men in particular, feeling demeaned and humiliated. The single-criteria-of-success model of those with money and fame being at the top and working stiffs and the unemployed feeling at the bottom is a troubling trend. Our society is being divided into winners and losers, those who get all the attention and those who feel overlooked, those who feel like a million bucks and those who feel like cheap change.
The solution is not economic. I am arguing neither for socialism, which doesn't work, nor the redistribution of wealth, which solves nothing. Giving people something they haven't earned is good in an emergency but is never a long-term solution because it robs them of their dignity. People want to be self-sufficient and independent. They're not looking for handouts. Rather, what we require are new American values in the form of a wider, more wholesome, and more spiritual definition of success.
The man who works 9-5 and cannot afford to take his family on a Nile river cruise should still feel that he is a man of value and worth because he makes the time to help his children with homework, volunteers for his local Church, and cares for his elderly parents.
Only a fool could overlook the fact that most of the mass-murderers in American society of late are male because it is to them that we principally direct the message that their profession rather than character, their possessions rather than their good deeds, will establish their importance. Religion directly combats this dehumanizing message. It's our kindness to friends and strangers, our volunteering for communities and our commitment to family - in other words our character - that determines gives our lives meaning.
There will always be violent psychopaths like Loughner for whom any message of values will not prevent feelings of disenfranchisement or killing sprees. And yet when a tragedy of this magnitude hits us it must be a wakeup call to the extreme brokenness of many a man and the need to redefine success for the American male.
Granted, most broken American males will thankfully not pull out an AK-47 and go and shoot up the local McDonald's. To the contrary, their natural response is to go precisely to the opposite extreme. They disengage, sink into themselves, veg in front of the TV, ignore their wives, neglect their children, and become robots at work. They respond to feelings of worthlessness by numbing themselves to life in order to dull feelings of pain. Addictions to alcohol, TV, porn, and sports -- where they get to live vicariously through their champion team or favorite player -- become the drugs of choice. Some however become so unhinged in feelings of rage and anger toward those whom they perceive as slighting them that they cannot help but squeeze off a few rounds to prove they have power. 'You thought I was a big nobody whom you could ignore. Now let's see who is a nobody now that you're dead.'
Yes it's sick and yes it's evil. We are not like the depraved murderer Loughner. But he and his ilk are wakeup calls to an America where men must feel that it is their humanity rather than their productivity, their souls rather than their possessions, which truly matters.
Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," is the author of the 'The Broken American Male: And How to Fix Him.' (St. Martin's Press) and Founder of This World: The Values Network. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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