by Robert Docter –
In a city inundated with daily drive-by shootings and armor-piercing projectiles spewing forth from assault rifles–in a town in which gang initiation includes snuffing life from random victims–where four-year-olds lie dead and bleeding on their own neatly manicured front lawns–where grandmothers sit, unmoving, in quiet rocking chairs with fatal gun shots to the head –where teachers’ brains become mush as bullets pierce their skulls while standing before their classes–we citizens of Los Angeles, “the city of the future,” empathize with the people of Jonesboro, Arkansas. They’ve experienced senseless tragedy, too.
We don’t understand this irrational, cowardly assault on life by pre-adolescent youth, either. Their unexplainable action resulted in the death of four schoolmates and a courageous, pregnant teacher after they fired upon the group assembled on the playground by a false fire alarm.
A lack of understanding invariably leads to a search for answers. Why? becomes the word of the day. Whom can we blame –who is at fault? –are the questions on everyone’s lips. What should we do? is asked with wringing hands and aching hearts. Sometimes, these questions lead to a desire for a quick fix— a simple solution that does not lead to a satisfactory remedy because it asks the wrong question. You’ll never get the right answer if you ask the wrong question.
All of us in this society–in the small rural towns and gang-ridden metropolises–face an extremely complex, multi-faceted problem for which there are no easy answers–no quick fixes–no simple solutions. It concerns the relationship between the value placed on human life and the value placed on something else–maybe pleasure–maybe pride–maybe power–maybe wealth. This value conflict reveals itself in places other than playgrounds. It is evident in board rooms and office suites, in classrooms and homes, in churches and synagogues, in prisons and parliaments. Among many other places, we see it in matters of abortion, of euthanasia, of battering, of addiction, of the use of firearms, even in the way we monitor our own health.
Which is more valuable–human life or something else?
A lack of willingness of society and its institutions to examine this value conflict has dreadful consequences. Because it is difficult, we turn from it. Because it requires skill in communication, self-evaluation and often unpleasant conclusions, we procrastinate dealing with it. Then we wonder how events could go so wrong on the Jonesboro playground.
Resolving a value conflict requires, first of all, an awareness of the values in conflict; then, a choice based on some kind of moral criteria that elevates a particular value. When the choice involves the value of life the society is elevated when it has priority over other values.
Society failed when the trigger was pulled. The boys had no understanding of the consequences of their acts–for themselves–for their victims–for their families–for their community.
Values instruction begins in the home. It must be taught, but, most importantly, it must be modeled. Some other institutions of society also contribute directly to the development of values–the school, the church, law enforcement. Some, like the media, teach indirectly. These other institutions must teach and model a value orientation that places pre-eminent value on life and its worth. They become a fallback for the home.
Children need to be allowed to make safe mistakes. When they make safe mistakes, they need to experience the consequences. If the situation is safe enough, the consequence should be natural –i.e. –the child should bring about the negative result naturally. This should then be discussed and the child allowed to articulate the conclusions gained from the experience. If the situation is not safe enough, the consequence should be logical –something which communicates clearly the inappropriateness of the act. Children must be protected from making dangerous mistakes. Involvement with firearms prior to a child’s ability to understand the consequences of firing into a crowd of people is dangerous. It’s worse than taking a 13-year-old to see an “R” rated movie. Modeling violence is hazardous to our health. Movies and television that promote violence gradually erode a sanctity for life and the value of the human spirit. Nobody fired blanks on that playground. When the “scene” was finished, no victims got up and dusted themselves off.
Families which neglect instruction in basic moral values fail the entire society.
Parents who choose not to master the extremely complex task of parenting by taking needed instruction fail their children.
Schools which limit their responsibilities to performing well on standardized examinations and fail to engage in values awareness and instruction betray the future.
A “gun culture” which neglects to reveal the torn flesh and flowing blood of victims reveals, instead, its own avariciousness and communicates that it deserves to be controlled.
Churches which engage in limited theological discourse and neglect to link instruction to basic values fail society.
Movies which glamorize killing and maiming have to expect pre-adolescents in jungle fatigues spraying a playground with bullets from assault rifles.
Law enforcement which neglects the delivery of moral instruction and limits itself to incarceration has to expect recidivism.
No one is blameless in this ordeal. We must all feel the pain of Jonesboro.