Monday, April 26, 1999

Week of 04/26/1999

Life’s Lessons
Mainstream Thoughts May Have Contributed To Massacre Too
- by David Matthews 2

Ten years ago, there was a rash of bizarre workplace shootings. People, usually those who were recently laid off or fired, returned to the workplace armed and prepared to exact what they considered to be revenge. Many of the murders involved employees or former employees of the US Postal Service. This gave rise to the slang "going postal," or to go on a killing spree.

Now the incidents of violence have moved into different territories: schools. Young adults - in some cases children - have taken over the stereotypical role of armed disgruntled postal worker, venting their anger and frustrations at those they felt had wronged them.

The most recent incident happened just outside of Denver, Colorado. Two young men barely turning 18 showed up at school on April 20th wearing black duster jackets and armed with rifles and pipe bombs. They seemed to shoot almost indiscriminately at any target, student or teacher, although it soon became clear as to who the targets were - athletes, and anyone else who teased and taunted them. Their rage complete, they also joined the dead.

Now comes the aftermath, and once again we are force-fed the same chant from the politicians and the pundits. We are shoved the same targets - television, rock music, Hollywood, guns, Internet - and we are once again told there is no "outrage."

Let’s look at some of those targets for a second..

Television - They say that the TV is too violent today. Too many violent programs. Anyone remember Chuck Connors’ TV series "The Rifleman"? How did that start? With Chuck Connors firing off multiple rounds with his rifle. That series ran in the 60’s! How about series dedicated to World War II like "Combat"? Those too are part of television’s olden days. Cop shows used to feature a murder or violent crime that was so disproportionate to reality that the ratio was at one point 800-1! The only difference between TV violence then and now is that the violence is being shown in front of the camera instead of off-camera.

Rock music - Today’s appointed "demon" is Marilyn Manson, an androgynous rock singer whose music and attitude is intentionally shocking. Well, when I was a teenager, the appointed "demon" of the time was Ozzy Ozbourne. Remember him? The moralists almost took on a perverse pleasure to talk about Ozzy and demons and possession and biting off the head of a bat. Before the Oz-man was Alice Cooper, and before him were Frank Zappa and Ted Nugent. The names change, the attitude is still shocking for the time. And guess what? That’s the point of it!

Hollywood - Let’s see.. we have the ever-infamous "Basketball Diaries" with that Peter Pan wannabe Leonardo DiCaprio and his fantasy scene of storming a school and blowing away his tormentors. We have "The Matrix" and Keanu Reeves arming himself to the teeth and blowing away bad guys with bullets and special effects. Anyone remember when actors like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were blowing away people in the old 60’s western movies? Where was all the "outrage" then? Where were the social experts blabbering on and on about what those movies would do to children? Where were the 60’s versions of Pat Buchannan and Tipper Gore ranting about a "culture of violence?"

Guns - The same tiring arguments.. guns are ever-plentiful, guns are too powerful, people can’t handle guns. But here’s something that needs to be pointed out.. the recent massacre was used with weapons that were already declared "illegal." In other words.. the gun control laws already in place didn’t stop these young men from getting these weapons! What now? Ban all guns? Great, that just leaves the already illegal pipe bombs!

The Internet - The latest social villain has been in hot water ever since moralists discovered that their cyber-savvy children were learning more about the birds and the bees faster than they can spin the tall tales about the stork and the cabbage patch. Of course, sex isn’t the only target online. There are also militia sites, sites talking about guns, sites talking about bombs, and sites talking about making bombs. Funny thing is.. you can probably get the same amount of information at a bookstore or library.

Then there is the latest social target.. the Gothic crowd. Ohh.. they’re wearing black, they must be goths! They must be vampire-loving readers of Ann Rice, into tattoos, body piercing, and Satanism! The perfect target for the theocratic crowd! You know, I’ve met some folks into that stuff, and they’re hardly the Satanist type. Matter of fact, you might be surprised to find they’re a bit more intellectual than your average bible-thumping theocrat. As for the body art and body jewelry.. well, don’t ask, don’t show is my policy on that.

