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Reflecting on Littleton, Colorado

Better Parenting, Gun Control Would Prevent Such Tragedies

Eric J. Plosky

What’s so surprising about the school shootings in Colorado?

I’m not talking about the scale of murder and bloodshed; no reasonable person can comprehend such senseless destruction. No, I’m talking about the very idea that such a massacre could happen. Why should we be surprised by alienated, disaffected kids exacting revenge on their popular, happy peers? This example was uncharacteristically bloody, but it’s just the latest manifestation of American society circa 2000 -- increasingly fragmented, suspicious, and schizophrenic, shredding itself apart.

The shootings have little to do, I think, with our “culture of violence”; it is not violence itself that is destroying our society. As Tipper Gore pointed out on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” we’ve always lived in a culture that tolerates -- and often glorifies -- violence, especially in this, the most brutal century in history. It has long been accepted that well-adjusted people are able to accept the fantasy nature of film and video-game violence, and are able to to separate such fantasy from the reality of their daily lives.

We run into problems when maladjusted people enter the picture. By way of definition, “maladjusted” is not at all a synonym for “non-mainstream.” The maladjusted are those who cannot separate fantasy from reality, lacking a sense of self-awareness and/or self-preservation, and, as a result, often have incredible difficulty operating on a day-to-day basis. Naturally, our society stigmatizes the maladjusted, though there is absolutely no reason to do so. All of us, certainly, have had our bad stretches.

But Americans are elitists, intolerant; we’re often racists, sexists, and homophobes. At the same time, just like all human beings, we usually seek the companionship of like-minded people. It should surprise no one that a group of bitter, outcast teenagers in Littleton formed their so-called “Trenchcoat Mafia.” Effectively cloistered, these kids looked around for support and encouragement, and they found it in the doctrine of Hitler, an ideology of hate. Why is it that only hatemongers seem to be clever enough to recognize the potential of the disaffected? I would say that hatemongers are no more perceptive than the rest of us, but only if “the rest of us” doesn’t include the parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, who apparently didn’t notice their kids constructing a 40-pound propane-tank bomb in the garage.

In any case, how do we address this situation? We first have to give up the fiction that everything in America is hunky-dory and that the Colorado incident was merely a freak occurrence perpetrated by freaks. We have to admit, rather, that our society has grave problems requiring our immediate concern, and that the shots fired at Columbine High spoke for many more than the two gunmen. Unless we get over our naivetÉ, our feigned Pleasantville innocence, we won’t be able to save our society from further degeneration.

There are lots of ideas as to what we can to do “reknit the social fabric.” Many are bad. Bill Bennett and Pat Buchanan, for instance, would revert to “traditional” instruction in schools, emphasizing Christian morals and values. Public schools, it should be clear, are not the place for religious instruction or religious methods, even if the message of such education is worthwhile. Our country was founded on the principle of strict separation of church from state, and so must it remain.

Appealing to Hollywood to provide more wholesome entertainment is a bad idea. It’s not necessary for the well-adjusted (in fact, I suspect, it would greatly annoy them), and it’s not enough to help those who really need help. Media moguls do nothing more than provide, obediently, what the market demands; it is offensive to propose trying to enforce some regulated morality on people (consumers, if you will) who should be able to make their own decisions.

Another dreadful suggestion is cracking down on criminal behavior; it’s usually proposed by the most intolerant of right-wingers. Fostering a culture shaped by fear and punctuated by paranoia should not be the aim of American policymakers. Besides, lawmen should be flexible and intelligent enough to be able to find other options rather than simply drawing battle lines and donning riot gear at the first sign of trouble. Is it any wonder that defiant attitudes develop toward the boys in blue? Police need to see ordinary citizens as people, not potential criminals. The cop on the beat -- we would do well to return to community policing -- should be able to discriminate between situations calling for cuffs and those that simply demand a reprimand or even (gasp!) a word of wisdom.

There are some good ideas, ideas that urge us to face all of our pretensions and hang-ups squarely, drop the naive faÇade that paralyzes us into inaction, and start to work toward a culture of inclusion. In part, this means a reordering of some of our longstanding views. Bill Bennett indignantly pointed out on “Meet the Press” that the kids in black trenchcoats walking down the hall at Columbine chanting “Heil Hitler” were all but ignored by their classmates and teachers. But, he said, “I guarantee you” that if a bunch of kids walked down the hall with bibles chanting “behold the prince of peace, the king of kings,” they would have been run out of school. We must tolerate the free expression of beliefs on one hand while being alert to signs of genuine maladjustment and danger on the other.

A culture of inclusion means better parenting. On the whole, parenting is terrible in America, and something must be done to improve relationships between parents and their children if our society is to start healing. Caring parents should be the first barrier between disaffected youths and insane, irresponsible actions. (Other barriers should be caring friends and teachers, and a mental health system that can function free of medical consumerism and social stigmatism.)

On another note, guns must be eliminated from our society. Now, I recognize that just as violence is not itself the cause of cultural decay, guns are not themselves the cause of wanton killings. And, yes, banning guns to prevent murders is as useless as barring windows to prevent suicides -- the determined will find a way. But the availability of guns makes killing, especially mass killing, too easy an option; even when stores are regulated, kids obtain guns by other means. Guns shouldn’t be available at all -- we should institute a nationwide guns-for-goods amnesty exchange to get them off our streets. And don’t throw the Second Amendment at me: the mark of a truly enlightened society is that a “well-regulated militia” is not necessary in order to secure freedom.

The more intelligent and perceptive among us should not be surprised by Littleton. But neither should we tolerate any more of the fragmented, self-obsessed society that makes such incidents a reality. It’s time to face facts. It’s time to take action.