“The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation and the aftermath of it. We’ve become numb to this.”
Those are the words of President Obama after Thursday’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.
This isn’t just a political statement. The American immunity to the terror that accompanies mass shooting events – and violent and fatal events – is a real and growing problem. It is, in fact, now a threat to our national mental health.
I spoke nearly two weeks ago at the Trends Institute about the prevalence of fear within the millennial generation. Repeated incidents of violence and terror, pushed by a growing constant media presence, have helped raise millennials through their entire lives.
The earliest millennials were born in 1982, just at the beginning of the cable television age. Plane crashes, bombings in foreign lands, a space-shuttle disintegration, and a war in Iraq ruled our televisions in our younger years. As we reached school age we learned of mass bombing and shooting incidents in our own country, such as Oklahoma City and Columbine. These are the events that shaped us before we even reached college age.
School shooting incidents actually peaked before Columbine, but our awareness of these kinds of incidents is only now peaking. The media has mastered school shooting coverage – breaking updates, tearful eyewitness interviews, assessments of killers (they’re usually shy young men, right?), and week-long occupations in small towns and cities across America. The 24-hour, 7-day cycle of cable news means it’s challenging to turn off these stories. And with social media’s rise, it’s nearly impossible to get away. Pundits and commentators babble about every detail. Bystanders proclaim their account of the incident, leading to reporters and editors attacking their feeds with interview requests. This is a constant, never sleeping giant, a behemoth that is literally swallowing us whole.
And millennials are the most affected. They were raised by these events on cable television. Many of them have seen death and destruction on their monitors. They can cue up YouTube and view aggression within 15 seconds. And these incidents occur and are reported so frequently that, in time, millennials begin turning away completely. They’re numb to it. It matters no more.
The great effect of this numbness, or this immunization, is the dulling of that very trigger present in all of us. It’s the trigger that says, “No, this cannot stand. This is not good. This is inhumane.” With every shooting, every bombing, every image of war and violence and terror and pain, that trigger dulls more and more. One day it will no longer be.
This could explain how these shootings can take place. Read the websites these accused killers visit. The message boards are a classic example of this numbness: users write threats against humanity and are allowed to stand. Sometimes they’re disregarded: “OP won’t go through with it,” they’ll say. These people are so immune to these threats that they’re laughing it off, goading the writer to do something about it.
The immunity to the terror accompanying mass shootings – and all violent and fatal events readily seen through the media – is a real and dangerous problem that must be addressed. With it, millennials will not act to change current conditions. They will not stand for gun safety measures because they will not want to confront the issue. They will not stand for mental health awareness because they will not want to confront the issue. And they will not speak out against violence in foreign lands because, again, they will not want to confront the issue.
Instead they’ll take the easy way out. They will hide in their homes, cue up their smartphones and play the newest app-based game. Maybe they’ll post innocuous moments on Instagram. But they will not confront the reality of our troubling times.
And this will allow the untreated – those without that trigger, those who need the most assistance – to make the decisions that determine our future.
Will we continue to be numb? That is the challenge.