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.

Please.

11 comments:

spyscribbler said...

No, it's infected everything. In teaching, I get excuses all the time. My theory? I need to teach these kids how to live in the real world. Whatever challenges they have, a pat on the head isn't going to serve them. They need to know how to navigate the real world with whatever challenges they have. It's not fair, but it's how it is.

Fiction, however, helps us understand the lives we have not lived. And there's always the hope that if we can understand, we can fix it.

spyscribbler said...

(I meant, no, you're not off base.) :-)

Thatguy said...

I think our country has to rethink itself, its moral values and what it considers to be people of character, our heroes.

Many of the young feel that they have been left out of the loop, offering little or nothing.

Here, watching television and what it has to offer has contributed to the health of our nation.

Get rich and become famous has become the essential values.

Corruption can be seen in all walks of life: bad cops, bad priests, and bad leaders of a nation who lie and promote illegal acts against other nations, justifying their dirty deeds and acts has legal.

Sara Paretsky said...

I was in grammar school when Charles Starkweather (b. 1938) went on his killing rampage in Nebraska, and Richard Hickock (b. 1931) and Perry Smith (b. 1928) killed the Clutter family in Garden City. Kids in my tiny country school were terrified for months that something like that would happen closer to us. At the time, there were lots of accounts on why they'd done it--the impulse is to try to understand, to make sense of the senseless.

The draconian drug laws of the last thirty years have led us to the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, so I wouldn't look at the Woodstock generation's sense of permissiveness as a root of crime. Of course, we know that guns don't kill people, that malls and churches do, but I would be curious to know why almost all of these angry young persons are white and male. It is, after all, African-americans who are the most heavily targeted victims of the heavy hand of the law.

Judy Clemens said...

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I hope that by seeing "where" these killers come from (if we can generalize like that) we can teach our own children to be kind to everyone in their schools, whether they're "weird" or "unpopular" or whatever. Often these violent kids are ones who have been marginalized, and if others had taken time to be kind to them perhaps at least a few of them could've been helped.

But, as I said, perhaps that's an idealistic way of looking at it. I guess I choose to be hopeful rather than fearful, although when I'm lying in bed at night, thinking of my kids going to a public school, I can wander off on those scary roads...

Judy Clemens said...

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I hope that by seeing "where" these killers come from (if we can generalize like that) we can teach our own children to be kind to everyone in their schools, whether they're "weird" or "unpopular" or whatever. Often these violent kids are ones who have been marginalized, and if others had taken time to be kind to them perhaps at least a few of them could've been helped.

But, as I said, perhaps that's an idealistic way of looking at it. I guess I choose to be hopeful rather than fearful, although when I'm lying in bed at night, thinking of my kids going to a public school, I can wander off on those scary roads...

Judy Clemens said...

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I hope that by seeing "where" these killers come from (if we can generalize like that) we can teach our own children to be kind to everyone in their schools, whether they're "weird" or "unpopular" or whatever. Often these violent kids are ones who have been marginalized, and if others had taken time to be kind to them perhaps at least a few of them could've been helped.

But, as I said, perhaps that's an idealistic way of looking at it. I guess I choose to be hopeful rather than fearful, although when I'm lying in bed at night, thinking of my kids going to a public school, I can wander off on those scary roads...

Mark Combes said...

I think we can - and should - examine our own culpability in this as a nation - but I think we as a race have a larger issue. Hey, they stone women in the middle east for getting raped - we aren't the only ones with a f'd up approach to violence. Mankind is a violent beast. Always has been - but does that mean we always will be? I wish I had the answer to that....

RJ Mangahas said...

Growing up as the only Asian kid in a school (k-6) where everyone else was of European decent was not the easiest thing in the world to do. Of course I had my problems, but I also had friends. That's what I chose to hang onto.

I think that many people don't want to take any responsibilities for their actions. For example, there's what I call parenting in a bottle. (Does your kid have an overactive imagination, or even an imagination at all. Pump him full of ridalin and sit him down in front of the TV).

Also blamed for the violence: music, television, video games, movies, and whatever else the youth culture finds popular at the time.

Guess what? I've read books, seen violent movies, been over saturated with violent images. But I never picked up a semi automatic weapon and blasted away all willy nilly.

The point I'm trying to make here is that as a society overall, especially those of us who have or work with kids, we need to start re-evaluating where we are going, take some kind of moral stand that forces us to take responsibility, then pass that on to the younger generation.

Of course, what's the likelihood of that? I guess time will tell. But hopefully it won't take more and more acts of senseless violence to make us realize that.

thatguy said...

Trying to understand, when such violent acts are singular in nature, inspired by individual aspiration of doing something meaningful. The course chosen has been played and replayed by the individual, finding comfort in the conclusion it renders.

The reality is made real by its performance. Here, the scorecard renders lives cut short. Often, many of these lives would have been meaningfully contributory.

Libby Hellmann said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. Sara, you make an interesting point. It doesn't speak well of our ability to nurture and raise young "white" men.

I've given up idealism, Judy. I'm afraid anti-bully programs are seen as a joke, or worse, a punishment which triggers even worse.

RJ... I wish I knew how to make that sense of responsibility second nature to more people.

I went to a classroom today down in the city -- all 4th graders... still too young to be cynical, but you could see the beginnings of disillusionment. Several kids just couldn't deal with NOT being the center of attention all the time. I know they're needy, but so were all the other kids who weren't acting out. Frankly, I was relieved that I only had to spend an hour in the classroom. I don't know how teachers do it. Maybe that's why they have such a high burnout rate.

I wish there were better answers.