- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 18, 2002

The lady should know how to count, she said.

"Karen Morgan was accused of flying into a rage when she noted how the shopper in front of her had brought 13 items into the 12-items-or-less express lane at the Market Basket in Lowell, Mass.

Miss Morgan, 38, mocked the math skills of her fellow patron and began "swearing and cussing me out," said the victim, 51, who asked to remain anonymous. Then Miss Morgan followed the express-lane violator out of the store and attacked her, the victim said.

"She grabbed me by my hair, pulled me to the ground, kneed me in my stomach, and I was on the ground and she kicked me on my head and on my side and I got all scratched up. She drew blood."

Shopper's rage? Most everyone knows road rage firsthand, but air rage, office or desk rage, consumer rage, sports rage and, sadly, mommy rage, are appearing more in the news.

Used as a verb, "rage" refers to a wide range of actions: to shout, berate, throw things, break out a weapon, make threats or otherwise overreact and attempt to emotionally or physically harm someone for a misguided reason.

When anger turns to madness, mental-health professionals must navigate the blurred line between a chronic anger problem and a mental illness in determining the best therapy for a rage-aholic.

Michael Schulman, a Manhattan psychologist and author of "Bringing Up a Moral Child," believes it comes down mostly to basic incivility.

"I think people are not taught to be polite," says Mr. Schulman. Today, he says, many of our pop-culture heroes "are rude, aggressive people."

Other analysts say societal anger is much darker than that.

"More people feel anxious and without hope than in earlier times, and that is a formula for rage," says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of "The Dance of Anger." "Where do you stop, since anybody can rage at anything?"

Some people are born angrier than others, according to the American Psychological Association. Those with a really low tolerance for frustration get particularly infuriated if a situation seems somehow unjust.

Miss Morgan, the express-lane rager, may fall into that category. She failed to appear in court to face assault and battery charges and remained at large.

Another more serious instance would be the infamous fight last year in which Thomas Junta killed fellow parent Michael Costin at their sons' hockey practice in Reading, Mass.

"Road rage" is a term that has been around the longest and the phenomenon therefore has been studied the most, yet police and traffic analysts say it shows no sign of abating.

New York Avenue, a main commuting route into the District, seems to attract noteworthy examples. One driver, going 10 miles over the speed limit in the right eastbound lane, reports that she somehow raised the ire of a man in a pickup truck behind her. After dangerous tailgating, honking and wild gesturing, he finally roared past her, opening his window to release a string of profanities.

Office rage, also called "desk rage," has come to mean anything from a disgruntled white-collar employee opening fire on his colleagues to a general decline in the basic sense of respect and decency in the workplace. Employees report increased use of profanity, slights, outbursts and even violence.

Labeling the problem can make it seem less grave, says Dr. Eric Hollander, a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"When people explode in a work setting, and smash valuable objects or threaten others, that's serious," he says. "This is not a trivial problem."

Mrs. Lerner agrees.

"Americans have a great propensity for labeling, but it's absurd and trivializing to assign labels such as 'desk rage' and 'air rage,'" she said.

The term "air rage" has raised heated debate about whether it is a misnomer. The Federal Aviation Administration and the International Transport Workers' Federation separate the three levels of air antics into "disruptive passenger behavior," "interference with flight crew" and "air rage."

Many would question whether a drunken man's attack on a flight attendant is an air-rage incident or just drunkenness that happens on an airplane.

"It seems intellectually dishonest to group all anti-social behavior on the part of passengers under the umbrella of air rage," according to the book "Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies" by Andrew R. Thomas and a writer termed "Anonymous."

Iain Murray, a senior policy analyst at the Statistical Assessment Service, a nonpartisan Washington group working to improve public understanding of scientific information, says we live in the "age of rage," but "the reality is air rage, insofar as it exists at all, is an invention of airlines and the media, covering up a series of underlying problems with the industry as a whole."

Road rage remains the classic example of a major overreaction to a minor or perceived injustice: One driver's transgression of forgetting to signal is magnified 100 times to a fellow driver who is provoked easily.

Lon Anderson of the Potomac AAA says aggressive driving, including speeding and tailgating, is a precursor to a road-rage incident, in which the driver either accosts another driver or causes a crash.

"An automobile becomes a killing machine fairly quickly and efficiently if abused," Mr. Anderson says. This has led to some sad stories in the District, he said, which has "some of the worst congestion in the USA."

A violinist with the National Symphony Orchestra was driving on Interstate 66 recently when he cut off another driver, who became angry, pulled in front of the violinist and slammed on the brakes repeatedly until the violinist lost control of his car. The musician died and the rager was convicted of manslaughter.

Such anecdotes are examples of what some say is evidence that anger in our society is leading to a pervasive mean-spiritedness.

A report released this month by Public Agenda says Americans are rude, hotheaded and pushy. They are discourteous to salespeople, they shout at other drivers, and the majority of those surveyed believe these behaviors are increasing. The bright side, if there is one, is that they are aware of this.

Mr. Anderson, speaking of the Washington metro area specifically, says rage stems from a hypercompetitive drive.

"We used to be kind of a sleepy Southern town. Now we are really tightly wrapped. We are supermoms and superdads," he said.

Some people just feel mistreated. Inside the mind of a road-rager, Mr. Anderson says, this is what one might hear: "I have to take it from my wife, I have to take it from my boss, but I don't have to take it from that idiot in the other lane."

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