In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, a variety of proposals have been offered to stop such violence, ranging from stricter gun control to more care for the mentally disturbed. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions. And for us average citizens, any of these proposals are beyond our individual capacity, given today’s political, economic and scientific realities. We can suggest or demand action, but when and what action is ultimately taken is beyond our control.
In the meantime, while we wait for the political, economic and scientific worlds to respond, what can we do ourselves?
We live in a culture that glorifies, even delights in, killing people. Violence and rage are the daily fare of the music we hear, the shows we watch, the movies we attend, the language we speak, and the video games we play. Vampires and zombies are new cultural icons.
Other than sleep, we find few sanctuaries from this assault. As a result, more of us become inclined to anti-social behavior and desensitized to it when it happens. The movies, television, language and games that depict violent behavior seduce us; if they didn’t, we wouldn’t continue to watch and listen as we do. Worse, they fail to make us experience the pain that victims and their families and friends suffer. So every time we, our children and our grandchildren are exposed, we become more attracted to that violent behavior or less repelled by it.
I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. Our culture glorified smoking. The media saturated us with its pleasures. Cigarettes provided taste, relaxation and status. Movie stars, entertainers, presidents, athletes, even doctors smoked and promoted various brands. As kids we were given candy cigarettes as part of our acculturation. Smoking your first cigarette was a rite of passage. Servicemen and women were provided with free cigarettes everywhere they went, both at home and overseas. Every meal of C-rations included cigarettes. “The smoking lamp is lit,” and “Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” were welcome rituals of our everyday life.
We who lived in that culture did not, unfortunately, learn from our celebrities, institutions and role models about the negative consequences of smoking, though these occurred before our very eyes. We who survived that culture had family and friends who were killed, one way or the other, by the harmful effects of smoking. I used to give my uncle a carton of Lucky Strikes every Christmas. He died at 52.
When the harmful effects of smoking became well-known, we finally stopped glorifying it. Smoking began to decline to its present levels. Today, public figures still smoke, but they do it surreptitiously, for fear of censure. Eventually, our culture changed from glamorizing smoking to celebrating smoke-free environments and healthy lifestyles.
What each of us can do, starting now, is refuse to glorify death and violence. When you find yourself singing anti-social songs, change tunes. When you hear that music, change stations. When your favorite shows on television glorify violent death, change channels. Going to the movies? Avoid the most graphically violent. While we wait for powerful others to change our social environment in hopes of making our children and grandchildren safer, we can change our own environment — right now! And those with enough willpower and love can judiciously help their families change their environments as well. It will take tough love, to be sure, and self-discipline. But it’s a start, and it’s one that’s possible to implement immediately.
So I challenge everyone horrified and saddened by the carnage on our streets and in our schools: Don’t just talk, act — on your own. Do it for the children and teachers who died at Sandy Hook. In their honor, we can stop glorifying death and violence in our own homes, cars, and workplaces. We can celebrate living instead, and listen to music and read books and watch shows that respect life! Persuade your children, grandchildren and friends to do the same.
And if you find it too hard to break those habits, if loved ones and friends complain that it’s impossible, that the alternatives are boring … then that tells you more than you probably want to know about our culture. If we can’t even stop ourselves and our own families from glorifying violent death, we have no reason to expect Sandy Hook to be the last slaughter of our innocents.