America can be proud of so many of her ordinary people; people like the ones who risked their lives and gave their time and resources to help victims of the Las Vegas massacre, Harvey and Irma. But there is also a dark side to our society.
Suppressed anger and violence lurks beneath the thin veneer of much of American courtesy. This comment is not based on research (although there may well be research to support it). It is based only on my own observations of people’s behaviors both as individuals and in large angry masses, widely reported acts of violence by the public and the police as well as those less widely reported, people’s driving practices and their levels of intolerance for opinions different from their own. It is supported by countless conversations I have had with the wide spectrum of individuals with whom I interact.
Gun control may be part of the solution, but it is not core to the problem; the problem has deeper roots than people’s easy access to guns. We should be producing people who have no desire to own a gun other than perhaps for their own protection. People should be more able to see the world from the perspectives of others with vastly different worldviews and respect them. We should be producing children and young adults who, at an early age, have moral discipline, the capacity to delay gratification to put the interests of others or a cause they care about before their own. The core of the problem is in our homes and schools, it is in the media and in the dearth of role models for national leadership of moral courage and stature.
So, what can we do about it? The first signs of the potential for violence do not show themselves in acts of violence, but in acts of narcissism and self-indulgence. As Rabbi Lord Sacks writes in his Sukot essay, “Of all things people have chosen to worship, the self is the least fulfilling. A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair,” and, I would add, violence.
Early detection of potentially aberrant behavior is a crucial element of any strategy to combat violence, and every teacher and parent has a part to play in this. Initial signs of aberrance won’t necessarily manifest in violence, but in more subtle forms of self-indulgence and narcissism. We should never respond to a child’s narcissism with “He’s only a child.”
I suspect my suggestion for adult intolerance of adolescent narcissism might be politically incorrect and unpopular. However, it is based on the Torah’s advice. The parsha (section) dealing with the “deviant and disobedient son” (Devarim 21) urges parents to identify narcissistic behavior early and to act on it so as to prevent its inevitable deterioration into violence later on (Sanhedrin 71 and Ramban on Chumash). No death sentence for this behavior has ever been carried out nor was any ever intended to be carried out (Sanhedrin 71a). The intention of the parsha is “Vechol Yisrael yirshme’u veyar’u,” that people will take note and fear the seriousness of self-indulgent behavior, even in a child, because of its potential to escalate into tragic violence as the child grows older.
Undisciplined and narcissistic acts of indulgence, even in a young person, indicate a worldview at the center of which is the individual and his or her desires. Narcissism limits the capacity for empathy and certainly for love, other than for self-love. In narcissistic behavior are the seeds of violence which need to be removed as soon as they are discovered.
The conversation about gun control should continue, but it shouldn’t mask the real issue: are we raising a generation of noble heroes or narcissistic savages? Does the entertainment industry celebrate people who exemplify family values, caring, kindness and heroism or does it celebrate killers ? Is the media encouraging a violent society?
We cannot control the media, the schools or the streets; but we can intervene when we see children acting callously. We can intervene whether or not they are our own children. We can intervene against both physical narcissism and narcissism on-line. We can become more tolerant towards those who think differently from us, and less tolerant towards those whose self-indulgence treads on the dignity of others and could potentially devolve into the violent disregard for the lives and property of others.
It is too late to recalibrate the behavior of the adult generations of today, but it is just the right time to mold the attitudes and norms of generations to come. Perhaps you or I can’t change the world, but even if we just change the individuals in our own radii, who knows how much suffering we could avert. We know nothing about Stephen Paddock, but if adults in his early life could have seen aberrant tendencies and intervened, America might have been saved from one of the worst acts of violence in its history.