Gene Lyons: What has happened to us?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 19, 2022

A few months ago, I ran into a recently retired judge, a former prosecutor and friendly acquaintance, at the grocery store. I asked him what he thought was causing the wave of homicides and shooting incidents around Little Rock. Even in our normally safe, quiet neighborhood, it’s not uncommon to hear fusillades of gunfire in the night — semi-automatic pistols, by the sound of them.

“Damned if I know,” he said. “Probably the same thing that’s making everybody drive like lunatics.”

It’s true. In my travels around town, it’s not uncommon to be passed on a double yellow line on residential streets. Thirty seconds later, you pull up behind them gunning their engines at a stoplight. Everybody drives like they’re in Dallas, with lots of tailgating and horn-blowing. Granted, I’m an old duffer in no particular hurry, but people run so many red lights that it’s definitely a good idea to look both ways on green.

One-finger salutes are ill-advised, as many of these knuckleheads go around heavily armed.

Did I mention a safe neighborhood? Last week, there was a homicide at a bar a couple of blocks from our house. The doorman, a universally popular fellow, told a guy he couldn’t carry his drink outside. The idiot came back with a pistol and shot him dead. They showed a remarkably clear photo of the killer on TV and arrested him the next morning — a 23-year-old from across the river.

Two lives destroyed over nothing.

But it’s not just where I live. Increasingly bad behavior is nationwide. Auto fatalities, to stick with a relatively nonpoliticized issue for the moment, are up sharply since the COVID pandemic. Although traffic volumes diminished with many working from home (or not working), car crash deaths rose fully 18.4% in 2021.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “the main behaviors that drove this increase include: impaired driving, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt.” It appears that some of the same jerks who resented face masks compensated by unbuckling their seat belts.

Why am I not surprised?

“If there was a way to make the driving experience less safe for drivers, less safe for passengers, or less safe for everyone else on the road,” blogger Matt Yglesias comments, “people did it.”

At the nation’s airports, there has been an epidemic of unruly passenger behavior — people punching gate attendants, slapping flight attendants, even trying to break into cockpits. Mostly over face masks.

May I offer you another cocktail, sir?

Elsewhere, drug overdose fatalities are up, there’s been an increase in attacks on health care workers, and schools across the country report a sharp uptick in disruptive behavior by students.

A substantial proportion of our fellow Americans are simply losing it. There’s even been a rise in comedian-slapping at the Oscars.

Writing in The Atlantic, Olga Khazan wonders why: “In 2020, the U.S. murder rate rose by nearly a third, the biggest increase on record, then rose again in 2021. Car thefts spiked 14% last year, and carjackings have surged in various cities. And if there were a national tracker of school-board-meeting hissy fits, it would be heaving with data points right now.”

Indeed, it’s no longer shocking to hear of school board members receiving death threats — a dubious honor that used to be reserved for such minor public figures as newspaper columnists.

Maybe I’m losing my edge, however, as it’s been months since anybody’s vowed to murder me (I do block threatening emailers). Personal abuse, however, has risen sharply. Name-calling is way up and reading comprehension down. It’s remarkable how few people can follow an argument that hits their personal hot spots.

Quote something our former president has said in praise of noted humanitarian Vladimir Putin and you’re a “LIAR!” afflicted with “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” An awful lot of them sound like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni — i.e., like cranks haunted by imaginary conspiracies and dreaming of vengeance.

For the most part, I agree with Khazan that the “rage, frustration, and stress” coursing through American society have a lot to do with COVID and attendant feelings of fear, frustration and sorrow.

Loneliness, too.

“The pandemic,” she writes, “loosened ties between people: Kids stopped going to school; their parents stopped going to work; parishioners stopped going to church; people stopped gathering, in general.” Most experts she consulted — psychiatrists, criminologists and social historians — believe that as our social interactions return to normal, our collective behavior will also improve.

Color me skeptical, but I think that the decay of journalism in the age of Fox News and the derangements of social media have done permanent harm. Mere facts no longer persuade. The propaganda term “fake news” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Millions believe nothing they don’t wish to believe. They have utter contempt for anybody who disagrees.

That won’t change painlessly.

¬†Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.¬†