Of course there is the one connection that exists between each of these school shootings. Each of these kids were tormented, taunted, and teased for being different. They didn’t fall in with the "in" crowd. They dressed differently, or they weren’t part of the same group. I made that connection last year, and only now are other people seriously starting to look at that factor as well.

Let’s get brutally honest here: kids can be cruel. We should now accept that if we haven’t already. But as one who was once tormented in school, I never seriously thought of "going postal" on my tormentors; and I’m sure many of you who were also tormented never seriously thought about "going postal" as well. It’s just not worth it, no matter how badly you were treated.

In searching for reason why these kids would "go postal," however, too many people have focused their attention on the unusual things. The gothic subculture, the music and media of the generation. In doing so, we fail to recognize some more mainstream factors. I came across some interesting things that may have contributed to their decision, little things that you might want to call "Life’s Lessons."

Higher Authority - Perhaps one of the most devastating of all arguments to justify an action is that of responding to a "higher authority." The argument is simple - your rules don’t apply because I’m working on a higher set of rules. My rules are more important than your rules, therefore your rules don’t matter.

Extreme members of the pro-life movement use this very justification to explain their actions. It’s okay to kill doctors, they say, because doctors are killing babies. That gives us the right to shoot up clinics, murder doctors, and make bombs because we are just obeying God’s laws, and God’s laws override those puny man-made laws.

Legislative bodies do the same thing when they pass laws they know to be unconstitutional. It’s okay to shove our morality down your throat, they say, because we’re only following a "higher" authority. That higher authority is more important that your puny Constitutional rights, so your rights don’t matter.

Quite recently that same argument was used in a more mainstream debate by President Bill Clinton to justify his actions in Kosovo. "We have a moral imperative," he said. Screw the United Nations. Screw the NATO charter of being a "defensive" organization. Screw borders. We have a "higher" set of laws that counteract those puny man-made laws.

Conflict of Conformity and Respect - We have an inherent conflict in our schools. The public school system was based on a simple assembly-line mentality of providing just enough information for students to read, write, and do math so they can enter the industrial workplace. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but the core belief of an assembly-line education still remains. One of the key ingredient to that standard is conformity. It’s engrained into every aspect of social life. You must comply. You must obey. You must follow the role we set. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated into the collective.

Yet at the same time we have young men and women who are struggling just to define who they are as individuals. What do they want? What do they like or dislike? What do they plan on doing with their lives?

Out of this conflict comes a group of "elite" youngsters who seemingly get all the glory. It doesn’t matter if they excel in sports, theater, computers, or intelligence, they stand out; and in the case of sports, they are seemingly idolized as individuals by the same system that demands conformity from everyone else. They get the respect and praise, everyone else gets ignored.

What about the rest of the huddled masses urged to conform? How do they get the kind of respect that the "elite" receive in abundance? Well, they’re told to "be themselves," but when they try they are often castigated for not conforming to the norm. What then? How do our youngsters get the respect as an individual by "being themselves" when doing so goes against everything society demands of them? Quite often, the answer to that is you can’t.

These lessons are perhaps far more influential for the problems with our youngsters than what we see on television or listen to on the radio, because they delve into the core of our communities. These are the conflicts that are never resolved because we are too busy looking towards the oddities. Most of us can only deal with the conflicts and adapt.

Of course, once again this does not absolve our young killers for their actions, nor should the blame be placed on those who were killed or wounded. But in searching for the reasons why such tragedies happen, we have to recognize that there is not one singular factor out there that we can legitimately point to and say "THAT is the reason." The reasons are plentiful, and they sometimes hide amongst what we would call mainstream thought. Because of that, there can be no real solutions to avert this kind of tragedy either.

Sadly, such answers are not comforting for those eager for a quick solution. All we can really do is turn to our children and try to be better parents to them.

That, too, is one of life’s lessons.

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