For the week of April 28, 1999  thru May 4, 1999  

Who’s responsible for Littleton?

Commentary By ADAM TANOUS

Once again two children have gone berserk with guns and bombs, killing 15 people, including themselves. This latest school yard shooting was even bloodier than previous such episodes in Kentucky, Oregon, and Arkansas. And so in every small town in America people are staring at the images on TV, comparing their town to Littleton, Colo. As if the physical make-up of the place might hold the secret.

And if it is not in the place, we wonder if it is in the people themselves. We gaze at the photographs of the two alleged killers trying to see a glint of evil in their eyes. Unfortunately, the secret is not there either. Those two boys look as clean cut, wholesome, and to use an absurd formulation, all-American as anyone in this valley. If only that evil streak were apparent. It would make these events so easy to explain away.

We often fall into the trap of reductionism, namely that there is a magic bullet, a tiny pill or a single piece of legislation that will solve the problem at hand. Especially when it comes to human psychology and behavior, the law of cause and effect seems woefully inadequate. The human psyche is messier and more complex than we would like it to be, which tends to make social policy problems a bit intractable. Like it or not, we are, at heart, analog creatures, and our behavior is a function of a continuum of influences. Though we don't like to believe it, the difference between normal and aberrant is one of degree not kind.

All week people have been trying to focus in on what one factor, if changed, would prevent another massacre. To solve the problem of school yard violence, however, it seems that rather than focus our vision, we need to blur it a bit and broaden our scope. We need to look at the totality of our children's experience, which means keeping track of the many variables affecting their social behavior. Some but not all of these factors are the romanticization of violence in our culture, the accessibility of guns, attitudes of class and race, the glorification of the outlaw in society, and the diminishing strength of the family.

That violence is so prevalent in popular culture is not itself as problematic as the fact that it is glorified to such an extent. Think of the ending of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" --great ending but a strange message to be sending. "La Femme Nikita" is another good movie that succeeds by making the assassin and the business of assassination very appealing. Or take any one of a hundred action movies where the hero performs dramatic gymnastic moves while blowing away twenty or thirty "bad guys" (that they are "bad" makes it okay to kill them).

Most adults are sophisticated enough to realize that the romance of it is meant for effect rather than as thematic statement. Children, however, may not be able to make that distinction. The end result being that while we preach against violence in real life, we make it look appealing on film. It is a mixed message bound to confuse the less astute.

As to the accessibility of guns, it seems to have reached the point of absurdity. Having hunted all of my life, I believe people should be able to hunt according to reasonable regulations. Nonetheless, the argument that a little gun control will lead to the banning of all guns is not only paranoid reasoning but disingenuous at that.

Really, how often does a guy need an assault weapon? Does there have to be such a free flow of guns that any child, felon, or lunatic can pick one up at the corner gun-mart? The National Rifle Association wraps itself in the second amendment, but it is painfully obvious that the real issue is money and business interest. That the NRA has any credibility whatsoever is a mystery when its leader, Charlton Heston, is out there saying had there been someone with a concealed weapon on the Littleton campus no one would have died. In fact, a guard did engage the killers in a shoot-out but to no avail. I hate to say it, but the guy is acting like a buffoon.

In several of the recent shootings, social, class, and race distinctions were very much at issue as well. A common theme among the killers was that they felt ostracized by others at school. Cliques in high school have always existed. It does seem, however, that the divisions have been hardened. In a country predicated upon the idea that all men are created equal, we have not done a very good job of reaffirming the concept of tolerance.

Then there was a note found at the home of one of the alleged killers. It read, "...we wanted to go out this way." The two boys clearly saw themselves as outlaws. Rebels and outlaws have long been celebrated by society. There is something about rebelliousness that is fundamentally appealing. It carries with it a certain degree of nobility, that of the small fighting the oppression of the big. One would hope that in a civilized and democratic society rebels would express their beliefs through words and ideas. What has happened of late is that they are choosing to use guns and bombs instead.

People like the Unabomber and Eric Rudolf have gained a level of idolatry and media attention simply because of the fact that they are acting counter to the prevailing culture. That they are killing and maiming people in the process seems to be lost in translation. Once again society is sending mixed signals to our youth. By glorifying our outlaws we are tacitly approving of their violent means.

The final and heaviest responsibility for our children's behavior has to fall on the family. And this might be our biggest failure. The family unit, in whatever modern form it takes, needs to provide structure, safety, and a sense of belonging. When we fail to do this, our children become alienated and are cast adrift in the world without a fully developed moral foundation. Once we have lost that connection to them, we have lost everything.

When people ask why shootings happen they ask a complicated question. The factors mentioned and even a few more seem to play into it. They are factors that exist in every community in America, including this one. We will never eliminate the bad influences, but with more awareness we can better keep them in check and in some kind of balance. The shifts in behavior and environment that we need observe are subtle, but the consequences of them are anything but that.


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