All the Rage

The new aggression and its Hidden Meaning

Mark Barton, who killed his family and nine other people last week, wasn't driven to murder by rage against the machine. True, he hunted his anonymous victims at brokerage offices, referring to them in a note he left behind as people who "greedily sought my destruction." True, he took a verbal potshot at "this system of things." But Barton was a classic American psychokiller, not a dissident.

The boys of Woodstock who pillaged and evidently raped their way to nirvana were impelled by a lust for mayhem, not a political crusade. Same for the dude who allegedly accosted a Continental airlines clerk who says he was stopped from chasing after his runaway son. It may have been bad management, but is that any reason to pick someone up, turn him upside down, and drop his head onto the floor?

Yet all these incidents have something in common. Each was sparked by a painful interaction with a commercial enterprise. Each perp felt abused, and acted on that feeling with enormous cruelty. Call it x-treme consumer backlash.

Barton was an avid day-trader, who lost more than $100,000 shortly before he shot up the offices of two brokerage firms. The essence of this industry is rapid-fire transactions made under constant pressure. It's like a casino without free drinks—sheer risk. Why break the spell by having to go through a broker, who might warn investors they could lose their shirts? On the contrary, All-Tech, one of the companies Barton bloodied, was fined $50,000 in May by the state of Massachusetts for promising its clients financial independence at the click of a mouse. That used to be considered false advertising; now it's just advertising.

As for the Woodstock riot, the leading explanation offered by kids at the scene was the high price of food and water, the endless vending (one fan called it "Commercialstock"), and the horrid sanitary conditions. It's not hard to imagine why these people—nasty as they wanted to be—vented their violent impulses after being penned up in a treeless air force base during a stifling heat wave, forced to use fetid toilets, and made to pay $4 for water. (The promoters of this event claimed there was plenty of free water and clean privies.) Nor is it hard to fathom why airline passengers erupted last year after being cooped up for eight hours in a standing plane.

These incidents don't constitute a trend, the Times asserted last Sunday. The paper of record offered a plausible explanation for what seems to be a surge of outbursts at airports, on highways, and in workplaces. Road rage is the inevitable result of having many more drivers on the highways, and air rage is a product of the vast increase in passengers.

But crowding wouldn't be a problem if services kept up with need—if roads were constructed to handle the heavier traffic and flights were added to meet the growing passenger load. Yet little of this is happening. During the greatest postwar boom in American history, there's not enough money to finance major public works. And despite record profits, airlines have failed to add planes in proportion to the demand.

Instead, according to the July issue of Consumer Reports, they've been "cramming more passengers aboard the planes," as well as "play[ing] havoc with schedules," to maximize their profits. Try waiting through an interminable delay, in a seat much too small to be comfortable, for a dinner flight that includes no food. (Twelve percent of passengers in the Consumer Reports survey say they flew at mealtime without being fed.) Flights are so stressful these days that a psychologist and author of a "how-to manual on relating to strangers" was driven to scream, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" at a flight attendant recently. His outburst resulted in a forced landing.

Noting that consumer complaints about delayed flights rose by a whopping 66 percent last year, Consumer Reports urged Congress to enact a passenger bill of rights that would "require airlines to rein in their cavalier treatment of customers." Hearings were held last month, with predictable results: the industry won the right to deal with its problems voluntarily. But there is no reprieve for aggrieved customers: several major airlines announced a crackdown on abusive passengers, meaning that the next traveler who acts up could end up not just arrested but paying for the cost of diverting the flight.

Blaming the customer who loses control is a lot easier than acknowledging the frustration that is bound to arise from outrageous corporate conduct. By inventing a syndrome to describe this rage, we pathologize what is essentially a logical response to the fact that companies are raking in the cash while consumers take the burn.

Airlines are just one example of this growing trend. Far more serious are HMOs, whose cold shoulder can be the kiss of death. The failure to regulate these businesses shows that, in America today, life is less important than cost cutting. But when it comes to chutzpah, no one beats the robber barons of high tech. There's a special corner of virtual hell for servers whose Internet-access numbers never seem to connect and cell-phone providers who sign people up without regard to their network's capacity. Sick of having cell calls fail, one company recently filed suit against AT&T, whose motto ought to be "Reach Out and Get Cut Off."

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