A childhood memory from Germany, late fifties, early sixties: I was sitting on a crowded bus, in Bad Godesberg. I was on the bus physically, but mentally I was miles and miles away, in one of those childhood vacant spots where imagination and longing intersect to make the real world vanish. I was vaguely aware that the bus briefly stopped and started again. All of a sudden, a man sitting across from me slapped my face, not hard, but hard enough to wake me up.
“Steh auf, Kleiner!” (Stand up, little one.)
A woman had gotten on the bus and there were no free seats. As a child, I was quite rightly expected to give her my seat, which I did, with an apology, as disapproving grownups glared at me.
I wonder what would happen in America today if someone did that. Would the police be called? Would the man be arrested? Would he be charged with assault or child abuse?
I am not advocating corporeal punishment on any level, by parent or stranger. What I am trying to point out is that there was, in that time and in that place, an attitude that society as a whole was responsible—to an extent—for the behavior of the individual child.
I know that attitude was once present in America, too. For a blatant and humorous example, think of A Christmas Story, when Ralphie’s mother calls Schwartz’s mother to complain that Ralphie learned “… THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word…” from Schwartz. Ralphie didn’t, of course (he learned it from his father), but that was how the neighborhood parental network worked in those days.
Yet only a few generations later, when one of my children cheated on a test and was justifiably punished by the school with a failing grade, I went to talk to the teacher about what had happened and what the details were. To my surprise, the teacher was nervous and wary, and when she was done, and I told her I intended to reinforce the school’s discipline with my own, grounding my child for x-number of weeks, her reaction was one of surprise and relief. She had honestly expected me to raise hell because my child had been flunked. She told me that was the usual reaction of parents to any kind of discipline: a bad grade, suspension, getting kicked off a team, any form of punishment.
For another, parallel sea-change in attitudes, consider a slice of life from a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. A friend of mine, younger than I, told me how in high school in the mid-seventies, he and his best friend used to ride their bikes to school every morning during duck and pheasant season with their shotguns in cases across the handlebars. At school they would hand the shotguns to their principal, who leaned them up behind the door to his office, along with others from other students. After football practice, the boys would collect their shotguns and hunt their way home.
And apparently, according some cursory research, up until sometime in the late seventies, early eighties, many American high schools had their own rifle teams, where teenagers could train and compete, just as they might in football or track.
And yet today, in a very different slice of life from 2018, in a suburb of Miami, Florida, a young man, a former student, walked into a school with an AR-15 and murdered seventeen people.
What has changed? It’s not guns; the AR-15 has been around for almost seventy years. It’s not kids; the human animal does not have the same genetic capacity for rapid evolution that a dog has. We are basically exactly what we were 50,000 years ago, and parents back then almost certainly had much the same problems parents have today.
I am suggesting that as a society we have lost a communal, a cultural sense of right and wrong and, more importantly, an understanding that, as a concept, consequences for bad behavior are at least as important as rewards for achievement. Note I did not say there should be rewards for good behavior. Good behavior was expected back then, taken for granted, and should be expected today. Nor did I say rewards for trying, as in trophies for participating; losing is as much a part of growing up as winning, and of the two, losing is probably the more important part.
Since the vast majority of young people would never dream of doing anything evil, let alone something as inconceivable as the Florida shooting, what are some of the influences that might have caused this young man to commit such an atrocity?
I’m not a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or a social worker, or a teacher, but—according to the news reports to date—this young man gave numerous signs that he was in trouble. And it appears—again from early news reports, and keeping in mind that hindsight is always 20/20—both the FBI and local law enforcement dropped the ball badly.
But beyond all that, here was a young man whose mother had died this past November. Didn’t it occur to someone that even a mentally healthy kid might have some problems with the unexpected death of a parent, never mind a kid who was showing, as his public defender said, every red flag there is?
It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, and I’m sure both FBI and local law enforcement get inundated with warnings about any number of things, but perhaps certain combinations of warning signs should be taken more seriously. That’s a reasonable subject for public debate.
