Earlier this year, I wrote a post asking, “Do we have what it takes to live in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood?” I’ve been thinking about what I wrote in the last week, since the horror of the murders in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Roger’s very own neighborhood of Squirrel Hill.
Fred Rogers was incredibly prescient… or maybe just very insightful. In testifying before Congress in support of public broadcasting funding in 1969, Rogers argued that “if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health.”
American society downplayed Rogers’ warnings in its rush toward increasing atomization of communities. The acts of American terrorism in the last 10 days are piercing proof that the mental health of Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers directly resulted from their sense of rage and social isolation.
Sayoc is now famous for living alone in his white van covered with pro-Trump bumper stickers. Debra Gureghian, the general manager of New River Pizza and FreshKitchen in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Sayoc worked for several months, described him as “crazed, that’s the best word for him… There was something really off with him.”
According to the New York Times, “Mr. Bowers was a loner living in the Pittsburgh area who spewed murderous hatred and bigotry online.” Bowers had an active firearms license and is accused of committing the bloodiest anti-Semitic incident in United States history.
As with other cases of terrorism conducted on American soil by American white men – Ted Kaczynski (1978-1995), Jared Lee Loughner (2011), Adam Lanza (2012), Dylann Roof (2015), Stephen Paddock (2017), to name a few – social isolation is a common thread.
Jane Jacobs and Fred Rogers were contemporaries, each talking in their own way about the importance of community, of encouraging interpersonal interaction. There are many components of community – houses of worship, street-front retail, cafes, stopping to talk with acquaintances in the street. Kaczynski, Loughner, Lanza, Roof, Paddock, Sayoc and Bowers all grew up in very different communities – but each could be said to have lived in an environment that exacerbated whatever inherent mental health issues they might have had. In the great onrush of American culture, we’ve all suffered – many fatally – for our mutual carelessness about our collective communities.