We discuss motives, but isn’t it always the same motive? “I have murder in my heart.” Why do so many Americans have murder in their hearts? . . .
A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?
We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here. . . .
All this change, compressed into 40 years, has produced some good things, even miraculous ones. But it does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005. Deinstitutionalization swept health care and the psychiatric profession starting in the 1960s, and has continued since. The sick now go to the emergency room or stay among us untreated. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.
And here, to me, is the problem. A nation has an atmosphere. It has air it breathes in each day. China has a famous pollution problem: You can see the dirt in the air. America’s air looks clean but there are toxins in it, and they’re making the least defended and protected of us sick.