The estimable Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal issued a welcome corrective to press coverage of the latest fatal school shooting -- this time in Santee, Calif.
"As was true after (Columbine)," she wrote, "network bookers spent blood, sweat and tears looking for guests who could talk about those involved. ... NBC's Today show (came up) with ... a bonanza. Here was a former girlfriend of 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams, the perpetrator, and her mother. ... We learned of Andy's goodness, and his sensitivity, how everybody back home in his old Maryland neighborhood adored him. ... They did not, the mother of the girl allowed, between paeans to Andy's goodness, 'agree with what he did.'" Still, we learned a great deal about Andy's feelings, Andy's loneliness, Andy's treatment by school bullies and so forth.
All of this was coaxed from the guests by a sympathetic Katie Couric, who understood how "hard" it must be for all of them. Well not nearly so hard as it is for the parents, siblings, friends and relations of the two students Andy allegedly murdered in cold blood and the 13 he wounded. Yet we have so impoverished the language of morality that the most many adult Americans can find to say about premeditated murder is, "I don't agree with it."
And though they say it differently, that's basically the limp moral response of the Katie Courics of the world, too. By focusing on bullying (which is a real problem but is almost beside the point in this context), or cliques, or athlete worship, the press completely and utterly fails in its moral duty to condemn murder. And the kids have noticed. When they imagine how the world would respond if they actually lived out their most violent revenge fantasies, they know that plenty of people will pay respectful attention to their grievances rather than cursing their capitulation to evil.
Schools should certainly come down hard on bullies -- for its own sake -- but they should not delude themselves that this this quell murderous rampages. The gate has slowly swung open over the past 25 years, and it will require some hard-headedness to swing it shut again.
As standards have slipped across the board, more and more formerly prohibited behaviors seem imaginable. Chester Finn, an education expert, likens what has happened in the schools to the "broken window theory" of neighborhood decline.
When you permit students to come to school in jeans and t-shirts, some level of respect for the institution and for themselves is lost. When teachers begin dressing the same way, more damage is done. When students are no longer required to rise when a teacher enters the room, some authority is sacrificed. When the kids address teachers by their first names, most of it is gone.
When teachers pass students who have not mastered the material rather than send them to summer school, permit the use of profanity in school essays, permit high-school students to paw one another sexually in the halls, and respond feebly to threats and intimidation, they have made the unimaginable -- shooting guns in school -- more imaginable.
Parents, of course, are equally to blame for permitting the schools to become such morally flaccid places. And Hollywood contributes by making films and television glorifying violence.
We have always had bullies. Yet for hundreds of years, kids endured bullying without resorting to murder. We have always had guns, and young people arguably had greater access to them 50 years ago than they do today. Yet our parents' generation would no more take a gun to school and shoot their tormentors than fly to Mars.
Yes, it was partly because they believed in God and the Ten Commandments. But more immediately, they feared the certain terrible judgment of their families, friends and neighbors. Fear of what the neighbors would think is a great and powerful weapon of civilization, and judgment is its indispensable sword.
Most Americans today pride themselves on being "nonjudgmental." It hasn't yet dawned on most of them that the body count in our high schools is their reward.