I have a theory about mass killings, and it is neither original nor exclusive: in fact, it has been proposed in various forms for at least a century But I think it is worth considering.
I think that the smart, creative, intense, ambitious, restless and entrepreneurial people in this country keep designing an environment, and forcing it on us whether we like or need it or not, that is increasingly, and ultimately unbearably, hostile to those who are not smart, creative, intense, ambitious, restless and entrepreneurial. I think that as life becomes increasingly stressful and confusing for average people—remember, about half of the public is below average intelligence, and even average intelligence is nothing to jump up and down over—they are more likely to reach what the serial killer profilers on “Criminal Minds” call “stressors”—the final straw, the moment when they see red, and deadly fury takes over. On the TV show, of course, the stressor is the death of a child, or a firing, or the onset of an illness, or financial setbacks. But I can see it simply being the realization that life is hopeless…that it is always going to be a miserable, frustrating struggle, and that powerful, rich, meddling people are at work always finding ways to make sure it gets harder and harder, and ultimately futile, for normal human beings to get through the day.
I entertain delusions that I am smarter than the average bear, and I can barely stand it myself. Yesterday, stuck at La Guardia, I wanted to get some food in the a terminal’s food court. The place I chose had just added computerized self-ordering on iPads. I’m not intimidated by iPads; I use one. The woman in front of me, however, stared at the device—there were no readily available employees to guide her through it—as if it were a space alien. She pushed some buttons, sighed, and gave up.
I took my turn. On the menu (it was an Asian food place) it included Pad Thai under “noodle soups.” The menu said you could choose among three kinds of noodles (I wanted rice.) I pushed the picture of the Pad Thai dish, a drink, and received a receipt with instructions to pay the cashier and wait for my food. Nowhere on the iPad was there a way to choose the type of noodles. Finally, I got the attention of a cook behind the counter. “How do I choose noodles on this?” I asked. She didn’t know. She called out to a well-disguised supervisor, who came over and reentered my order. Still no noodle designation.
“Oh…what you do is tell the cooks which kind of noodles after you pay,” she decided. Then she left.
I couldn’t find the cashier. I have been to that food court before, and each establishment used to have a cashier. None was in evidence. I called out, to nobody in particular, “Where do I pay for my food?” and a pilot pointed all the way across the hall to another counter. “There,” he said. “There?” I asked. “How would anyone know that?” “There should be a sign, ” he said, shrugging.
So I went to the cashier, who had nobody dealing with her, or so it seemed. “There’s a line,” she said curtly, pointing to a blob of people divided by magazine stands and other obstructions. I entered the blob and asked “Where’s the end of the line?” “Who knows?” said the woman next to me. “They need a sign. Or aisles.”
Finally I got to the same cashier who had rejected me. My Pad Thai looked a long way away, and was still waiting for a noodle decision, or so I had been told. I asked the cashier how I knew I would get the noodles I wanted after I paid. “There’s only one kind of noodle,” she said. “That’s not what the menu said, ” I protested. “I was told that I could pick one of three.” “I don’t know,” she said. “Good question. Let’s find out.”
“Before I pay?”
“Sure,” she said. And she led me all the way back to the Asian food place, leaving the others behind me in the blob-line fuming. She yelled to the chef, whom I hadn’t seen before, “This man ordered Pad Thai. How does he pick his noodles?” “I’m using rice noodles,” he said.
Well, I didn’t choose them, but that was what I wanted, so I wasn’t going to make an issue about it. Then I walked with the cashier all the way back, jumped in front of the annoyed blob, and paid. “Thank, you,” I said. “That was very nice of you.” I tipped her a few dollars. “The system’s new,” she said.
I got my Pad Thai (it was pretty good, too—but it sure wasn’t “soup”), but it had taken two attempts at ordering, six conversations with four employees and two strangers, two round trips to the cashier and back, and about 20 minutes to complete a transaction that used to be quick, logical and simple. It was also clearly just luck that I got the noodles I wanted. Is the new system really progress and a substantive improvement? Not if it leaves a significant number of customers confused and hungry. Multiply that kind of experience a few hundred times, and I can see someone snapping and becoming like Michael Douglas in the film “Falling Down,” or reasoning like Sweeney Todd in the musical of the same name, at the chilling moment he decides to start murdering everyone in the song “Epiphany”:
They all deserve to die
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett
Tell you why!
Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett,
There two kinds of men
And only two—
There’s the one staying put in his proper place,
And the one with his foot in the other one’s face!
Look at me, Mrs. Lovett;
Look at you— don’t we all deserve to die?
Even you, Mrs. Lovett,
Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief!
For the rest of us, death will be a relief!
We ALL deserve to die!
Heck, I can even see me reaching that point: the stupid noodles episode, on top of leaving the house wearing shoes from two different pairs (don’t ask), sweltering in a cab with air conditioning and having my flight delayed, nearly got me there yesterday. What made the difference, perhaps, was that people were kind to me, and tried to make things easier. That’s ultimately what ethics is all about, after all–everyone trying to find ways to make life easier, happier, fairer, rather than unbearable.
How many of the recent mass killings might have been prevented by a well-timed kind word, some generous assistance, someone recognizing a fellow human being approaching a breaking point and showing that he or she cared? Maybe none, I’ll grant you. Nevertheless, I think we all have an obligation to consider that there may be a limit to how complicated we can make the process of just living before those less capable than us give up, despair, and decide to emulate Sweeney Todd.
Be ethical, considerate and kind as often and as much as you can. The life you save may be your own.