President Trump has vowed to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health,” and I applaud him for the intention, but it will be interesting to see what happens ‘twixt cup and lip. Jimmy Carter tried to federalize mental health, an action that was reversed by Ronald Reagan, who believed it was a states’ issue. Given the federal government’s frequently dismal bureaucratic track record, I’m inclined to agree with Reagan, but clearly funding is lacking is certain areas. More to the point, very conservative types like me believe strongly in the individual right to privacy, and how do we, as a nation, reconcile privacy with tracking and investigating warning signs? That’s another subject for public debate.
Equally important is changing the stigma against metal illness. For example, nearly every soldier who has experienced the horrors of war will return home with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that does not automatically translate into a danger to himself or to others. These issues, and more, must be discussed and debated and agreed upon.
Various social media sites loudly tout their role in bringing the world together as one big happy family freely exchanging ideas around the world. The truth is that social media giants too often block ideas they disagree with while inexplicably allowing others—consider violent jihad videos—to air. I am not blaming social media for the actions of a disturbed man, but if animal abuse is one of the standard, universally accepted signs of dangerous mental illness, one that will be followed by violence against humans as surely as night follows day, then posting gruesome pictures of dead and possibly mutilated animals on social media should raise a red flag. It should be at least as easy to flag and filter pictures of dead animals as it is to block a Prager University video presenting the actual FBI statistics on police shootings of black men; or a video in support of Israel; or one questioning why Western feminists don’t speak out about the abuses endured by Muslim women. Those are just some of the videos that have been blocked by YouTube. Yet, it was on YouTube that the Florida shooter stated his intention to become, “a professional school shooter.” The shooter’s personal videos of dead animals were posted on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, another social media site that prides itself in the free exchange of those ideas it agrees with.
Again, it’s easy to waggle an angry finger at such social media sites, but they are not responsible for what happened. What they are responsible for is taking a good long look at themselves and their criteria for freedom of expression.
I have heard right-wing pundits assigning blame to some of the ultra-violent Hollywood movies and video games that saturate the market today. I don’t know what the effect of those might be (I find them so moronic I have trouble believing anyone with an IQ greater than his hat size could be influenced by such stupidity), but I have read that child pornography has a pretty well-substantiated link to child molestation, so the same might be true of make-believe violence. This too is a subject worthy of public debate.
Much has been written about the decline of the nuclear family and the effect that has on troubled youth. In the shooter’s case, his adopted parents both dead, it’s hard to make a case for any societal failure, but keep in mind that it is one of primary contributing factors to the murder rate caused by urban drug gangs, so it too should be a topic for discussion.
Drug abuse is another. I have no idea if this young man was on any kind of legal or illegal drugs, but there is no metropolitan area in America that does not have a murder rate directly attributable to drugs and gangs. Not to guns, but to drugs and the violence of gangs. I have written before about the well-known and well-documented reasons why impoverished young inner-city men gravitate to gangs. None of this is secret, and solutions have been suggested, but local metropolitan governments seem to lack both interest and will. Both the problem, and the reluctance of city governments to even discuss the problem, let alone deal with it, should be another matter of public discussion.
Ever since this atrocity occurred, progressive politicians and pundits and the media have been screaming for gun control, excoriating the “all-powerful” NRA, and pointing self-righteous and dishonest fingers at the greedy and bloodthirsty gun industry. Never mind simple little facts such as a single anti-gun billionaire (Bloomberg, who is just one of several) outspending the NRA four-to-one to promote his anti-gun agenda. Never mind that gun companies work on a razor-thin margin, many are struggling to stay alive, and one giant, Remington, has declared bankruptcy. Never mind that blaming the NRA for a lunatic’s evil is like blaming the AARP for an old person’s bad driving. Never mind that blaming the gun for violence is like blaming the spoon for obesity. Guns are an easy target, you should pardon the expression. Mental health, social and cultural constructs governing adolescent behavior, drug abuse, the breakup of the family unit, gangs as substitutes for absent fathers, the negative aspects of social media, all those things would require real thought and effort. Marching and carrying a sign, or manipulating the emotions of a distressed voting base, those are easy.
But actions which might make a real difference will take a long time to enact and to implement. It took multiple generations to get where we are; it will take just as long to reverse the trend.
