Listening to Saturday evening’s news, I was saddened to learn that the teenage girl shot at a Colorado high school had died. Each time I hear the reports of school shootings and other acts of violence, particularly in the United States, since that is home, I pause for a moment or longer and wonder why these things happen. I increasingly find myself wondering if maybe the blame is off target.
It seems that news commentators and others are quick to blame guns or mental illness or some other external or impersonal source for the problem. The recent claim of “affluenza” by an apparently professionally trained and qualified psychologist reinforced some of my earlier thinking that the problem is not as much external as internal. This diagnosis seems to me to be an example of a misguided professional seeking notoriety for concocting a disease that seems nothing more than an excuse for people not being responsible for their actions. In this case, a teenage boy and his parents staking parallel claims for the latest version of the Flip Wilson defense, the devil made me do it.
In the case of the recent shooting at the high school outside of Denver, we may never fully understand or know what drove the teenage boy to violence. While the teenage boy in Texas, the alleged victim of “affluenza,” did not use a gun, he used an equally-lethal weapon to unintentionally kill more innocent victims than his Colorado counterpart. Both boys made choices and both killed people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the Colorado example, it is easy to blame guns for the loss of life. I don’t hear anybody blaming trucks, which the boy with affluent parents drove, or alcohol, which he consumed to well beyond the legal threshold for adults. However, the more consistent theme not running through these two events and the multitude of comparable episodes in schools and on the streets of the United States is that nobody seems willing to mention the possibility that poor parenting and a declining culture play a major role in these acts of violence.
On the parenting side, I cannot claim first-hand experience as I am the biological father of none. I understand parents today claim parenting is tough. My parents and their peers claimed the same thing. That does not negate the challenge, but only notes that he tough duty of parents is not new.
When I was young, and younger, I used to hear the occasional parent decry the tendency of children to play cowboys and Indians and other mock battle games. The reality of today seems to be that, too few children are outside playing anything and too many are inside playing very realistic versions of electronic games that make most of what we did seem tame; paintball is tame compared to the electronic games that have been prevalent recently.
At some point, it seems that the conversation should turn to a combination of lack of responsibility and accountability combined with a sense of diminished value of human life and acceptance of violence through repetitive role playing among, primarily, young males in the United States. When parents demonstrate lack of responsibility and accountability and raise their children in the same set of values and when it is so easy to role play violence and to deaden oneself to life itself, why do we act surprised and befuddled by young people killing their peers and others? Do we not simply observe the natural outcome or consequence of our conscious decisions to reject traditional values? It seems far too easy to blame external forces than to accept responsibility, but that seems so very consistent with the direction that the amalgamated culture of the United States has chosen for itself.
We want to do whatever we want to do, often in the name of one or more freedoms provided in our Constitution. So many seem inclined to hold dearly to the rights they believe they have, but few seem to regard highly the responsibilities that accompany rights.
We claim freedom of speech, but do we speak responsibly and accountably, recognizing that words have power to encourage or to discourage, to be true or false, to enflame or to quench, and to instruct or to destroy? We claim freedom of religion, but do we recognize that belief systems are often incompatible and sometimes not confined to building sand structures and systems? We claim a right to bear arms, but do we instruct and preemptively instill in the bearer, the proper and responsible use of firearms, or do we just randomly authorize anybody to arm themselves and presume that they will act responsibly?
I would find it easier to support libertarianism if I could count on people with no more liberty than they currently have to act responsibly. The daily news shows me what may be the current reality in the United States, no matter what I would like. I cannot trust parents raise their children. I cannot trust some young people to handle weapons, most of which are capable of mass destruction, in appropriate ways, even if most can. I increasingly feel that too many people in influential public positions, given the opportunity, will not say or do the right thing, even though the majority can. Too many cultural role models seem unwilling or unable to model behavior that I would want my children to emulate, if I had any.
All I can do is to try to act and speak responsibly. All I can do is try to make appropriate, informed choices, guided by the values my parents and so many others instilled in me. As a person of faith, my values and actions will hopefully be consistent with what I have come to believe, but I know I will behave inconsistently. So, I can start with me.
Somehow, it seems that I cannot let responsibility, accountability, and proper behavior, as shaped by my value system, end with me. The parents of the boy with the alleged affluenza, no matter what a misguided psychologist says, need to acknowledge and accept responsibility and accountability for the child who is under their roof. To date, I have seen nothing from those parents to indicate anything other than a sense of entitlement based on their affluence. I do not know what to think about the parents of the boy in the Colorado shooting. Apparently, they are at least as shocked by his actions as anybody else. Perhaps, in each of these recent examples, we can see evidence that elements of the greater culture in the United States seem to be misguided, moving intentionally or otherwise in an unsustainable direction and warranting intentional and strategic change in direction. If we choose to do nothing, or if we choose to attempt to fix the wrong problem, then we should resign ourselves to more episodes of mystifying behavior and more public trauma, and probably with increased frequency.
Cultures change. Some people have worked diligently to change the culture in the United States, and elsewhere. As the changes permeate the culture, we begin to see evidence and consequences. When boys do not learn right from wrong, seemingly because in some cases the parents abdicate that responsibility, we should not be particularly surprised when they make choices that end badly for themselves or others. When children somehow learn, when the culture around them teaches them, that human life is of little value, that violence is normative, and that rules of appropriate conduct either do not apply to them or can be disregarded without consequence, we should not be surprised. Unless drivers of cultural change take conscious, intentional steps to reverse at least fifty years of cultural decline, which some characterize as enlightened and progressive, more parents will be burying their children while other parents plead for courts and their neighbors to be merciful.