A funny 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.
From the freeing of Casey Anthony who partied while her daughter decomposed in a Florida wood, to the dismembering of Leibi 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 our society’s protestations as to 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 entirely preventable. We simply can’t stop every neighborhood monster from chopping up children and one would be hard-pressed to imagine what could have been done to anticipate a summer camp turned into a killing field. But we did know that Amy Winehouse was drugging herself to oblivion and 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, I said, “No, no, no,” were shockingly personal and biographies of the singer list 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 to wonder to whom we could now turn for further water cooler delight.
There is something sick about a society that has so caricatured celebrities that their suffering makes no human indentation, as if they were all cartoon characters who get squashed 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 children – 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 fact that parents of large families, like me and my wife who thank G-d have nine, have encountered on many occasions.
Why is innocent 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 with the Joneses to even spiritual rights of passage, like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs, that 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 they can’t afford it. When the session was over they drove away in their Porsche.
Second, there is the shocking failure of religion to instill 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 gay marriage which has just been legalized in New York. No doubt if gays were prevented from getting married society would become immediately healthy again and all the dead children would come back to life. Furthermore, with so many ostensibly religious people being guilty of perpetrating the 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 immediate tendency to declare anyone guilty of heinous crimes – especially against children – to be immediately 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 she probably snapped and said that Levi Aron was insane and not responsible for his actions, even though Aron himself told police, “I understand this may be wrong and I’m sorry for the hurt that I have caused,” thus clearly demonstrating his ability to distinguish between righteous and immoral action. 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 that each of these individuals was evil rather 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. We parents have no excuse to miss family dinners or bedtime stories. The boss and the office be damned. We need religious leaders that stop condemning gays and begin praising brave parents who adopt unwanted children. And if certain heterosexuals reading this are uncomfortable with gay adoption, then by G-d, adopt the kids yourself. We need Rabbis and priests who educate their communities in the value of visiting the sick in hospital, honoring and visiting elderly parents, and inviting guests to their Sabbath and festival tables, teaching children hospitality and caring for fellow beings.
Finally, we need the courage to call evil what it is. 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 sympathies or hearts.
Shmuley Boteach, ‘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.