The horrible events that occurred at Columbine High School in 1999 came to mind again this week when reports emerged that an armed woman1 had made threats in downtown Denver about the school, a few days before the 20th anniversary of the original shooting. Grim memories also returned of terrible mass-shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
Those crimes produced much grief and soul-searching by decent citizens all over the country. Each incident also launched frenzies of blame, “solutions” and political posturing from media figures and politicians – mostly centered on guns and gun-control, as often happens when a terrible firearms-crime has occurred. Gun-opponents now use every such incident to press for new legislation to ban certain kinds of guns, including so-called “assault” rifles which are often (mistakenly) called “automatic weapons.”
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 depravity 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:
“That the public debate over [teen shootings] 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.”
But today I’m not arguing either side of the “gun control” debate. It’s tempting, but there are larger cultural issues in play here. In this article I’ll contrast the way society was in my youth to what it is now – hopefully to discover how we started producing young people who are motivated to perform senseless mass killings. This won’t be a comprehensive analysis – just an examination of some aspects that might show where we went off the rails:
Weapons are a good place to start, since firearms-crimes are much on our minds. 1940s and ‘50s America, when I grew up, was full of veterans from Korea and both world wars – even some from the Spanish-American War (1898), and a few ancient Civil War vets. Everywhere I went with my father – a veteran of the 1944-’45 European war – we encountered his old comrades and other veterans. Most men of his age had served. The heavy veteran population made society comfortable with weapons. This included media people, many of whom had also served. We respected weapons, but didn’t fear them.
Not every vet was a “gun guy.” My pop wasn’t, but he understood weapons and believed my brothers and I should understand them, too. The army had taught him how to shoot. He amazed us by knocking down the moving ducks at the amusement park’s shooting gallery, where real guns and real ammo were still used. Pop emphasized three basic rules:
- Treat every gun as loaded, all the time.
- Generally, don’t go about armed.
- If you are armed, and some situation arises, don’t pull out a gun unless you’re ready to shoot.
1950s Coney Island Shooting Gallery
The ‘50s had other situations that couldn’t possibly exist today. One of my high school classmates lived down by the river in our town, where he hunted and trapped. Occasionally he brought his rifle to school and stowed it in his locker so he could go directly to his trap-line after school without returning home. He was known as a responsible person of good character, so this caused no alarm.
Guns were everywhere in those days, but no one imagined armed hoodlums invading a school and murdering students and teachers. Could the prevalence of guns and a culture comfortable with them have helped protect us? Or were we a different people then?
Disturbed people. During my childhood, we put mentally ill people in institutions where they couldn’t hurt themselves or others. This was considered “compassionate,” not cruel. We considered it best for society’s security and well-being.
Today, homeless people wander around our towns and cities with shopping carts full of personal belongings. They sleep in public parks, and defecate in the stairwells of parking garages. Some are clearly disturbed. We don’t institutionalize them because 1970s societal cognoscenti decided that incarceration would violate their “rights.” We now believe that such people can be controlled by drug therapy, if they take their medications. But the jury is still out on that theory.
You don’t need a degree in psychiatry to know that someone who shoots up a school is insane. Religious people and even some non-religious people call such persons “evil,” as the governor of Connecticut did after the Newtown shootings. Unfortunately, this understanding came too late to be helpful. Our problem is thus two-fold:
- How can we identify the really disturbed (or evil) people?
- How can we put them away when we find them?
The kid who shot all those people at Virginia Tech in 2008 was considered dangerous by people in authority. Students feared him. But officials gave him a pass for fear of violating his “rights.” I don’t pretend to have the “answers” here, but I will suggest that there’s little hope of stopping these situations unless we can unravel this tangle of rights vs. dangerous mental illness and put public safety first. A good start might be taking the heat off officials who know an individual is a grenade waiting to go off, but are afraid to act. We have to quit fooling around with these people. We know how it can end up.
Cinematic and virtual violence. In the ‘40s, TV was not yet common. Early ’50s TV featured the Howdy Doody Show, Henry Aldrich, and General Electric Theater. One Philadelphia channel ran old westerns from the 1930s and ‘40s on Frontier Playhouse. Gunsmoke – still a radio drama in the early 1950s – began its 21-year TV-run in 1955. On Dragnet, Sgt. Joe Friday asked for “just the facts, ma’am…” but did little shooting. Edward R. Murrow continued his top-drawer reporting on television.
Nothing on TV then remotely resembled today’s violent, perverted, sex-laden fare. Many channels in our current cable package are so degenerate that our family won’t watch them. Adults have the sense to avoid those programs, but younger people often lack this discernment. The violent images and cheap regard for human life can invade the soul and establish a kind of “resident evil” that is very hard to shake. Studies have shown that by the time a child leaves elementary school, he will have witnessed 8,000 cinematic murders and over 30,000 other acts of violence. Anyone who argues that this flood of violent imagery has no effect on a young mind and spirit is whistling past the graveyard.
Computer games – where the player destroys “enemies” in gruesome and graphic fashion that looks like actual films – have a similar effect. This visual poison pours into the souls of young players day after day – a steady diet of evil that infects the young minds and spirits of a whole generation and perverts their attitudes toward life, sexuality, love, death, violence, and human decency.
