Comfortably Numb: The Desensitization of Americans About School Shootings
Once Upon a Time
"To infinity and beyond!"
Once upon a time, everyone knew America’s first astronauts. The Right Stuff legends were household names: John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton. They were our heroes. Ask anyone growing up in the early sixties and they can tell you Alan Shepard was America’s first man in space, flying Freedom 7. A nation held its collective breath when the re-entry trajectory of Shepard’s capsule wasn’t right, and there was a chance the ship would either burst into flames or bounce off the earth’s atmosphere and be lost forever in outer space. But Shepard saved the day, accurately turning the craft just right with deft manual control, allowing for a gentle parachute landing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Astronauts were celebrities…big ones. Mercury and Gemini missions were white-knuckle affairs for American viewers, and each surviving astronaut became a legend in his own right. Ticker-tape parades heralded the likes of Shepard, Glenn, Grissom, and a host of other pioneering spaceship specialists. Glenn met with President John F. Kennedy in a special joint session of Congress. Everyone sat on pins and needles when Ed White became the first American to walk in space. It was more than a thrill he actually got out of the safety of his capsule, albeit tethered to his ship, and became what looked like for a moment the center of the universe.
Who will ever forget Neil Armstrong, saying to the world when he became the first person on the moon: “That’s one small step for a man and one giant leap for humankind.” Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became more famous than rock stars of the day. And then there was the 73-second tragedy of the Challenger space shuttle when it blew up in the sky before our collective eyes. Folks who watched in 1986, knowing that 7 highly-touted astronauts just went to their Maker, can tell you where they were and what they were doing when the rockets exploded. The unexpected death of Dick Scobee, Judith Resnick, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis was burned forever into America’s consciousness.
"...one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind."
--Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11
Hundreds and hundreds of NASA astronauts have since flown into the heavens, but I’d bet hardly anyone can name them. Except for those whose lives are wrapped around the intricacies of each mission, most everyone else is more than likely hard-pressed to name even one astronaut since the beloved Sally Ride. Some thirty-plus years have passed, and my guess is that quite a few Americans would admit they are not aware if NASA is still in business. America has essentially become desensitized to the goings on of what was once the lifeblood of American entertainment.
Desensitization is Happening with School Shootings Too*
On to an even greater and much sadder example of the desensitization of Americans. The Enoch Brown school massacre was the earliest school shooting in the U.S. In 1764, at Greencastle, Pennsylvania, 10 students were killed when Delaware Indians entered the schoolhouse and shot everyone on site. Two students survived.
The next U.S. school shooting occurred in 1840, in Charlottesville, Virginia, 80 years later, when a teacher was shot and killed by a student who was exacting revenge for what he considered excessive punishment from the day before.
Thirty-five more school shootings happened all across the country by the end of the 19th Century, covering a span of some 60 years, in Louisiana, Kansas, Ohio, New York, Mississippi, Indiana, New Jersey, Tennessee, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Texas, California, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Alabama.
"How many more school shootings do we need before we start talking about this as a social problem,
and not merely a random collection of isolated incidents?"
--Jackson Katz, for Affinity
Between 1900 and 1959 (5 decades), 79 more school shootings were reported. Between 1960 and 1988 (2 decades) 88 such shootings occurred. Between 1990 and 2009 (2 decades), 124 school shootings happened. And from 2010 to January 23, 2018, 138 such shootings rang out. Note the rapid increase in the rate of shootings over the last 3 decades alone.
That’s nearly 500 school shootings in America from 1764 to the first month of 2018. Who knows how much more there will be by the time 2020 rolls around. At this decade’s rate, the total number of school shooting instances should top 200. When will it end? Or, better, when will it slow down?
It is my observation that with each passing decade, even with the rapid increase in the number of shootings in schools, the impact on the news and the public has become less and less global, and more and more local. We don’t even hear about all the shootings anymore. Were you aware that 138 school shootings happened in the last 7 years? Why not? Shouldn’t we be horrified? Shouldn’t the nation be up in arms over trying to find a solution to what is most certainly a tragic epidemic?
"This sure beats the hell out of algebra, doesn't it?"
--middle school student during a shooting at Moses Lake in 1996
Sadly, it seems, the more shootings, the less we hear about them, the less we pay attention, the less we even know to care. We have surreptitiously arrived at what Pink Floyd coined long ago as a state of being “comfortably numb.” We are desensitized. The same thing happened with the Viet Nam war. Blood, guts, and gore every night on our televisions, and nothing could move us anymore. We had seen it all and then some. What was another killing? The war protests continued on, but the collective national audience didn't care anymore.
There have been 11 school shootings in 2018 alone, reported The New York Times, January 23, 2018. Did you know that? Eleven school shootings in 23 days. That's one every other day. Yesterday, a 16-year old in Kentucky killed 2, and left 17 seriously injured. Five are in critical condition. These are not soldiers on a battlefield far away. These are kids in our schools. It was in the news, but did you pay attention? How many of you noticed it and then thought to yourself, "God, another school shooting," and then went on with your day, without another thought about the death of two more kids?
“I think we’ve become somewhat desensitized to the fact that these things happened,” said William Modzelewski, a former consultant to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, “and it takes a thing like Sandy hook to bring us back to our senses. My fear is that if you don’t hear about school shootings for a while, educators move on to other things. [Everyone's] very busy.”
"Apathy can sometimes set in when there are so many incidents, but one shooting is too many."
--Dr. Bindu Kalesan, Boston University School of Medicine
Even worse, the shootings keep happening, and the news keep failing to report them...all of them. Of course, we’re going to forget. Of course, we’re going to move on. We have become desensitized, yes. But we have also been lulled into a false sense of security. Nothing has changed. In fact, things have only gotten worse. But how much do we care? Do we really need another Sandy Hook to wake us up…again?
"We have absolutely become numb to these kinds of shootings, and I think that will continue."
--former FBI official Katherine Schweit, after the 2nd school shooting in the 3rd week of January, 2018
*Statistics from Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Wikipedia.