By MARY HOOD HART
In light of the carnage at Columbine High School, I have to ask myself this question: Would my response to the horror be the same if the killings occurred in an inner city high school among students who don’t fit the profile of predominantly white, middle-class Americans? Would my response be the same if the killers were members of an inner city gang exacting vengeance on fellow students for some imagined or real affront? Would the killings seem less personal to me, less threatening to our nation as a whole, if they could be attributed to gang violence and the sense of despair we’ve come to associate with those on the fringes of society?
Indeed, much of the discussion following the carnage revolves around our struggle with the concept that such violent behavior is possible in young men who came from privileged backgrounds, from “nice” families. Would we find the tragedy more understandable if the killers had been impoverished, growing up without the advantages of a comfortable home, a two-parent family, Little League, home computers? I have to believe that had this tragedy occurred among inner city teens in a rundown high school, as horrible in every other respect, it would not have been so unsettling to our national consciousness. We could still find a way to separate “them” from “us” because we could still believe the myth that privilege and opportunity protect us from despair, from violence, from evil.
It has been a tragic fallacy of my generation to think we are offering our children enough when we give them all the trappings of a good life. Too many families have substituted material comfort, advantages, and privilege for daily lessons in sacrifice, gifts of time and attention, and opportunities for compassion. Too many children have grown up believing that they, and their feelings, are the center of the universe. Too many parents allow work and leisure activities to take precedence over daily conversation, over time devoted to interaction among family members. Too many children lack a moral compass, a sense of knowing their roles as citizens in a civilized society. In a self-indulgent culture, filled with violent images and influences, is it any wonder that some young people, in despair and anger, embrace darkness, if for no other reason than to have something to believe in?
What else but seriously misplaced or missing values can explain the inappropriate reaction to this tragedy among so many teens? Across the nation, “copycat” threats and students appearing in school dressed in trench coats have disrupted classes and shown an appalling lack of respect for the dead and their families. Indeed, an article “Teen outcasts say they understand killers’ rage” by Mark Fritz of the L.A. Times News Service discusses the “empathy” some teens have expressed toward the killers. According to the report, “For all the revulsion, anger and hatred directed at the Columbine High School killers, the two members of the so-called Trench Coat Mafia have become overnight objects of empathy — sometimes even sympathy — among young people who consider themselves forced to the fringes of their peer groups.”
The idea that some teens can empathize with the killers is frightening enough. But for the media to imply that the boys’ horrific deeds could be attributed to their anger at being social outcasts is unconscionable. Teens have been outcasts in high school for decades. Not until now has anyone considered that common experience, painful as it is, an excuse for murder.
While most of us cannot fathom why these boys acted as they did, we will try to piece together a motive. Had these boys grown up disadvantaged, it’s almost certain we would find that task easier. Now, we are left with unsettling doubts about what once felt like sound child-rearing theories. Offer our children opportunities, enrichment. Make sure they have the comforts of a good home. Challenge them at school. Schedule extracurricular activities. Provide all these, and surely, they’ll become good citizens; surely, they’ll succeed.
What’s absent, of course, in far too many families, both privileged and underprivileged, is a life of the spirit, a purpose for existing beyond the accumulation of wealth, a moral code different from that found on MTV and in video games. What’s absent in too many families is a sense of the supremacy of charity and forgiveness. A sense of compassion. A sense of selflessness. In a culture that glamorizes violence, celebrates infamy, and makes deadly weapons easily accessible, to grow up without faith in God, without a moral compass, is to be vulnerable to the allure of evil, even in the nicest homes.
Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and four children, ages 8 to 16.