The Sandy Hook Shootings and America's Culture of Death

We must rescue our imperiled American society from our confrontations with mass murder.

State Police are on scene following a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northeast of New York City, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012.

State Police on scene following a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14, 2012.

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Today, almost every young person in this casually merciless land desperately wants to be well-respected and "connected." This person already knows that our vaunted individualism is merely a convenient lie, and that any "rugged" attempts to defy our mass society will end in humiliating failure. In a country where everyone is ultimately defined by what he can buy, it is already understood that meaningfully tangible rewards will come only to those who have finally learned to surrender their once-untransferrable individuality.

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Some observations are obvious, but still need to be understood in a broader context. Each of the recent mass shooters was manifestly psychopathic, but this does not mean that each planned his annihilatory spasms in some sort of civilizational vacuum. On the contrary, such meticulous plans are never conceived in a neatly detached private universe.

In all the most recent cases of American mass murder, pertinent mental distress and disorientation were dangerously intertwined with a larger national landscape of ubiquitous violence. By intersecting with their own personal demons, this fractured and fragmenting landscape provided the indispensable environment within which otherwise unimaginably sinister plans could actually be concocted.

Where has America gone wrong? At its heart, the problem of young people who systematically and dispassionately shoot blameless and anonymous others stems from a society that proudly loathes an individual, any individual. Driven by an almost irresistible need to conform at all costs, we have now learned not only to tolerate mass society, but to glorify it. In consequence, functioning under carefully choreographed rhythmic urgings to worship every inane and distracting technology, we are now frequently more attentive to our "apps" than to our children.

Social networking has become much more than a helpful and pleasing set of relationship opportunities. It has become the new American religion. To act against its expectations is not just unacceptable. It is blasphemous.

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For the most part, whether in business or in education, any American who would dare to affirm personal value apart from the larger "team" is promptly pushed aside. It is, nonetheless, precisely this sought-after absorption by a group that can corrode personal responsibility and authentic community. On occasion, as we have witnessed, it may even transform cruelty and mass killing into a singularly welcome vision.

"Long live death!"

To the darkly lonely one who feels himself unable to "belong," to find some sufficiently sustaining acceptance in the group, an inconsolable despair can become overwhelming. Again, the "remedy" for this gravely painful condition, a sort of residual "sickness unto death," may have to be found elsewhere, that is, in very ritually orchestrated preparations for mass murder.

Look around. Confronted on every side by synthetic food and synthetic feelings, some of our vulnerable children can become phobic toward anything that is deeply personal, and then become devoted to anything that will produce mordant excitement. Better to be notorious or infamous, calculates the would-be mass killer, than to remain "weak" and unbearably invisible. For him, the distinctly worst case scenario is not to become a despised murderer, but to endure an entire lifetime of anticipated neglect and insignificance.

Our "advanced" American society routinely instructs us to become more comfortable with robots, videos, cell phones, and computers than with each other. For all but a handful, romantic love has become faintly ridiculous, a distressingly quaint source of embarrassment. And why not? Our voyeuristic entertainments relentlessly proclaim the enviable triumph of every exciting excursion into violence.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should People Be Allowed to Carry Guns Openly?]

We Americans do face certain serious threats from abroad. Still, we should not be encouraged to die, needlessly, from the inside. In order to turn away from the increasingly ascendant spirit of death, murder, and internal decline, it is essential that we should all first want to live, and to do so without suffering excruciating fears of social banishment or exilic exclusion.