The horrible events that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, have produced much grief and soul-searching by good-hearted citizens all over the country. Pastors spoke to their congregations on Sunday morning about the evil that produced the senseless murder of innocent young children. Parents everywhere hugged their children more tightly than usual, trying not to imagine such dreadful events visited on their families. One friend summed it up: “Hearing the news just made me sick.”
The incident also launched a predictable media frenzy of accusation, blame, “solutions” and political posturing from media figures and politicians. Much of this uproar has centered on guns and gun-control, as is frequently the case when a terrible crime has been committed with firearms. Opponents of firearms now use every such incident as a lever for advocating new legislation to ban certain kinds of guns, including “assault” style rifles that are often (mistakenly) characterized as “automatic weapons.” (Fully automatic weapons – which continue to fire as long as the trigger is held down – have been illegal under United States law since 1934.)
During my adult life a huge debate has erupted over whether firearms have a legitimate function in a civilized society. The second Amendment to the Constitution – which guarantees citizens the right to own and bear arms – has been attacked more than any other part of the Constitution in modern times. Firearms are now routinely blamed for crimes where a depraved morality has clearly motivated the violence. Addressing that issue in a 2000 review of Christina Hoff Sommers’ book, The War Against Boys, How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men, Dr. Kelley Ross wrote:
“Where children are not raised in a morally appropriate fashion, they will behave impolitely, imprudently, or illegally – [or] all three… The criminality of the young, especially the sociopathic and even psychopathic behavior evident in recent school shootings and massacres, [italics mine] let alone the criminal slaughter found in inner cities, …is a matter of frequent sensational headlines. That the public debate over such incidents is typically diverted into controversy over firearms is one of the most disturbing and damaging misdirections in all of recent politics… The outrageous crimes of virtually feral children are adopted as a pretext to restrict the autonomy of adults by limiting general access to arms.”
My purpose here is not to argue on either side of the “gun control” debate. It’s tempting in this situation, but writers need to guard against expounding on matters where they lack first-hand knowledge or data. I’ve never been involved – even indirectly – in a shooting incident, so I would be out of my depth commenting about it, except to report the facts. For the Newtown shooting, these are already widely known (although some “facts” reported earlier were not really true).
What I can do, however, is write about society as it was when I was growing up, in contrast to society as it is now. Somewhere, we seem to have gone wrong. Perhaps those contrasts will furnish some insight into where and how we changed into a society where senseless mass killings occur with depressing regularity. I present six areas of interest – in no particular order of significance:
> Weapons. When I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s, American society was bursting with veterans of both world wars. Everywhere I went with my father – himself a veteran of the 1944-’45 European campaign – we encountered his old comrades or other veterans who had served in the war. Nearly every man of his age had been a soldier, sailor or airman. This heavy veteran population made society comfortable with weapons. People were used to seeing guns of various types. This included media people, many of whom had also seen military service. Today, finding a gun in a home where young children live causes a media sensation. In my childhood, we did not fear weapons.
This didn’t mean every veteran was a “gun person.” My pop wasn’t, although he knew weapons and thought my brothers and I should know them, too. The army had taught him how to shoot. I still recall my amazement at how he knocked down the moving ducks at the shooting gallery where real guns and real ammo were still used. (Just reflect on that last statement to realize how much America has changed. Real guns and ammo at an amusement park shooting gallery? No possible way now.)
Other situations routinely existed that could not possibly exist today. One of my high school classmates lived down by the river in our town, where he hunted, trapped and fished. Occasionally he brought his rifle to school and stowed it in his locker so he could go directly to his trap-line without returning home after school. He did it openly, and no one thought anything about it. Of course, he was known as a responsible person of good character. He never handled the rifle at school except to stow and retrieve it.
I have no idea how many people were armed in those days, but it is likely that even some of our schoolteachers were. People were not alarmed by guns then, but no one dreamed of armed men (or boys) invading a school and murdering students and teachers. Could the prevalence of guns and a culture comfortable with them have helped prevent such events?
> Religion, the Bible, etc. In my childhood, religion was not only tolerated but promoted in schools – not sectarian religion, but the Judeo-Christian faith in general. All throughout my elementary and secondary school years, a chapter from the Bible was read each morning to students in every classroom. We then rose and recited the Lord’s Prayer, with heads bowed. This must seem unbelievable now. Of course, it was all driven from the public schools years ago.
Even then I wondered whether those brief encounters with prayer and scripture made any real impression on the rough-looking characters in my various classrooms. It seemed very unlikely at the time. But now, in retrospect, I think it probably did have an effect. For one thing, the Bible itself assures us that it has power of its own – unrelated to any exposition or particular preaching:
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit... and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
Unbelievers won’t necessarily buy this, but long experience has taught me its truth. Whatever effect the Bible and prayer might have had on the students of my era remains unknown, but there is no denying that even in the midst of wars we lived in a more tranquil time. Today, the Bible is banned from schools, but is handed out in prisons. Is this progress?
> Institutions vs. Drugs. During my childhood, society put mentally ill people in institutions where they couldn’t hurt themselves or others. This was considered “compassionate,” not cruel. Certainly, it was regarded as best for society’s security and well-being.
Today, obviously disturbed people wander around our towns and cities with shopping carts full of rubbish and personal belongings. They sleep in public parks, and defecate in the stairwells of parking garages. We can’t put them away because cognoscenti like Rosalynn Carter decided that incarceration would violate their “rights.” We now believe that such people can be kept under control by drug therapy – if we can make them take their medications.
