Tom Matlack wonders what would make a teenage boy go into a school cafeteria and blow away three innocent kids he barely knows?
I’ve spent the last three years talking to thousands of men, from Sing Sing to Bagdad to Harvard, about manhood in general and male goodness in particular.
The picture that has emerged from all those men’s stories is that men are adrift like never before, craving meaning and purpose that our popular culture has systematically undercut when it comes to machismo.
The men we all talk about are either billionaires or sex addicts or both, none of which provides any guidance to the unemployed father looking for inspiration or the returning vet with PTSD.
What I hear from men consistently is that we are supposed to be present fathers, husbands capable of intimacy, and bring home the bacon while being characterized as characters in a Bud Light commercial or a factoid in a female sociologist’s book on the “end of men.”
This confusion about manhood, and the yearning for some answers, is even more profound amongst our boys. I stood in a chapel filled to capacity with 400 boys telling the truth of my experience as a man, warts and all, and you could hear a pin drop not because I am such a great speaker but because someone was finally taking about what’s on those buys minds every day as they try to process porn and poverty and war. “The last time they paid attention like that was during a lecture on oral sex,” the headmaster confessed to me afterwards.
Coming of age as a man has always been framed in terms of violence, being old enough to hunt or fight. But that framing has gone through a massive change in the current generation of boys. My dad was a leading Quaker pacifist in the movement against the Vietnam War. My son wants desperately to go to West Point.
Our male heroes now aren’t Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln–men who dealt with the reality of violence by facing its worst consequences. No, the heroes of our boys are the nameless Navy Seals who stormed Bin Laden’s compound and massacred him. Or the pilots of army drones somewhere in a stateside dark room with a joy stick in their fingers and real guns at their command thousands of miles away.
We are coming out of a decade of armed conflict that is unlike any other in that it’s almost as if we as a nation would prefer to deny that those wars ever occurred. And that fits perfectly with our young men’s mindset. They don’t watch television anymore, they all play Call of Duty or some other Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game (“MMORPG”).
That wasn’t a war we were in, it was a video game.
So what happened in that young man’s mind to cause him to shoot his classmates? I don’t know. But I do know that it was influenced by what is happening to us as a nation of men, and boys aspiring to be good men.
We don’t talk about compassion enough. We don’t talk openly about the nuanced reality of the expectation men and boys face. We don’t talk about real men who are heroes not because they started Facebook or run around with hookers and cocaine but because they are stay at home dads or working to keep inmates coming out of prison from going back or are caring for an autistic child.
There are good men in our midst and a growing sense among men that we are redefining ourselves in new and better ways. But until that conversation comes out of the closet and includes our boys we are all at risk of more tragedy.
Photo: AP/Mark Duncan