A version of this column originally appeared in 1999.
In the wake of the latest school massacre, the usual suspects were rounded up. The National Rifle Association heads the list; it's been declared persona non grata in Denver and told to take its convention elsewhere. Guns are being held responsible for the mayhem at Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999--as if they had fired themselves.
Is it just our imagination, or were firearms more common years ago and school violence less so? Remember back to those days of yore--happy days, they would be called later in a nostalgic sitcom set in the 1950s, when every high school offered ROTC and half the boys wore uniforms, drilled, and carried rifles on parade.
True, not everybody tried out for the high school rifle team, but quite a few did. The yearbook always carried their pictures, complete with weapons, trophies, and smiles. And lots of kids used to get .22s for coming-of-age birthdays in this hunting-and-fishing culture--surely they still do--and no one thought it amiss. Yet we can't remember anything like Littleton back then.
Yes, accidents happened. Nor were the 1950s the kind of happy oasis in history they have come to seem in memory. The shadow of nuclear war loomed, and society was rampant with social ills and struggles against them. Nobody should have to tell Arkansas about that, not after the crisis at Central High in 1957. Lots was going on in the Eisenhower era as racial segregation crumbled and the post-war economy expanded in fits and starts.
Back then, when folks shook their heads over the sad demise of American culture, they might be referring to Elvis Presley's hips, not gunfire and mayhem in a school library. Rock-'n'-roll now seems old-fashioned, even wholesome.
The adolescent rebellions of earlier decades seem comical compared to what happened at Littleton. Particularly because we can't be sure that what happened there was a one-of-a-kind horror--not after Jonesboro, Ark., on March 24, 1998. It's all part of a frightening pattern not easily explained and the convenient scapegoats being offered. Like the NRA.
Surely even the dimmest observers of American life must recognize how deeply, how widely, how routinely a new level of techno-violence has taken root in pop culture. Movies that once romanticized gangsters have crossed many a frontier of taste since. Violence dominates big and little screens--the movies and computer games that shape the emerging American consciousness. Or rather misshape it.
Pop culture has always been vulgar. That's what vulgar means: popular, common. But pop culture has seldom seemed so pervasive, and so well armed.
Meanwhile, the institutions dedicated to teaching the young and civilizing all of us appear to have grown weaker: family, church, school. Even more disturbing, some of society's institutions may only echo the soullessness of their times as they replace the old verities with new platitudes. From self-esteem to ecofeminism, our new gods disappoint.
Society grows atomized, like all those individual PCs exchanging faceless messages across a continental void instead of people congregating in church or families gathering around the supper table. Our impression of the old days, like a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, may be largely a product of nostalgia. But the mass crimes now committed by the young and alienated, and their scope and frequency, have to represent something other than an advance in technology. They bespeak a change in the spirit of society.
Gun laws, metal detectors, turning schools into fortresses ... those instant solutions may prove as ineffectual as they are simple-minded. Because they don't go to the root of the problem: the culture.
Mechanical devices and new legislation, trigger locks and laws requiring owners to secure their weapons, may be good ideas, but they're limited ideas. Such laws may only avenge crimes, not prevent them. As they say, locks are made for honest people--not the out-and-out homicidal like two deluded boys at Littleton. Or Jonesboro.
The fantasies being acted out in the Littletons and Jonesboros of America--that is, everywhere--can't be divorced from a pervasive culture that promotes, advertises, idolizes, and exploits mindless violence. Just look around. If you can bear it.
Ours is becoming a culture that views life as cheap, as expendable, no big deal. A culture of death. And for such a culture to burgeon, reverence for life must die first.
Violence has become an accepted part of the background noise of American life. Violence has become just another form of vulgarity, and our South Park society badly needs resensitizing. It's the stupid culture that is the great, underlying, pervasive danger. Or to put it another way: It's the culture, stupid.
Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 02/25/2018
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