Monday, December 10, 2007
Explanation or Excuse?
by Libby Hellmann
I picked up NINETEEN MINUTES by Jody Picoult a couple of days ago, ironically, on the same day Robert Hawkins mowed down eight people at the Omaha mall…and two days before the two recent Colorado shootings. For those of you who might not know, Picoult’s book is about a high school shooting during which a 17-year old boy kills 10 people and wounds many more, most of them students.
Much of the book deals with the ramifications and consequences of the shooting. It turns out the boy was bullied mercilessly since the age of five, mostly by other kids, but sometimes by his older brother. As the book opens, that brother is dead – the result of in an auto accident -- and the boy’s parents, overwhelmed with their own grief, have not really dealt with his. The boy never sought or received any help; consequently, his rage festered and ultimately exploded. I haven’t finished it yet, so the ending might surprise me (there was a twist in MY SISTERS KEEPER, another wonderful novel by the same author), but in the main, the book examines why an alienated teenager would go on a rampage.
I’m sure the people of Omaha… and Denver… and Virginia… and Columbine… and Minnesota (in 2005) are asking and trying to answer the same question. And they should.
But here’s my question. At what point does the explanation become an excuse?
One thing we baby boomers have bequeathed to society is a tolerance for permissiveness. Unlike the straight-laced “Father Knows Best” Fifties, we started to explore and cross many boundaries in the Sixties. As we did, we rationalized our behavior. Remember “let it all hang out?” “If it feels good, do it?” “Whatever gets you through the night..” “It’s your thing…” In some quarters, we even honored it. “He’s such a freak…”
We created not just a culture of permissiveness, but a comfort with acting on our whims and impulses. We wouldn’t put anyone down. We wouldn’t judge. Everyone – and everything – was accepted. If someone did something aberrant, we’d explain it away. “His head was in the wrong place.” “He freaked out.”
Those attitudes have had significant ramifications. Our legal and penal systems aren’t as clear-cut or simple anymore. Although we're currently in retreat from it, we’ve played with the death penalty for decades. And we now have legal-psychological defenses for battered wives, abused children, and others that have stretched what can stand up in court.
Still, I think we need to ask what our permissiveness has done to our approach to these horrors. Has it in some way contributed to them? Is the fact that we see so many copycats of Columbine because we have put our arms around it, labeled it, explained it?
Kids killing kids is not the mark of a healthy society. I have two kids on campuses right now and I’m afraid. What have we wrought? Are we making these heinous rampages more acceptable because we can put words and ideas and theories behind them? Are we – in some way – excusing them? Tell me I’m off base here.