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What Is the Cause of Violent and Senseless Massacres in America?

Beyond moralizing and hand-wringing, what can we do to change the societal forces that push Americans apart?

There is so much to be said about the Aurora Colorado movie massacre, and so much that should be done—starting with reversing America’s insane love of guns and glamorization of violence. But beyond moralizing, who has the power to change any of this?

Everyone has their personal reaction to this deranged melee. Among my circles, only a few people even wanted to talk about it. They were really angry. Some wondered what might have stopped or steered the perpetrator to another fate. Some said any of us could have been victims. Some said there is so much gun violence that goes unacknowledged or is soon forgotten—seven dead in Oakland in seven days, a cop kills someone in San Francisco’s financial district. These comments are not profound or unique, but they raise a question for me: not what can be done to stop this madness, but who can do it? Where? How?

And it’s not just the latest psychotic episode that qualifies as madness. There’s so many maddening things that are not getting done, not getting discussed, not getting addressed—issues and causes and concerns that fill the newspapers, airwaves and blogs.

These days, I am more struck by what doesn’t happen than by what does. I wonder if we as individuals and a society have become so isolated, so independent, so reliant upon our smartphones and tech tools, that we have lost touch with one another. We no longer even expect our public institutions to do anything meaningful to address meaningful problems.

There is something going on in America that is pushing people further apart and into more isolated lives—and sometimes to extreme thoughts and extreme actions. It’s a big paradox. We are more connected to each other by technology, but emotionally we are more divided and more psychologically distant. Apparently, there are more adults living alone in America at any time in its history—one in seven, I heard on a recent local public radio book show. Most are women. Most are in cities. But for all this apparent freedom and individuality and boundary-breaking lifestyles, I see people slipping through cracks. They know nobody wants to hear about their problems.

Did any of you look at Facebook in the 24 hours since the shooting? I did. It was weird—and another example of my noticing what’s not going on. There was one comment about Aurora—a friend deplored that his ex-employer, the Discovery Channel, had some new show glamorizing guns. Nobody else commented on it. Most posts were pictures of kids, gardens, music festivals, changed profile pictures, rants on going vegan and not killing animals. At first, I sighed. But in a world where we seem to have little power to change big problems, I guess it’s not unreasonable for people to celebrate life where they find it, or create it, or escape from it, or think they can control it.

But what about the big stuff? What about ending the madness in gun violence, ending the madness in an electoral system that has become a playground for the rich, or saying no to corporate America’s takeover of even more corners and details of our lives? What about climate change? Or raising taxes to pay for schools and safety nets? How can we be ever more in touch via technology, yet feel powerless to acknowledge and fix obvious problems?

When will the people who actually have the power and responsibility—elected federal officials, federal judges, senior corporate executives; those with real money, power and influence—do something big and risky on behalf of the public’s genuine interests, in response to how most people feel about the anxieties in our lives in 2012?  

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