Nobody knows why Adam Lanza shot 20 small children multiple times. How a human being becomes a monster is something complex. The consensus is that he was a psycho who went off. But dismissing him as a violent nut-job is too convenient for a nation where mass shootings are becoming common. If you read my book The Michael Jackson Tapes, taken from recordings that Michael and I did more than 10 years ago for public consumption, you’ll see that he was trying to raise the alarm back then to the school shootings that were in the news constantly. But none of us could have contemplated twenty tiny kids shot multiple times.
America is becoming an angrier place with more people, especially men, feeling disenfranchised, lonely, broken, and in despair. When that anger turns to rage it is downright dangerous. Yes, guns make it easier for that rage to become deadly and only cowards would refuse to hold a national conversation now about gun laws which is necessary at this juncture, whatever the conclusions. But it’s also undeniable that if there weren’t so many twisted, furious, and incensed people in our country, there wouldn’t be people pulling the trigger.
The Torah reading last week spoke of the ordeal of Joseph. After being sold into slavery by his own brothers, he rises to a position of great power through his skills as a dream interpreter. When those same brothers are forced to come down to Egypt from Canaan in order to buy food amid a global famine, the Bible says tellingly: “And Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him.” Really? It was their brother. Yes, he was older now. Yes, he was in a much more powerful social position. But come on. Who doesn’t recognize a brother?
But the deeper meaning of the verse is that they had never recognized him, even when growing up with him. Consumed by jealousy, they had stripped him of his humanity. A victim always remembers his tormentors, but the tormentors rarely ever recognize their victim, even when its their own flesh and blood. The process of murdering someone involves first degrading them in one’s mind, denying their personhood, and transforming them into a focus of rage. Joseph’s brothers could not see a brother who had become invisible even in their own home.
Before Lanza committed mass murder against children, he first shot his mother in the head multiple times. Rage does not recognize flesh and blood. Anger identifies everyone you encounter as someone who gets on your nerves.
And why is America becoming such an angry place, especially for men? My own belief is that America so narrowly defines success in material terms that there is little room left for soulfulness. The result is that a man whose skill set lies more, say, in relationships than trading stocks and bonds, feels unappreciated and overlooked. A man who has failed in climbing the material ladder of life and sees so many surpassing him begins to fume at a world that makes him feel inferior.
More and more men are feeling like failures and losers. Foaming and indignant at a society which they feel belittles them, they want to punish that society for how it lousy it makes them feel.
In my 20-year career as a marriage and relationships counselor, I have never seen so many brothers and sisters fighting over money, with jealousy and envy ripping apart families and men who are unemployed or underemployed feeling so desperately worthless.
I realize that Lanza is different. At 20, he wasn’t old enough to experience the many disappointments that would make him hate the world. And unlike Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the Columbine massacre, we do not know of a history of bullying at school that would make him want to punish the kids in his class. The people that Lanza killed were small children who never hurt a fly.
But what we do know is that Lanza was a lifelong oddball. That he would often be seen around his Connecticut town standing on street corners staring at people. That people walked by him to avoid him because he was so weird. He may have been a nut and he may have been dangerous, but he also epitomized the disenfranchised, the disaffected, and perhaps also the insane.
How do we control anger in America? I recognize that answering that question may not control monsters like Lanza. It’s a fools’ game to try and discern what precisely motivated his diabolical evil. But anger in America needs to be addressed nonetheless.
From my experience, people become enraged when they don’t feel valued. They become angry when they feel overlooked. We have to create a culture that celebrates the individual gifts of individual citizens and makes people feel like they belong.
Right now in our country we have four principal categories of success: wealth, fame, power, and beauty. We read constantly about the man who is in the Forbes 400, the movie star who dates other movie stars, political figures who are on the rise, and super models. What we need to read more about are ordinary men and women who are fantastic because they are good husbands, who are special because they are loving wives, who are remembered because they are moms, and appreciated by the children to whom they are dads. The money and success culture in which we are immersed is simply making too many men feel like failures, a phenomenon I examined at length in my book The Broken American Male. And this is especially true in a time of high unemployment and a bad economy. Men need to feel like a million bucks not just when they make that amount but when they read their children bedtime stories. They need to feel like they are winners not just when they’re part of the NFL draft but when they sit with their kids to watch the game. We need to ensure that it’s not just the wealthy but also the decent and the kind who get our respect and attention.
We also need to fix families. As a culture we can’t just obsess over gay marriage. We need to talk about divorce and how to keep marriages together. Lanza was a child of divorce – a fact not much focused on in the media – and divorce brings in its wake its own kind of rage. We have to bring brothers and sisters closer together and end family feuds that rob people of relationships with those who love them most, leaving them more isolated and alone.
Ultimately, there are no easy solutions to the growing problem of mass shootings in America. But there is an easy way to make people feel more cherished and less alien. We can start with a simple teaching of the Talmud that I have always found profound. “Greet every person with a warm demeanor.” A small hello on a street corner, even to someone who seems like an unsociable oddity, might sometimes be enough to remind them that they are part of a larger human family.
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.