Preventing Neo-Nazi Cult Violence in Our Schools

It is often easier to shoot the messenger than to do what is needed to confront the horror of the message. This is one way of understanding the current round of criticism aimed by some commentators at the media and entertainment industries in the wake of Littleton. Are we too quick to rush and scapegoat our media and entertainment stars, too ready to place blame on everyone from news reporters from Kosovo to the makers of shoot them up computer games such as Doom and pop Gothic singers such as Marilyn Manson? Are we thereby avoiding confronting the horror of the history of the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews and other alleged victimizers of the German people? Is the price we are paying for our exclusive focus on such easy targets of opportunity as the media, to neglect a meaningful opportunity to confront and prevent virulent Neo-Nazi cult mediated forms of violence in our schools?

At least one story on the two school killers in Littleton (New York Times A17, April 23, 1999) mentions in passing that a Jewish student confronted the killer "Nazism thing." While there is no guarantee that a confrontation of the "Nazism thing" by school authorities would have been effective in preventing the horror, the sad fact remains that it seems to have been left up to a student to do so. Through a variety of educational programs, we can be respectful of freedom of speech while institutionally confronting such dangerous cult ideology often symptomatic of either madness or badness or both. Such programs can encourage even psychologically unsophisticated students to remove the blinkers of group think and think for themselves when confronted by appeals to group vanity, us versus them thinking, and "cats and dogs," categorical and dogmatic attitudes. Unless identified and critically analyzed, such group think habits of thought and feeling fan the flames of prejudice, group hatred, and restrict effective interpersonal problem solving and negotiation by destroying the needed freedom to be creative, curious, empathic while considering each problem afresh.

The current round of media bashing holds the media responsible for the killers' lack of empathy for their victims. However, even if the media were as free of violence as its critics would like, it is still unlikely that the killers would have had empathy for others. The element of self-hatred in these killers' attitudes should not be underestimated in our understandable focus on the aggression they directed at their victims. It is difficult to be empathic or show understanding and respect for others, when you so deeply hate yourself as to identify with one of the world's great "losers."

Beneath their thin veneer of superiority, it is clear that the killers regarded themselves as "losers" being put down by their targets, conventionally regarded as "winners." Today, there is in our competitive society a tendency to see all too much of life as a competition with "losers" and "winners." These killers are said to have identified with Adolph Hitler, himself a very destructive and suicidal "loser." The attack occurred (apparently by design) on April 20, Adolph Hitler's birthday and he seems to have been a cult figure for these killers. In view of the persistence and proliferation in both Europe and the United States of cult like fringe groups catering to adolescents and young adults which use the Nazis and Adolph Hitler as an inspiration, the killers use of Adolph Hitler's birthday as their chosen date for murder should not be discounted as representing merely an isolated incidental artifact of their own peculiarities.

In the rush to judgment of the media and entertainment industry it is easy to overlook the significant role of how cult like glorification of Hitler and the "Nazi thing," when ignored, enables predators to proceed in a self-righteous fashion. In addition to intense competition predicated on "winning" being coupled with vanity and "losing" being intertwined with humiliation, there is also a remarkable ignorance of history among American adolescents. The resulting cauldron of competition is all too easily stoked and the vacuum of knowledge all too easily filled by this life's "losers'" transformation of the historically evil yet often-inept Hitler into a tragic hero whose birthday is to be celebrated via murder.

In the absence of a critical understanding of Hitler's history, the inept features of Hitler's self-destructive obsession with destroying the Jews are forgotten. Among the cultists, it is rarely recognized that by being committed to the destruction of the European Jewry, even at the clear cost of diverting massive military resources, Hitler eventually increased the likelihood and hastened his defeat in World War II. Rather, in their historical glorification of a very destructive "loser," Hitler, this life's "losers" find a way to rationalize their rage with those they envy and to convert their feelings of inferiority into a doomed yet murderous group identity. Their group identity allows them to temporarily maintain the illusion of superiority towards those they envy. Alas, illusions of superiority are only of fleeting comfort in the face of social reality to this life's "losers." When illusions of superiority come to be all too inevitably threatened by social reality, already rationalized murderous rage is all too easily enacted.

In writing the above, I am well aware that I have a particular sensitivity to the need to confront the "Nazi thing" given my own family's history in Poland during World War II. As Jews in the Lodz ghetto, they were involved in underground resistance to the Nazi extermination program during the 1939-1945 period, which is today termed the Shoah. As a psychoanalyst and forensic psychiatrist, however, I am concerned that we may be overlooking an early, preventable, warning sign of madness, badness, or both; the glorification of Hitler and the "Nazi thing" when we all too conveniently blame the media. Freedom of speech need not suffer when we recognize and confront cult ideology with the real history of the Shoah taught in our schools in an age appropriate manner. We should not, by our avoidance of horror, leave the door open to misuses of this shadow of twentieth century history by the destructive self-hating "loser" of today.

Harold J. Burztajn, M.D.