You don’t need a degree in psychiatry to know that someone who shoots up a school or a restaurant or a theater is crazy. Even non-religious people would say such a person is “evil.” The governor of Connecticut said it in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Unfortunately, this understanding comes too late to be helpful. Our problem is thus two-fold: (A) Who are the really crazy people? (B) How can we put them away when we find them?
The kid who shot all those students at Virginia Tech was a known nut-case. People in authority knew it. Other students feared him. But everyone who knew declined to act for fear of violating his “rights.” I don’t pretend to have “answers” here, but I will suggest that there is little hope of stopping these situations unless we can unravel this tangle of rights vs. craziness and come down firmly on the side of public safety. A good start might be taking the heat off people who know some individual is a grenade waiting to go off, but are afraid to act. We have to stop fooling around with these cases. We know how it can end up.
> TV and computer-game violence. In the ‘40s, TV was not yet common. (We got our first set in 1952.) Programs like the Howdy Doody Show, Henry Aldrich, and General Electric Theater were what we watched. One Philadelphia station ran old westerns from the 1930s and ‘40s on Frontier Playhouse. Gunsmoke was still a radio program in the early 1950s; it began its 21-year TV-run in 1955. Edward R. Murrow continued his top-drawer news work on television. (Mercifully, he died in 1965 – probably from smoking too many cigarettes – before TV really got messed up.)
Nothing on TV during my childhood remotely resembled the violent, sex-laden fare of today. Many channels in our current cable package are off-limits to our family because their content is too degenerate. We’re mature enough to avoid those programs, but younger people often lack similar self-governance. The violent images and cheap regard for human life seep into the soul and establish a kind of “resident evil” that is very hard to get free of. Studies have shown that by the time a child leaves elementary school, he will have witnessed 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of violence. Will anyone argue that this flood of violent imagery has no effect on a young mind and spirit?
Something similar happens with violence-laden computer games, where the player destroys “enemies” in gruesome and graphic fashion that looks like actual films under his control. This poison pours into the young players day after day – a steady diet of evil that cannot help but infect their sensibilities and attitudes toward life, sexuality, death, violence, and weapons. It is a pornography that infects the young minds of a whole generation.
> Media Coverage. A major difference today is the sensational news coverage that a crime like the Newtown killings receives. Every mass murder occasions a media feeding-frenzy that seems to know no bounds. There was nothing close to it in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Today’s media investigate and report on every possible aspect of the perpetrator’s background, childhood, attitudes, and dispositions. The motive for this fine-tooth combing is not clear, although there have been recent indications that some of media’s purpose is to establish a possible connection of the criminal to right-wing or conservative politics.
Whatever media’s purpose for this extravagant reporting might be, however, it is becoming clear that at least some young killers find the lure of the klieg lights and cameras irresistible – even though they plan (or expect) to die carrying out the crime. Psychologists and other knowledgeable mental health pros claim that “I’ll be famous” is a powerful lure to loners and emotionally disturbed misfits who see an opportunity for “immortality” in the commission of heinous, senseless acts that cost the lives of many innocent people.
No doubt sensational events are the life’s blood of the news media. Even the most responsible media organs chase after these stories like slavering hounds – lavishing attention on them like a dog worrying a bone. They can’t help it. We understand.
That being stipulated, it is worth suggesting that things should be kept within reasonable bounds – even reportage on sensational stories. The media code of conduct – if such exists – could specify that neither a mass killer’s name nor his image should be disclosed to the public unless some legitimate law-enforcement purpose is served by the publicity. Letting it be known that no media organ will disclose the name or face of a mass killer will certainly remove one of the central motivations from young criminal wannabes. What good is it to get yourself killed if people won’t even know your name?
> The Culture of Death. The America of today is vastly different from the country I knew growing up. Abortion was not unknown, but it was kept very quiet. It was regulated, state-by-state – legal in some, illegal in most. No one imagined a time when a million babies would be aborted each year – most of them electively, for no compelling reason except convenience.
Today, forty years on from the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court case that made abortion equally lawful across all 50 states, we count some 50 million abortions – a number equal to the entire population of a smaller nation. Millions of women carry the permanent grief of having destroyed a precious life. There was nothing comparable to any of that in my childhood. People undoubtedly had regrets over some things in their past, but nothing on that scale.
The argument continues over when an embryo becomes a child that must be protected by law. Pro-choice advocates maintain that a fetus is just a “blob of tissue,” while pro-lifers say it is always a child. If we kill it, we are killing a child. Even people of faith are divided on the issue – although not as divided as the population in general.
A few years ago I heard the Christian psychologist and evangelical activist James Dobson speak to this issue in a radio interview. He said it boiled down to whether Christians believe their own rhetoric – i.e., that abortion really is the murder of a child. He asked listeners to imagine that a facility outside of town has been found actually killing children. What should we do? Be concerned about private property rights, taking care not to trespass? God help us, said Dr. Dobson, we certainly should do no such thing. No! We would go out there with fire and sword and destroy that factory of Death – driving out all who worked there, and freeing every child awaiting execution. Human beings could do no less – and legal niceties be damned!
This gets directly to an essential difference between the culture of my childhood and the culture of today. Our society values human life less than we did in the 1940s and ‘50s. This cannot help but affect young people. Much of society may not think so, but denial is not just a river in Egypt.
This is a very significant place where we have gone wrong. It can be turned round, but forty years into the Legal Abortion Era it will be difficult. Too many young people have had their souls scarred by the Culture of Death. We have to find them before they find more of our children. There are no easy answers. And I’m afraid that banning scary-looking guns is not going to do it.