There is reason to hope


The past recent years of schoolhouse bloodshed has loosed a torrent of ink in the debate about what has gone wrong with America. An alarming bout of writer’s block has made me seek a subject published in June of 1999, and still current today.

Theories abound. We pick and choose among them: The Internet. God having been thrown out of schools.

The entertainment industry. The media. Failure of educators. Failure of parents. Failure of society.

Here’s my take, and a word of hope.

What we are seeing in these once-unthinkable events is the result of a desensitization process driven by so-called free speech advocates and carried out by the entertainment industry and the media.

Both have pushed their share of envelopes in the name of free speech and expression, so that what we watch from our dinner tables rivals X-rated films. Words and pictures deliver the evening news in the most graphic detail possible, from a cigar in the Oval Office to the rent bodies of children in Kosovo. No effort to shock is spared, no obscenity deemed too offensive, until finally we are beyond being disturbed by what we read or see.

There’s a reason human psyches flinch at depravity. The sight or sound of other human beings being hurt – especially the young and the helpless – evokes in normal people the primitive fight/flight response. The intent is protection of self or of the helpless among us.

For some, however, that jolt of adrenalin brings pleasure, and to achieve another hit, they seek more and more stimulation. Some may find it in bungee jumping, others in porn flicks. And for still others, in video games that make the destruction of human life a victory.

And when these no longer thrill, we ratchet up to whatever does, whether sexual abuse, blowing up buildings, murder, or the ultimate thrill, self-destruction.

I don’t intend to rant and rave about how different things were In My Day. Like the car ad used to say, This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

Things are different and will never go back to the way they were In My Day. Advice to myself: Deal with it.

There is hope. There are solutions.

One is to make it a given that parents or legal guardians are responsible for whatever mischief their children commit. I can’t believe this is not already the case.

How can it be that I am legally responsible if my dog bites your child – especially in your yard – but not if my son demolishes your mailbox? Why on earth would a parent NOT be held criminally liable if her child aims a gun at another child and pulls the trigger?

When a housing authority – was it Chicago’s? – adopted a zero-tolerance policy concerning drugs found on the premises, whole families were evicted because one member had a roach in his pocket. Incidents of drug offenses plummeted once it dawned on parents that they were going to take the heat for their kids’ misbehavior.

As for gun control, I agree with those who suggest that responsible gun ownership would be a more palatable term. If that’s what it takes to get the NRA’s cooperation on common sense legislation, fine, coat it with sugar candy, but do whatever it takes before more innocents die.

People who like to label people call me a liberal, and in many ways I am. I cannot conceive, for example, of why anyone would object to the registration of a deadly weapon, yet think nothing of the fact that our cars have to be registered.

Of why anyone believes his freedom of expression would be jeopardized by restrictions on what can be shown on movie, TV, and home computer screens, yet accept as fair restrictions on the speed he can drive or laws requiring that one lane of traffic yield to another.

To be free, we sometimes have to give up freedom. When the well-being of society is at risk because of the actions of any member of it, government, acting on behalf of the people, must restrict those actions – whether the publication of recipes for bombs or the imposition of speed limits in a school zone.

Why do I think there’s hope? Recently TV’s 20/20 had a stunning piece about how Fiji changed from a society in which, a century ago, murder was the leading cause of death among all ages to a society with one of the lowest murder rates in the world.

There are a lot of factors involved, human nature being so complex. Among them: a commitment to make childhood such a happy, protected time that kids are not in a hurry to grow up; absence of the stimuli of television and movies (like those in which American children see thousands of violent deaths before they get out of grade school); and the possession of firearms is absolutely prohibited.

The hopeful element is how all this came about. The researcher featured in the 20/20 story believes that the Fijians simply became fed up with the violence among them and willed it to end. There is a saturation point a society can reach, he says, and decides that enough is enough. He says it has happened in other cultures as well as in Fiji, and it can happen in America.

It seems a long shot, but I am hopeful for this reason: I have lived through times when we thought it was perfectly all right for public places to be divided between white and colored, when people accepted limitations simply because of race.

But no longer.

I remember when people smoked everywhere and without apology, when city council meetings, church board meetings, airplanes, buses, even hospital rooms were gray with stinging smoke, and it never occurred to anyone that that would ever change.

But no longer.

Sometimes our elected officials are slow to get our drift, but I believe that when we as a people finally decide enough is enough, and are determined that the desensitization of children will stop, that easy access to weapons will end, that the community will hold parents responsible for their children’s actions, we will secure the most precious freedom of all:

Freedom from fear.

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