Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“Another School Killing”
February 22, 2018
“You can’t talk about f***king in America; people say you’re dirty.
But, if you talk about killing somebody, that’s cool.”
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, a former Marine, took a cache of weapons to the observation deck of the main building tower at the University of Texas in Austin. Over the next ninety minutes, he shot dead fourteen people and injured thirty-one. He was only stopped when police killed him. The night before he had killed his wife and mother. This was the first mass killing in the U.S. I remember. (Howard Unruh, a World War II veteran, killed thirteen people in Camden, New Jersey in 1949, but I was only eight, so it had little effect.) The Whitman massacre was different. I was twenty-five, the same age as Whitman. In 1966, I was still in the Army Reserve; though I had not served in combat, I knew what harm guns could do. It was a sobering moment, which I have never forgotten.
The number of school shootings has increased beyond the increase in numbers of guns or population. In the last two years, there have been seven high and grade school shootings; in the fifteen years before that there were four – still too many. Those who govern know this is happening and must work to stop it. There are avenues to explore, such as the ease with which people acquire assault rifles, like the AR-15 that was used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Screenings must be tightened. Penalties must be increased, for stealing guns and for “straw” purchases of firearms. But other causes may be more pertinent.
We need to think of the “how” and the “why” of school violence. The “how” deals with access to guns and ease of entry to schools. (While I support the 2nd Amendment, I am not a gun lover. Other than my Army experience and once shooting skeet, I have never fired a weapon). We need to keep guns out of the hands of the underage, of criminals and the psychologically impaired. There are those who suggest arming guards within schools. Perhaps we should, but we don’t want a nation of vigilantes. Ross Douthat, a conservative (and sensible) columnist for The New York Times, suggested that, like drinking, driving and voting, age restrictions be considered – a higher age for a more powerful weapon. Perhaps? Certainly, we need to enforce the laws we have. Technology is ubiquitous and should be used to prevent the sale of weapons to those who should not have them. An estimated 300 million guns in the hands of Americans makes the problem difficult but not impossible.
The “why” is more insidious. Common sense says that anyone who walks into a school – or, for that matter, into any place – with intent of shooting people is mentally deranged. Why can’t we admit that psychological problems play a role? Why are not local law officials and gun sellers informed as to those with mental deficiencies? Why isn’t there response when students, teachers, parents, friends contact local law enforcement (or the FBI) about an individual with mental problems? We live in an information age, and government, should they wish, can track any one of us. This is not the pre-emptive denying of an individual his rights. It is yielding to common sense.
Our cultural environment is part of the “why,” and it bears responsibility. Western culture, which brought the enlightenment and illuminated our founding fathers, was adopted by immigrants through most of our history. It has been replaced with multiculturalism, with the uncertainty it brings, including a more divided population. A decline in civility is manifested in Trump-trash-talking late-night TV by hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert. Parenting standards have deteriorated. A Pew Research study showed that 73% of all children in 1960 were being raised by two-parents in a first marriage. By 2014, that number had declined to 46 percent. In 1960, nine percent of all children were being raised in single-parent households. By 2014, that number had increased to 26%. Forty-five percent of children who live with a single mother live in poverty. African-Americans have suffered the most. Fifty-five percent of Black children live with a single parent, compared to 31% of Hispanics, 20% of Whites and 13% of Asians. About 40% of all babies born in America are born to unmarried women. In 2014, approximately 19% of all pregnancies ended in abortions. These factors have weakened the moral fiber of a civil, respectful and responsible people, and enervated the comfort and solidity a family brings.
Violence is rampant in movies, video games, rap music and on TV. There has always been violence in the world of entertainment. Simon Wiesenthal once said, “Violence is like a weed – it does not die, even in the greatest drought.” But it has gone mainstream; it has migrated from screens to real life. We have celebrities displaying the severed head of our President and talking of blowing up the White House. Mainstream media is mute. Re-read the comedian Richard Pryor’s quote at the top of this essay. Consider the response of a 12-year-old boy’s reaction to a screening of the movie “Black Panther,” as reported in The New York Times: “The movie makes me want to come back from the dead and take out people with my claws.” Is that what we would hope from a pre-teen? Or think of the lyrics of Eminem’s “Kim:”
“Sit down bitch! If you move again, I’ll beat the shit out of you.”
Or DMX’s “X-Is Coming:”
“When I bark, they hear the boom, but you see the spark.
And I see the part of your head which used to be your face.”
Is this entertainment? The American Academy of Pediatrics claims that gun violence in PG-13 rated films has tripled since 1985. In the TV show “Stalker,” a woman is buried alive in the first five minutes. Video games, like “Sniper Elite 4,” “Bulletstorm” and “Conan Exiles” use violence to attract young players.
None of these factors, alone, explain why violence has become common in our schools. My son Edward, whose firm Silsbee Partners consults with video game companies around the world, points out that video games, as well as movies and rap music, are global in their reach. Yet, other countries don’t have the problem of mentally unbalanced young men walking into schools and killing innocent children. Strict gun laws in places like Chicago have not prevented that city from becoming the Mecca of gun killings. There are questions without answers. Why have most of these school shootings happened in small and mid-size towns and cities? Why are most shooters students or former students? What is it that parents, teachers, neighbors, politicians and communities miss? Everything, from gun laws to mental health to our culture must be on the table, or re-thought. As horrific as mass killings are, gun violence goes beyond school and mass shootings. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that, since 2014, there have been 58,584 gun-related deaths (excluding suicides). Mass shootings account for only 1,584 of those deaths, or 2.7%. What can be done? Perhaps compulsory military service would teach young people how to handle weapons and inform them as to the harm they can do? Perhaps a return to the Aristotelean virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and justice? What is obvious – the path we are on leads to Perdition.
The cynic in me says politicians don’t want answers. Keeping the issue alive is more important to future elections than solutions. Whether my cynicism is justified or not, recalcitrance on both sides has been aggravated by a partisan media. Something must change. Perhaps term limits are a start?