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December 19, 2012 5:38 pm

Adam Lanza and the Deadly American Male

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Sandy Hook killer Adam Lanza.

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.

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  • Julian Clovelley

    There is no real outlet for dissent in America so far as i can see. The two parties are so Conservative that an alternate economic and political path simply is not available by normal democratic processes

    In Europe, and most of the rest of the advanced world, there exists at normal political party level a Social Democratic alternative, that varies from Centrist to Socialist. Such parties have a different ideological base looking more from a foundation of social welfare and integration, than one of bland laissez faire Capitalism. They are far more protectionist towards local labor and towards local business – rejecting the brutal international free trade model, that puts local working people in direct competition with child and slave labor, working in unsafe conditions nations with totalitarian regimes

    Genuine Social Democratic parties believe earnestly in free public health services of good quality, to which every citizen or resident however temporary is entitled. This includes mental health services including long term counselling and psychiatric support. Social Democratic parties are greatly concerned with free quality public education, at all levels including university and trade training. The intellectual output of American education is a disaster – stupid in – stupid out.

    Social Democratic parties accept taxation as the Democratic means whereby wealth can be more fairly shared. They recognise that the economic system has anomalies that require constant adjustment – a major one being the tendency of all wealth to flow upward to where it is really not needed – and the almost complete lack of a genuine trickle down effect

    Social democratic parties are strong believers in the need for quality Public Housing at affordable rents. Many such nations impose strong rent and tenancy control – and restrictions on foreign investment.

    A wayward child has many possibilities for care and counselling in Social Democratic societies, but almost none in blandly market Capitalist societies. We see the results of this lack of nurturing structure in America in such as the school killings, and in the Middle East in the rise of ISIS – it is the same phenomena of resort to violence caused by reacting against the intolerable dominant forces in society.

    Religion is part of the problem. As a bastion against Social Democracy and socialism in societies such as America the choice seems to be either Fundamentalism or Crime – or for the violent extremist, forms of Fascism such as the KKK. That is what fills the vacuum that America’s political culture has created. It is in fact the source of the environment that creates modern racism and antisemitism.

    For representative Democracy to succeed it has to be capable of fulfilling its main purpose as a progressive alternative to Revolution, in a society that must constantly change, adapt and evolve – which brings one to the final point that it all leads to, and includes such matters as gun culture, racism, antisemitism and indiscriminate violence – At the core of all these – wherever they appear – is a Conservative environment that bottles up what is often justifiable rage. Social Democracy seeks to deal with that rage – Conservatism’s only answers are the rule of the gun, greater armed security not dissimilar from the concept of medieval castles – and political repression fuelled by a rampantly reactionary media.- together with the use of the Death Sentence

    The nature of the reaction – in this case the child with the gun in his hand – is a product not just of who he is but of who YOU are. America lost its way with the Kennedy assassinations, digging a deeper and deeper hole under Reagan and Bush, and failing to fix society under the almost equally reactionary Conservative “Democrat” Administrations.

    Is there hope for a change coming from within America? – possibly not. There are no great opportunities left for most people, and that won’t get any better. But America has made one major contribution and that is the culture of freedom. Work the system and for the most part you can at least live a fairly free life. When you are living in poor accommodation, with poor health, lack of moderate luxury, and no great room for ambition, I fear freedom of that kind, however, simply isn’t enough

  • charlie johnson

    I saw nothing that mentions mind altering chemicals in any of the discussions. I think that it is omitted by the news clerks intentionally. This includes booze ,Illegal drugs and those prescribed by doctors.I get offered drugs by the Veterans hospitals and refuse any that alters the thinking.They pass a lot on to veterans to make them passive. You can look up entertainers deaths. All the way back to the early sixties. Drugs or booze . I think the kid was taking some legal drugs. A great deal of violence or death in the USA can be traced back to some type of drug.The media goes out of it’s way to ignore this.They like to target firearms. The first thing I think is drugs. I met a guy that use to go to a zoo as a young guy.He hang around the gorilla cage with elderly black men.They had a cheap form of entertainment.Take drink from a bottle of booze showing the gorilla how the cap comes off.Put the cap on,Roll the bottle to the gorilla. He drink it all and smashed the bottle.The young guy got close to the cage.The gorilla grabbed him ,Jerked his finger off and nearly killed him. The gorilla had no firearm.

  • charlie johnson

    The kid has the thousand yard stare. If you spend much time outside a big city in the wilds you become accustomed to reading animals faces for your own self survival.You are likely to judge a wolf that will attack you. When you see a human with that kind of look you can figure the person needs a bit of help.These children spend a lot of time doing violent computer games.I think the FBI mentioned that.Some young minds are not adapted relating to these games to the point that they can identify fiction from the real world. A lot of the troubles in the USA come from some of these stupid games and entertaining music . Some found Hitler entertaining. Or Stalin. There are scientist who specialize in this garbage.Many are hired by the TV executives.

