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Back in the early years of television, people became concerned that children were witnessing too much violence—Western gun fights, crime shows, medical dramas, even revenge and hate themes on soap operas. Critics counted the number of violent acts per hour and were alarmed. For the first time in history, television was swelling into a larger and larger influence in the home—not only for children but also for adults. Playing outdoors tightened to organized sports that often emphasized winning—sometimes over injury or good sportsmanship. Most children chose to devour TV programs and, later, video games for hour upon hour. Adult video games could be gruesome or border on the sociopathic. Certain games were forced to carry warning labels that they were inappropriate for young players.
“What will happen in the future?” some worried. “Will we take violence for granted? Will the repulsive shock of murder eventually wear off?”
Whether or not violent entertainment was a major contributor, viewers liked their violence because it was exciting, so it increased on screens big and small. Meanwhile, real world killing also multiplied—wars and crimes and misuse of police power. The NRA switched from being the voice of responsible gun ownership to championing expanding gun ownership for fear and fun. Many people stopped caring about the stark contrast between American violent death statistics and those of all other industrialized nations. So what, they grumbled. Feeding an appetite for revenge and distrust advanced personal agendas and profits. Surely the Constitution gave citizens a right to carry military grade weapons to use on one another on the street or in schools, concerts, and movie theaters. (The nature of freedoms is changing dramatically, state by state.)
Meanwhile, death became a regular celebrity in the news. When the war In Viet Nam became the first televised war, people were shocked to see that battles didn’t look glorious. Scenes that helped end that war eventually normalized future conflicts. Later, disasters such as hurricanes or floods drowned people as we watched. Then over a million Americans died of COVID-19. A DVD documentary titled PAPERCLIP shows an American school in which the social studies teacher attempts to help her students comprehend the enormity of six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust. People can’t picture one million, so how could anyone conceive of six million? The project filled barrels and barrels with paperclips, each clip representing a real person who was murdered. Recently, the families of some of the COVID victims have decried the lack of empathy they receive for their losses. The untouched population moved on and left them to mourn by themselves.
School shootings that horrify for a few days quickly fade from attention. We’ve grieved for so many for so long—disease and murders and disasters—over and over again. People can’t worry about too much for too long nonstop. They need time for peace and love and fun, and they have no training in how to balance concern with relief. During WWII and the Depression, Hollywood went to great lengths to distribute feel-good films in which the good guys triumphed over evil—musicals and romances and good-hearted comedies, because people needed them. We don’t teach coping skills in the more pressurized stressful environment of today, so people simply stop paying attention out of self-preservation.
Mental health and means of establishing and maintaining connections with one another are still not high priorities. Schools teach test-taking. But have we reached that terrifying place where the deaths of people who aren’t in our immediate circles don’t matter much—less and less when the victims don’t seem to be like us? What are we becoming as we stop caring about pregnant women dying, or our young men in battle, or people swept away in hurricanes or wildfires or pandemics? Have we stopped registering the horror of American murdered children—the innocent and vulnerable? If we truly cared for more than a few days, wouldn’t we work to transform the circumstances, vote for people who are prepared to enact common sense change—regardless of politics and conspiracy theories? People feel better when they do something to help. Or maybe we harbor a secret wish to cull the herd.