In the short term, what can be done? The first and most obvious is to better protect schools. In oblivious irony, many of the same progressives who rail against guns in private hands are the same progressives who applaud kneeling for the national anthem as a way to protest purported police brutality. Okie, dokie, that’s logic for you. But let’s put that idiocy aside and try to live in the real world. How many police officers do you think it would take to protect a school the size of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School? Over three-thousand students, multiple buildings with multiple floors and multiple entrances and exits, spread out over multiple acres? How many? This is a logistical topic that is better discussed by professionals who know what they’re talking about, but let’s say, conservatively, ten officers, daily, for the entire school year. That should do it. The average salary of a police officer in America is $61,000 a year (and it should be more, given what they are required to do), so who is going to pay the extra $610,000 a year? For just one school budget? Most public schools in America today can’t even afford to pay for the materials the teachers need to do their jobs. How much higher are you willing to see your taxes go? Remember, unless you are in a tiny community, your town has multiple schools in it, all deserving of protection.
The NRA has regularly called for the arming and training of those teachers and/or administrators who would be willing to take on that additional responsibility, and every time the NRA does, anti-gun progressives and their unthinking followers howl that such an action would endanger children even more. Never mind that to get a concealed carry license in America requires background checks far more thorough than the current standards. Never mind that most professional and reputable defensive shooting schools require a concealed carry license before you can take a class, precisely because it is an additional safeguard against potential liability. Never mind that, statistically, licensed concealed carry holders commit fewer violent crimes than law enforcement officers. (Don’t trust me on any of this; do your own damned homework before you shriek that I’m a lunatic, and by homework, I mean something a little more meaningful than going on the Mayors Against Illegal Guns or Everytown for Gun Safety sites, both of which were recently awarded four Pinocchios by the Washington Post.)
Not every teacher or administrator would be willing or have the capacity to act as an armed guard, but for God’s sake don’t stop the ones who are willing and who have the capacity. Would you rather hang up another “Gun Free Zone” sign and pretend you’ve accomplished something?
What about more laws? Just this morning I heard a pundit telling the same lies that have been told for over a decade:
We must close the gun show loophole! Don’t trust me, Gentle Reader. Do your own damned research and go to a gun show and try to buy a gun from a licensed exhibitor without going through a background check. If you can do it, I’ll reimburse you for the cost of the gun.
We must stop people from buying guns illegally over the internet! Oh, For God’s sake. Doesn’t the mainstream media ever report real news? The Government Accounting Office (GAO) was ordered by anti-gun Senators Schatz (D-Hawaii), Warren (D-Massachusetts), and Rep. Cummings (D-Maryland) to assess how well the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives was enforcing firearms laws on the internet. To do so, the GAO conducted a series of seventy-two sting operations online, attempting to illegally purchase firearms without obeying the mandated background checks and laws. Out of seventy-two attempts, the GAO failed seventy-two times. The GAO then turned its attentions to the Dark Web, the shady and—I assume—illegal terrain of people who wish to remain anonymous because what they do is illegal. Out of seven attempts, even in that nether world, the GAO was successful only twice. I would argue that Warren, Schatz, Cummings, and the GOA could make better use of their time assessing how well the FBI responds to warnings about aberrant behavior.
We must ban assault weapons! The AR-15 is not an assault weapon. (Apparently—I haven’t researched this because I don’t frankly give a damn—Progressive liberal Joe Scarborough, the rabid anti-gun Morning Joe Scarborough, ran for Congress in 2013 from Florida’s 1st District, and at that time courted the NRA vote by defining an “assault weapon” as “anything the government would fear the people could use to protect their rights.” It’s a pretty accurate ideological definition, but not a legal one.) But apart from the fact that the AR-15 is not an assault weapon, does no one remember that Bill Clinton did ban so-called “assault weapons,” a ban that was allowed to expire in 2004 precisely because it had no discernible effect on violent crime. That verdict is according to multiple governmental and academic studies.
We must pass more laws! All the gun-control laws in the world will never stop either criminals or lunatics. If such laws worked, we could have stopped at Thou shalt not commit murder.