    • Russell Fig

      Charlie if society did more to help kids like this then they woud have a better chance of being successful and living according to mainstream societies rules.

  • Do any of you have a reply for my post? Why is it that there have been no replies yet?

    • charlie johnson

      I am replying to your post Russell.You are a good writer.Maybe you don’t adapt well with crowds of people? Maybe try writing books. Nikola Tesla probably did not function so well at tea parties but he made his mark on the world. Today the popular leaders would point to him as an oddball.Maybe anti social. He never did anyone any harm. He did more for people than a trainload of socialites.

      • Russell Fig

        Who is Nikola Tesla Charlie? I have never heard of him.

        In any event what is your profession or are you a student?

  • I agree with Rabbi Shmueley Boteach Society needs to change the way that it defines success and the way in which it treats people who are different. I know as someone who has had a long period of being unemployed. I am a 60 year old Jewish male with a BS in Social Sciences and a partial completion on an MA in Counseling Psychology who had not been diagnosed until 1995 with Attention Deficit Disorder,a math Disorder, and then later Depression and in 2003 with a Non verbal Learning Disability. As I had been in graduate school before I had been diagnosed with a Non Verbal Learning Disability I started to wonder when I took a course in Multicultural Counseling whY I shoud be obligated to conform to what is acceptable by the mainstream society when it has been so unfair to people who don’t fit in with what mainstream societ considers acceptable? As I am getting older there are times that I feel “rage” and am at times tempted to suggest to all you “Neurotypical” ( People who don’t have learning disabilities or Psychiatric Disorderders) to go f – – k yourselves? Who are you to suggest to other people to impose standards and norms on those people that do not fit your expectations of what is socialy acceptable when you have not gone through this experience.

    I am one of the fortunate ones despite my difficulty job wise due to the fact that I have a BS and a partial completion on a MA. Most students who stary out in a four year college who have ADD do not finish ony 22% of them do and only 2% of the students with documented Learning Disabilities finised it has now increased to 6%. That is unacceptable to me. Why is it that people like me have a higer rate of ending up in jail or dropping out of school or being alchoholicks or drug addicts then you “Neurotypical” people. I am not grateful for the fact that I have gone as far as I have and that services are now being provided. I shoud never had had to feel discriminated and services shoud have been provided as an inaniable right not a privilege. Unless you “Neurotypical” people change the way that you look at others who don’t fit your definition of what constutues acceptable behavior more people are going to display their rage and it is going to boil over with unforceen consequences for you. Wake up people before it is to late.

  • Joe Liken

    It never hurts to be nice to others, but I don’t think this shooter had a self-esteem problem. Dennis Prager, quoted in a previous post, says that most people and nearly all criminals have too much self-esteem. For example, there is evidence that the Columbine killers were not avenging ill treatment by specific individuals, as the rabbi assumes, but instead were psychopaths bent on destroying the entire school with bombs. (The guns were their fallback plan.) Whether it be suicide bombers in the Middle East, gang-bangers in our inner cities, or mass murderers, those who intentially inflict deadly harm on others seem to have inflated opinions of themselves and view their targets as sub-human. Some came from broken homes, some from intact homes. Some grew up poor, others privileged. Some grew up with no religion, others with too much. Many of the mass murderers, but not all, have had documented mental illness histories. The largest commmon denominator (other than high self-esteem) seems to be that they choose targets in places where they don’t expect to encounter armed opposition. So maybe we need to foster communitarian attitudes and, while we wait for them to take root, rethink the concept of gun-free zones in public areas.

  • Lets Conquer America with God.

    I am told American was conquered by the three “Gees”

    GUTS &

    I put to America to revisit the root of her faith and begin to reconquer young Americans with God and start banishing Guns in the cities and country with the guts of that of a powerful nation in the world.

    Historically, when the first printing machine was invented in England, the investor mass produced the Bible, a good act which got the God of the Bible to bless the British who then conquered the world including many new found lands, and furthermore English is now the Universal Scholastic Language.

    Two hundred years ago when the Americans sent her wave of missionaries to publish the Gospel of the Cross of Christ to the World, that was seen by the God of Israel as a good act too, so America rose to become the world’s superpower as it is to this day.

    If America bless Israel and trains her youths in the Gospel of the God of Israel and His Son Jesus Christ and more so start giving tithe of her national budget to God through the work of missions and for the good cause of the work of spreading the gospel of Christ within and to the world, then I believe with all my heart that America will be bailed out of her recession and will again lead the world into a time of great prosperity and we will all be seeing the establishment of the peaceful Kingdom of God in the earth, indwelt the coexistence between man and God.

