When murders become routine

The recent wave of murders, ranging from Anthony to Kletsky to the Norwegian campers, have heralded with them a despicable barrage of excuses and justifications from people who refuse to correctly label evil.

Norway Memorial 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Norway Memorial 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A strange thing happened to me as I surveyed all the tragedies that have filled our newspapers over the past few weeks: I discovered that I was slowly becoming inured to the murder of children and the loss of human life.
Is terror in Israel more justified than terror in Norway?
From the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who partied hard while her daughter decomposed in a Florida wood, to the dismembering of Leibby Kletsky, whose only sin was to inquire of Levi Aron how he might find his way to a place called home, to the indiscriminate slaughter of 76 Norwegians - mostly young campers - by a heartless, right-wing villain, to the senseless death of Amy Winehouse; I concluded that for all society’s preaching about the infinite value of every person, human life is cheap and being further discounted by the day.
The death of Amy Winehouse is particularly indicative of that thrift. Not because she was more famous that the other victims or had more fans to grieve her loss, but because all the other deaths might not have been wholly preventable. We simply can’t locate every neighborhood child-chopping monster, and one would be hard-pressed to imagine what could have been done to prevent a summer camp being turned into a killing field.
But we did know that Amy Winehouse was drugging herself to oblivion and that she had terrible influences in her life that were keeping her flying higher than the Hindenburg. We knew that her lyrics, “They tried to make me go to rehab, and I said, “No, no, no,” were shockingly personal, and Winehouse boasted so many public drug incidents that her body had become a walking pharmacy. Still, the paparazzi gathered. Still, we amused ourselves with tabloid reports of her drunken concerts and slurred lyrics. Still, we were regaled by media tales of her punching people in the face. Until, one day, she didn’t wake up and it wasn’t entertaining any more.
Michael Jackson was also a source of unending tabloid delight until his sleeping pills closed his eyes forever, orphaning three children and leaving us wondering whom we could now turn to for juicy water-cooler gossiping delight.
There is something sick about a society that has so caricatured celebrities that their suffering makes almost no human indentation - as if they were cartoon characters getting squished by a giant hammer only to pop right back up. But seeing the contorted faces of Janis and Mitch Winehouse was enough to remind us that Thor, Captain America, and the Green Lantern are fictional characters while drugged, drunk, and dead celebrities are all too human and frail.
My conclusion that we are all becoming desensitized to the value of life – especially that of an innocent child's – was cemented by the bizarre criticism of the one tabloid story that should have brought us some cheer. Instead, the announcement that David and Victoria Beckham had just given birth to a fourth child brought derision in many British circles for the couple having too many children and overpopulating the earth, a sad phenomenon that parents of large families - such as my wife and I who thank God have a total of nine - have encountered on many occasions.
Why is life becoming so cheap? There are a number of factors.
First, there is the rampant materialism of a culture that values objects more than people. From parents who ignore their kids as they work long hours to keep up with the Joneses so that even spiritual rites of passage, like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, have become more about impressing friends than celebrating family milestones. Money and fame are becoming more important than life and children. Just the other day a couple came to me for counseling because the wife wants a second child while her husband complains that they can’t afford it. When the session was over they drove away in their Porsche.
Second, there is the shocking failure of religion in instilling values in a culture that so desperately needs to be reminded of what is truly important. Even as we mourn the senseless deaths of so many children in so short a timeframe, religious leaders continue their obsession with fighting issues like gay marriage – only recently legalized in New York. No doubt if gays were prevented from getting married society would immediately be restored to health and all the dead children would come back to life.
Furthermore, with so many ostensibly religious people being found guilty of perpetrating many of these horrors in the first place – from the Hamas anti-tank missile fired against an Israeli school bus to Norwegian killer Anders Breivik being a self-declared Christian to Levi Aron’s credentials as orthodox Jew – the authority of religion is compromised from the outset by the evil still perpetrated by those who claim its name.
Third, and perhaps most important, is the tendency to declare anyone guilty of heinous crimes – especially against children – to be dismissed as insane. In a televised debate on the Joy Behar show between me and Father Edward Beck, the prominent Catholic cleric excused Caylee Anthony’s clubbing after the death of her daughter by claiming that she probably snapped, or saying that Levi Aron was insane and therefore not responsible for his actions.
This is despite the fact that Aron himself clearly demonstrated his ability to distinguish between right and wrong when he told the police, “I understand this may be wrong and I’m sorry for the hurt that I have caused.” Anders Breivik’s own attorney is already claiming his client is crazy, even as the mass murderer argues that his actions were a European declaration of war with Islam.
Is it not equally possible then, that these individuals were actually evil rather than crazy, wicked rather than insane?
A rush of atrocities of this magnitude in so short a space of time should serve as a wake-up to our need to protect, value, and cherish children. As parents we have no excuse in persistently missing family dinners or bedtime stories. The boss or the office be damned. We need religious leaders to stop condemning gays and to instead begin praising them for adopting unwanted children. And if certain heterosexuals reading this are uncomfortable with gay adoption, then by God, adopt the kids yourself. We need Rabbis and priests who educate their communities of the values in visiting the sick in hospital, honoring and visiting elderly parents, and inviting guests to their Sabbath and festival tables, thereby teaching today's children the meaning of hospitality and care for their fellow man.
Finally, we need the courage to call evil what it is. To be able to point a finger at the real abominations in our midst, so that those who devalue and destroy human life find no quarter in our hearts or sympathies.
The writer, ‘America’s Rabbi,’ is launching the Global Institute for Values Education and will shortly publish Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley). Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.