What is causing outbursts of rage on planes and grocery checkout lines?
Photo: LM Otero / AP
Last week a stranger threatened to beat me and my husband in the checkout area of a grocery store. What upset him was that my husband had passed him on his way to return an unwanted item. The man announced he was going outside to wait for us and stared at us - screaming, growling, clenching - through the window. Was I surprised that a muscular guy in his thirties threatened to hit two grandparents? It wasn't the woman behind the cash register. She said, "It happens every few days." In fact, just recently an elderly man was raging at another supermarket, in another town, yelling at me saying I was too close and the cashier said, "He comes in here and does this all the time."
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I thought of these incidents when I read that on June 14th a man shot and killed a supermarket cashier in Georgia while she was asking him to wear a mask. Violence rages on airplanes as well. As Sara Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said recently, "We have never seen aggression and violence on our planes like we have in the past five months." Just a week ago, a flight attendant had two teeth knocked out by a violent passenger.
Gun violence, mass shootings and murders have increased in recent months. The list goes on in Miami, Dallas, Detroit, Baton Rouge, Los Angeles, Portland, Minneapolis - the rate of arbitrary and targeted killings has increased dramatically. Explanations have been suggested: the economic impact of the pandemic, the proliferation of weapons. Right-wing experts blame the Black Lives Matter movement for undermining police violence. The communities that are suffering the most from these tragedies are certainly those that have suffered high numbers of Covid deaths and dispossessions. Violence is the way people respond to grief, loss, and intolerable pressure.
The shootings and homicides are recorded and counted as statistics. But if they don't result in injury or death, episodes of street rage, street rage, and (apparently) supermarket rage are not reported.
Along with our gratitude to science, our joy in hugging the people we love, a subliminal sense of threat and menace has become ingrained in our consciousness. The manager of a beauty salon in Midtown Manhattan told me that she's scared of the men who walk in and walk around in hostility before turning and leaving. Our dentist's receptionist said that "no one should see the outbreaks and skirmishes" she routinely observes on her daily walk to and from the Port Authority bus station. A friend compared a recent road trip to a manic video game of navigating backward, overly fast, honking, reckless, and aggressive drivers. One wonders where exactly this free-floating anger comes from.
In our rush to get back to life as we knew it before 2020, some of us have begun to act as if nothing unusual or worrying had happened. On Saturday nights in bars and restaurants, the massive collective trauma our nation has just experienced - the January 6th pandemic and the Uprising of the Capitol - could almost seem like the spawn of our collective imaginations.
If we watch crowds of people in bars and beaches partying (to quote Prince) “the way it is in 1999”, who would dream that six months ago we viewed our fellow human beings as a potential source of contagion? Although many are still wearing masks, the "new normal" - on the surface and in some neighborhoods - looks so similar to the old normal that it is almost impossible to forget that 600,000 Americans died and that we were locked up at our homes until a few months ago , blinded by the warp speed at which reality had changed.
I am not saying that we want to relive the sadness and isolation of the lockdown in order to relive the terrible hours we spent watching the Capitol invasion on television. I am not suggesting that we live in fear of the next great evil. But forgotten trauma is synonymous with an untreated wound - that's Psychology 101. It's quieter in the intensive care units, for which we can be thankful. But sometimes it seems like we as a nation are going through a social breakdown, a mass episode of amnesia.
To be clear, something terrible and destabilizing has happened to us, and something like this or something else could well happen again
In the meantime, the nightmare is far from over for many. People are still dying from the Covid-19 virus. "Long-haul" Covid can mean eternal illness. Shops are still closed. People lost jobs. Evictions and foreclosures will resume. Families are heavily burdened, the children and adolescents know that.
Homelessness has hit record levels in cities like New York. Our Dickensian social stratification seems to be even more extreme. Warehouses made of blankets and shopping carts stretch just one block along places where young masters of the universe post $ 30 plates of imported ham on Instagram.
To be clear, something terrible and destabilizing has happened to us, and something like this or something else could well happen again. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Our capitol was raided. Our democracy remains in jeopardy. There has been no recovery for millions of Americans, and for them the new normal is a persistent state of panic. No matter what the charts show, people are still unemployed or fighting off the creditors unleashed from the ruins of their businesses.
For many Americans, recovery takes place in a pressure cooker. For others, a year of their life has been dedicated to something that cannot be mentioned or that never happened.
When I think about it like that, I'm a little less amazed that the neighborhood supermarket, the place where we can find the essentials for our family and our future, a usually pleasant place for ordinary people to meet, in this new one Normality should have become the new arena for the fight.
Francine Prose's novel Die Vüchsin will appear at the end of June.
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