    Just my convictions.

    Over to you Roger.


    Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

  • G

    Yes! A simple smile can change the world.
    Thank you! 🙂

  • Miriam

    Very insightful and very telling.

    “The result is that a man whose skill set lies more, say, in relationships than trading stocks and bonds, feels unappreciated and overlooked.”

    Does that mean if there were less violence on tv there were more things people can real-ate to or more people with the skill set to make less violence on tv and movies? Technology would not be needed so much. More people are feel unappreciated and left out to keep technology the money-hungry business it is, just like greed and jealousy in the story of Joseph.

    Joseph’s father’s heart was broken for it and the shooter’s mother’s life was taken for it.

    The problem is we don’t have enough “Joseph’s” in the world and more imposters than really strong people, taking it all for granted.

  • Shoshana Z.

    Personally, I think it is pompous and preposterous for R. Boteach (or anyone) to be straining so hard to make order out of this mess right now. There are just too many unknowns at this point. Additionally, the language he uses (i.e. “nut-job,” “odd-ball,” “psycho”) illustrates a very shallow and immature understanding of mental health issues and wouldn’t exactly comfort or reassure anyone who finds themselves struggling in that kind of darkness.

    • Adrienne

      I totally agree with you!

  • Sally

    Regarding the money and success culture and its affects, I am reminded of what your favorite teacher, Dennis Prager, says: “The famous are seldom significant, and the significant are seldom famous.”

  • Avigayil

    The children are often the collateral damage in divorce. I have also been surprised that this fact has been little mentioned. A young disturbed son left without a father in the home had to have a deleterious effect on him, even though he was well provided for materially.

    • John Mastrangelo

      Most people do not understand the effects of a broken family on children. I will not go into the problems it causes because I’m a product of a broken family and it’s just to painful to make my feeling public. We need to work together to solve our problems for the sake of our children. Adam Lanza should have never had access too guns in the first place! It has come out in the press that his mother was looking to have him placed in some type of facility and this is what may have caused him to snap!

      • Great article & I wish other rabbis like Rabbi David Wolpe understood these concepts
        Sara Hassman 949.500.3478

        • Hamsa

          Rabbi Wolpe has more ‘understanding’ in his pinky toe, than you have in your entire brain. Pretty sad…

  • An insightful article, thank you Rabbi.

    America is a very, very frustrated society. We’ve probably have not seen this level of anger in the country since the end of World War 2. In America today, the wealthiest 20% own 93% of all the “financial assets” in the United States. This is the wealthiest country on earth, yet half it’s population are on food stamps.

    Sadly, the implosion and decline of the one remaining super power gives her allies no cause for joy.

  • Unfortunately the family model is on the decline. “Ordinary men and women” are not dads and moms. And if that’s the case who would be there to support the unemployed or underemployed male who doesn’t have anyone to read bedtime stories too. I don’t have statistics, but it seems that “mass murders’are not married. Married men may go off the deep end but mostly against their own family, (sadly). And the decline of religious mores fuels the fires all around. Thou shalt not kill? Not on their radar…married or not.

  • Chantal Clarke

    Rabbi Shmuley, this is by far the most enlightening article I have read in regards to the tragedy that just occured in Connecticut. I will forward it to everyone I know.

    • charlie johnson

      You have to read his article a couple of times to get the most out of it.I agree somewhat on some points of his.A lot of angry men,Yes .No doubt on that.The jobs for men went away. ( For the most part) The country changed a great deal since the sixties. Men ,As we know men are the strong guys who work outdoors or in a factory. It used to be males who were engineers and built machines.There is an old song about a black man called John Henry.He was a railroad man. Maybe a sort of a fable but based on truth. These guys took pride in hard work.The people respected them.As they were needed they may have gotten reasonable pay. But this John Henry would be turned into an office clerk today.He would not fit in. You can look at the post office in Washington DC. The lades.Most all black,Work up front.The men,Most all black,Work in the back.They were segregated by the US government .For the pay I would bet the ladies do best.I would think most people regard the workers in the back as lesser people. All the so called justice we hear being done by government and the media is just propaganda.The tradition of men being the provider of the family is reversed. I was asked by a commenter here about me being a bother to native Americans.I have known real ones.Straight off the reservations,Apache men.One told me that women run this nation today.He made a good case on it.What socialist are doing defies nature. I notice with the advance of time our world becomes more artificial and under control of the artificial. So, Yes. I believe the writer of the article is touching the area of a great problem. But murder is not a good response to a man made problem. A good start would be throwing the TV in the dumpster and teaching your child right from wrong.That is your job.Not a stranger getting a big paycheck under the guise of entertainment.