Media feeds narcissism, leading to youth violence

Posted: Mar 12, 2001 12:00 AM
"Another school shooting," said the airport lot attendant as he wearily punched my ticket. "Same ol', same ol'." Thus I learned about the recent school shooting in Santee, Calif., which, wearily-wearily, isn't even the latest. Faster than you can say copy-cat, another student picked up a gun the following day and shot a classmate in Williamsport, Pa. The now-routineness of school shootings and the subsequent cynicism they provoke may provide some insight into the causes we so desperately seek, as we wonder why children are killing children. Conspicuously absent from the laundry list of usual suspects - inattentive parents, bullies, access to guns - is the role of the media. Not the R-rated flicks or bloody adult-rated video games, though these surely contribute to the moral deterioration of a deranged mind. Rather the media that can't stop talking about the latest tragedy, creating larger-than-life mythologies around the strange megalomaniacs who solve personal problems with violence - today the quickest, sure-fire ticket to instant stardom. The parking lot attendant's ennui may be owing less to the repetition of tragedy than to the media saturation such tragedies inevitably provoke. Some spineless little slug murders his teachers or classmates and he's not a spineless little slug any more. He's a victim in handcuffs on the cover of Time; a sad face on television, details at 6 p.m.; a national figure and face. An Important Person. A star! In the 24 to 36 hours after little what's-his-name murdered two children and wounded 13 others at Santana High School, you couldn't escape him and his story. Suddenly we knew his name, his background, friends, family and teachers. For two days at least, talk-show hosts led hand-wringing discussions about the whys and wherefores of violent children. Not one I caught, from evening talk to morning schlock, mentioned the possible role of their own excessive coverage in contributing to recent events and foretelling future ones. Yet somewhere, you just know, some loser with a chip on his shoulder is thinking: (ital) Hey, that could be me! (end ital) The narcissist wants nothing more than the attention we give him in return for his abomination. You want to feed and nurture a murderer compelled by self-obsession and faux self-esteem? Offer him a TV camera, bold type and prime time. Of course I feel sorry for any 15-year-old so miserable he effectively commits suicide, though my sympathies are diminished by the lives he takes with him. One can't help noting, too, that many children transcend personal miseries far more challenging and corrosive than those posed by classroom bullies. In the context of narcissism, the mystery of children killing becomes less mysterious. That we have more such killers than we used to isn't so much about guns and bullies as it is about our Me-First culture, a convenient mechanism of which is media fame. Chicago psychologist Barbara Lerner nailed it two years ago following the Columbine shootings: "We have more wanton school boy killers today because we have more narcissists," she said. "And the step from being a narcissist to a wanton killer is a short one, especially in adolescence." Especially given the immediate rewards. When you're a nobody and want to be a somebody, nothing works like a .22 pistol and a compliant media. Clearly we can't ignore the miniature thugs among us nor the stories they script with blood, but we (ital) can (end ital) abridge them with contempt and we (ital) should (ital) minimize their celebrity with inattention.