By JOHN WHITEHEAD
When I was a boy, like most children, I was into everything and everybody’s business.
Full of mischief, I was constantly getting into scrapes. All I had to do was walk out the door and trouble found me—or vice versa. But I never got away with anything because inevitably, by the time I arrived back home, my parents had already been alerted by the neighbors to my goings-on and were waiting to light into me.
Although that didn’t stop me from doing stupid things, I learned pretty quickly that I was part of a community that was watching out for each other. Even when I got in trouble, it felt good knowing there were people who cared enough to hold me accountable. They taught me values and social responsibility, and they helped me understand that I was never alone.
Yet except for the times when tragedy draws us together, as it did in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks and as it has done now in the days following the latest school shooting, we have largely lost that sense of community that once gave meaning and shape to our lives.
This brings us to the events of April 16, 2007, when a 23-year-old Asian student walked into a university building on the Virginia Tech campus, chained the doors shut and opened fire on students and teachers alike, leaving 32 dead and many more injured before turning the gun on himself.
The media, true to form, is subjecting us to every grisly detail of the shootings. You can’t turn on the television without seeing this tragedy used as grist for prime-time ratings. In its feeding frenzy, the media has succeeded in glamorizing death and destruction to such an extent that shooting sprees have gained a notorious appeal—a way for people who, in life, may never have rated a second glance to attain celebrity status in death.
Yet even with the 24-hour coverage, we have more questions than answers, and speculation is rife. And the biggest question of all looms large: who or what is to blame?
Sociologists want to blame it on the steady diet of violence that permeates everything in our culture.
We have been caught in the grip of a cycle of violence that started with the government’s televised attack on a Waco compound in April 1993, in which 79 adults and children were killed. Two years later, to the day, the Oklahoma City bombing left 168 people dead.
Four years after that, on April 20, two teenagers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire on classmates and teachers at Columbine High School, killing 12 students and one teacher and leaving 24 others wounded. Now, on April 16, we have the Virginia Tech massacre.
Politicians want to blame the tragedy on easy access to guns. Their solution? Gun control and zero tolerance policies. But these are just cosmetic band-aids, doomed to failure, because if someone really wants to wreak havoc, they’ll find a way to obtain a weapon.
In the end, however, there is no simple answer to why this happened and no straightforward solution for preventing it from happening again. Yet if we want to get to the heart of the problem, we have to look to our young people for clues.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to young people, and what I’m hearing is that they feel helpless, hopeless and lost.
They feel that their lives are lacking in meaning and direction. Tuned into their IPODS, the Internet and TV, they have tuned out to the rest of the world. Lacking real communities that provide accountability, values and spirituality, they have found substitutes in cyber communities like MySpace and Friendster.
America’s youth have witnessed our self-destructive path, and they bear the scars. In the world in which they are coming of age, human life is not precious. Unborn babies can be terminated at will. God is relegated to church and the privacy of one’s home. Divorce is the number one destroyer of families.
Corruption is rampant—not only in government and business but even in religious circles. And we have become so insulated from one another that a wave from a stranger can seem almost threatening.
No wonder life seems so meaningless to so many. So what can we do?
Dr. James P. Comer, professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center, suggests that in order to treat the damage done to the next generation, “We’re going to have to work at systematically recreating the critical elements of community that once existed naturally. We can’t go back to the past, but there was a time when people cared about each other and would look out for each other.”
If we are to get anything out of this wrenching ordeal, let us remember what it means to be part of a community that respects and values each member. It certainly couldn’t hurt to start being kinder to one another and reaching out to our neighbors. In that way, maybe we can begin to rebuild the sense of community this country so desperately needs.