On Friday, in Houston, a 60-year-old engineer carried a gun into NASA, took two co-workers hostage, and ended up killing one along with himself. Doug Peterson, a spokesman for NASA said that "any organization would take a good, hard look at the kind of review process we have with people," as though somehow the problem was with NASA for hiring the worker in the first place.
A creative writing professor was aware of the Virginia Tech gunman's pending meltdown, and did everything in her power to help him through referrals to counseling and generally spreading the word that Cho was a ticking time bomb. Since the incident, thousands of teachers have contacted her about troubled students of their own, looking for advice on how to keep those students from committing similar or worse atrocities.
A student in Colorado was arrested for saying that he understood the Virginia Tech shooter and was himself angry enough to kill people.
Apparently no one in this society believes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The general consensus is that we should find out who these disaffected ones are and somehow separate them from the rest of society. The attitude is that if these people are unhappy it is some kind of pathology for them, and for society, and the cure is to cut them off from the rest of the "respectable" world.
People who go on these kinds of rampages are alienated in the extreme, often mentally ill, and often described as "loners." How does a person become a loner? How does one become so alienated? Think about the last time you told the truth about yourself when the truth was not "pretty."
"Yes," says Mary, "I often think I'd like to strangle my children, if it would get me peace for the afternoon."
If Mary is with nice people who like her, they'll answer, "Oh, honey, you don't mean that."
If they don't know her, they'll decide they don't want to know her, and the answer may be something to the effect of, "At least you're honest." Their tone will scream "too much information!!!"
Either way, whatever Mary feels or thinks is discounted. Her experience is denigrated, and she is told that everywhere that matters, she needs to toe the company line. The correct thing for the Marys of the world to say is, "I love my children. They make my life perfect." Any disagreeing sentiment must remain silent. Not to do so will be held against them.
Elmer Worker obediently shows up to his cubicle every day. While performing his duties, he must listen to his neighbors checking their voice mail on speakerphone, dress in black, grey, or navy blue, perhaps bear an uncomfortable office temperature, and forgo the experience of natural light for hours at a time. Imagine that Elmer makes an error of judgement. Nothing big, just misspeaks or sends a badly worded e-mail and is now in trouble. No one actually confronts him. He may get the general feeling that something is wrong, and they may even take him into the office and tell him that he has to be more of a team player.
Then one day, when things seemed to be going fine, the boss comes down with a security guard and informs Elmer that his services are no longer needed. He has one hour to clean out his cubicle. The security guard will stand watch over him to assure--What? That he does nothing dishonest, vindictive, angry? Who knows, but Elmer, who had to check his dignity at the door on the day he took this job, is sure to be offended, and rightly so.
Afterward, there will be a meeting where the boss and the hiring managers reassure each other that they have to be more careful about hiring nutcases. It will never cross their minds that they have helped create the nutcase. This is how the US Postal Service reacted after several dismissed disgruntled workers showed back up at work in the 80s with firearms. We call irrational displays of anger "going postal."
When terrible things happen, we try to find a cause and address it. But what happens if the cause we find is not a cause but an effect?
Maybe the problem isn't to segregate the content from the discontent. Maybe the problem is not that these people are unhappy. Maybe the cause of the unhappiness is the cause of the disaster. The Titanic disaster resulted not because a ship hit an iceberg. The disaster resulted from an inadequate number of lifeboats onboard when the ship hit the iceberg. The problem was never the sinking ship or the iceberg.
The problem is not that some people are unhappy. The problem is that society refuses to address the causes of their desperate unhappiness. Why should some people live in grinding poverty while others in the same country enjoy every good thing life has to offer and avoid paying taxes? Why should a police officer who cotracts West Nile virus have to sell his house to pay the part of his medical bills insurance didn't cover? Why should a person be forced to retire whose best work is still in them, because they no longer fit the hip, young company image?
We live in what is supposed to be a pluralistic society. When people are heard, they don't need to shout. Maybe we need to do a bit more listening.
- ▼ April (5)
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