We Jews have had to grow accustomed to perverse celebrations of death by large segments of the Islamic world. Sadly, such familiarity is now compelled by the rationale of Islamic terrorists in justifying their wanton murder of Israelis. For these terrorists, the Jewish worship of life is a sign of weakness and an expression of shaky faith.
Here in the United States, a segment of society also worships death, but for superficially-different reasons. I refer to those children who kill other children at school. Animated neither by religion nor by politics, their actions are also entirely sinister and indefensible. But as we must learn to understand the death worship of Islamic terrorists, we must now begin to figure out what creates and drives these murderous American children. Beneath the surface, there are important and decipherable similarities.
In 1936, on the occasion of a speech by the nationalist general Millán Astray at the University of Salamanca in Spain, the hall thundered with the general’s favorite motto, “Viva la Muerte! Long Live Death!” When the speech was over, Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the university, rose and said: “Just now I heard a necrophilous and senseless cry…this outlandish paradox is repellent to me.” Yet, the cry that was repellent to the philosopher was the passion of the Falangists. Oddly, today in America, a similar cry animates certain children to kill other children at school.
Although it is never shouted out loud, at least not in advance, “Long Live Death” is the lurid undertone of a devastating social loneliness. We wonder about the recurrent school killings, but why should we be surprised? Just look around the country at any moment, in any direction. Young people are more afraid of being alone than of anything else. For some, the fear of rejection is now so overwhelming that it even crowds out the sacredness of life itself.
We will also notice at once that crime and murder are taking a distinctly peculiar turn in America. Whether in the movies, music, television, or on the streets, death − especially if it is manifestly brutish, macabre and perverse − is actually in fashion. Historically this is not altogether unprecedented, but for whatever reason, many in our country are now intensely attracted to all that beats and tears apart, living-and-still-breathing human beings.
Lest this assessment appear extreme or exaggerated, consider recent academic studies of elementary school students called upon to draft a “creative essay” of their own choosing. Even in the knowledge, that their writing would become known to the entire class, substantial numbers wrote of death and dismemberment – including the graphic mutilation and murder of Disney and Sesame Street characters. Faced with a world in which Mickey Mouse and Big Bird have become fantasy objects of harm and disfigurement by the young, we are now in very serious trouble.
The problem for America, fundamentally, is not the government or the schools or the economy. It is, rather, that we inhabit an increasingly imitative and conformist society – one that is deeply troubled, thoroughly anti-individualist, deliriously unhappy and widely dysfunctional.
Where have we gone wrong? At its heart, the problem of children who shoot other children at school stems from a society that positively loathes the individual. Driven by a palpable need to “fit in” at all costs, we have now learned not merely to tolerate mass society, but to celebrate it. Worshiping every inane technology and mind-numbing electronic distraction, we are often far more attentive to our guns and to our cellular phones than to our children.
Today, in America, the individual who affirms his or her value apart from the “team” is routinely pushed aside. Yet, it is precisely absorption by the group that destroys personal responsibility and may even make death a welcome vision. As for the darkly lonely student who feels himself unable to “belong,” to find acceptance in the all-important crowd, an inconsolable despair can quickly become overwhelming. As we see again and again in our schools, the remedy for this condition can subsequently be sought in murder.
Perhaps nothing should be easier to understand. Confronted on every side by synthetic food and synthetic feelings, our children can quickly become phobic toward anything authentic, and passionate toward whatever causes mordant excitement. Our society insistently instructs us to become more comfortable with robots, videos and computers than with each other. As for gender equality, it has now taken a most peculiar turn. For those living in an American culture, where reverent and romantic love has become an acute source of embarrassment, our dreary entertainments proudly proclaim that, vulgarity and cheap taste are no longer, exclusively a male province. All hail to gender liberation.
Now, we assuredly have enough threats from abroad − including threats from terrorists who also “love death.” Now especially, America should not be allowed to die from the inside. To turn away from the ascendant spirit of death and internal decline, it is essential that we first want to live. The murderous spasms of schoolchildren, about which there is now so much rightful horror, are the result of a society’s growing loneliness and of its correspondingly manipulated attraction to death. Aware of this, we must recover the incentive to feel, to conspire personally against the hideous cult of mechanization and toughness that today makes human dignity appear almost unattainable.
True feeling always requires people to behave as individuals, not as unthinking followers. And such needed behavior is always scandalous, a threatening intrusion into the profitable world of commercial jingles, mass marketing and celebrity adulation. Yet, in civilizations on the wane, at twilight, worn and almost defeated, dignified life is sometimes given a second chance.
The cry, “Long Live Death!” is the estranged cry of a person who has, quite literally, lost his or her senses. Whether such a hideous cry issues forth from an Islamic terrorist or from a potentially murderous school child in America, it is always the result of an unendurable anxiety of aloneness, and of a twisted conflation of violent death with personal fame and immortality.
To rescue our own American society from its now incessant flirtations with lifelessness and horror and, thereby, from its periodic confrontation with murderous children at school, we must first reignite the capacity to find genuinely sacred meaning within ourselves. As in the case of preventing suicide-bomber terrorists, before we can put an end to those irreverent circumstances, where children shoot other children at school, each individual life must strive to become “a sanctification,” not a sacrifice.
Copyright, The Jewish Press, December 15, 2006. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is author of many books dealing with international relations and international law. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for THE JEWISH PRESS.