News-media. A major difference today is the sensational news coverage that a crime like the Newtown killings receives. Every mass-murder now occasions an unbounded media feeding-frenzy. This didn’t happen in 1940s and ‘50s news, except for rare anomalies like the 1950s killing-spree of teenager Charles Starkweather and his underage girlfriend.2 Today, reporters dig up and publish every possible detail of a perp’s childhood, education, and attitudes. Motives for this fine-tooth combing is not clear, although recent events suggest that some media-organs hope to link the criminal to conservative politics.
Obviously, sensational events are the life’s blood (so to speak) of the news media. 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 themselves.
But whatever media’s purpose for this extravagant reporting might be, it is becoming clear that young killers find the lure of the klieg lights and cameras irresistible, even though they expect to die carrying out their crimes. Psychologists and other mental health pros say “I’ll be famous” is a powerful lure to loners and disturbed misfits who see visions of “immortality” in the commission of heinous acts.
Considering all this, wouldn’t it be sensible to establish standards for reporting these terrible crimes? An updated media “ethics code” – if such exists – could specify that a mass killer’s name and image should not be publicized, unless some legitimate law-enforcement purpose is served by it. Advance-notice that no media organ will publish the name or face of a mass killer might eliminate a central motivation for young criminal wannabes. What’s the value in getting killed if people won’t even know your name?
The Culture of Death. In the America of my youth 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 million babies being aborted each year – many for no compelling reason except convenience.
Today, forty-six years after Roe v. Wade – the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide – the grisly tally exceeds 50 million. Millions of women (and men) carry the permanent grief of having destroyed a precious life. Nothing on that scale was occurring in my childhood.
An argument has raged over when an embryo becomes a child that must be protected by law. “Liberals” claim that a fetus is just a “blob of tissue,” while conservatives say destroying it kills a child. Even people of faith are divided on the issue – although not as divided as the general population.
Psychologist and evangelical activist James Dobson once spoke to this issue in a radio interview. He said the question was whether Christians believed their own rhetoric – i.e., that abortion really is the murder of a child. To clarify the point he asked listeners to imagine that a facility outside of town is found to be actually killing children. What should we do? Be concerned about private property? Take care not to trespass? God help us! said Dr. Dobson, we should do no such thing. We would go out there with fire and sword and destroy that evil place – driving out all who worked there, and freeing every child awaiting execution. And legal niceties be damned!
That was then, but Dr. Dobson’s imaginary tale wouldn’t be imaginary today. In 2011, the Philadelphia clinic of Dr. Kermit Gosnell was found to contain the bodies of children who were killed after surviving abortions. Convicted of first-degree murder for killing several live children by cutting their spinal cords, Gosnell is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
Again, though, the times are a-changin’. In January, New York State enacted a law legalizing “termination” of a full term child. And in Virginia – long a bastion of conservative thought and practice – the House of Delegates recently debated a bill which would have allowed killing a live child after birth. Governor Ralph Northam, who is also a medical doctor, matter-of-factly described how a newborn would be kept “warm and comfortable” while the mother and doctor decided whether it should live or die. The bill didn’t pass, but the dogs have been loosed. Political analysts say it’s just a matter of time until infanticide is fully legalized. (The jury is still out on whether Dr. Northam’s “progressively correct” remarks enhanced or destroyed his political future.)
Religion and Faith. During my elementary and secondary school years, religion was acknowledged in schools – not sectarian doctrines, but primarily via the Judeo-Christian Bible. Each morning, teachers read a passage from the Bible aloud in every classroom – always from the Old Testament, in deference to Jewish students. We then stood to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the pledge to the flag. This seems unbelievable now, since all this – including the pledge, in many areas – was driven from the public schools decades ago.
I always wondered if those brief encounters with prayer and scripture made any impression on some of my rough classmates. I now believe they did. The Bible asserts its own power, unrelated to any organization, exposition or 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 may not buy this, but long experience has taught me its truth. And there’s no denying that even during wartime society was more tranquil. Now the Bible is banned from schools, but is handed out in prisons. Are we getting a clue? In many schools the name of Jesus can be said aloud only as profanity.
Pledge to the Flag (1950s)
G. K. Chesterton wrote that when people stop believing in God, they’ll believe in anything. Today, our cities and suburbs contain many immigrants who follow non-Biblical religions. And growing numbers of native-born Americans are atheists who believe in nothing beyond themselves. Schoolchildren learn more about Islam than Christianity. Most know nothing of the Ten Commandments or Biblical texts like “…love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A former colleague asked me: “Why should we base our laws on what’s written in some old book?” With no moral consensus, every man does what is right in his own eyes.
This is more than a cosmetic difference between the culture of my childhood and the culture of today. It is a critical difference. The common grounding we had in Biblical faith and morality is gone. Consequently, we value human life less than we once did. This is certain to affect young people, and helps to explain the growth in violence and abortions. Many think otherwise, but denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Can things be turned around? Possibly, but it would take what Christians used to call “a revival.” Our problem is not in law or politics or media. It’s in the hearts of the people. And I’m afraid that banning scary-looking guns won’t make a bit of difference.
“America is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” (Alexis de Tocqueville)
- Miss Sol Pais, 18, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot on April 17, 2019.
- 19-year-old Charles Starkweather, who murdered eleven people across Nebraska and Wyoming during December 1957 and January 1958, was convicted and executed for his crimes in 1959. His 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, who accompanied him on his killing-spree, was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was paroled in 1976. She presently lives in Michigan.