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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Suppressing Our Freedoms in the Name of Littleton

April 28, 1999|MIKE DOWNEY

I was watching "60 Minutes" on television Sunday night, when on came a man to tell American parents what was partly responsible for making two teenage boys bring guns and bombs to a Colorado high school and seek to do as much murder and destruction as humanly possible before killing themselves.

Video games.

The man explained to Ed Bradley that young people today, they play violent-themed computer or arcade games that are designed to shoot at moving targets and blow up buildings.

The program went on to report that bereaved parents from Paducah, Ky., had begun a legal action against certain of these video games' manufacturers, holding them accountable in children's shootings similar to Littleton's.

A day later, on the TV news, I saw something else was being blamed and linked indirectly to the Littleton shootings.


In more than one city, a concert date for a performer named Marilyn Manson was being either called off or postponed because of a real or imagined effect on young people who listen to Manson's songs.

I knew this would happen.

The reaction to Littleton is far from over, because the overreaction has just begun.


Here we go again, responding to a crisis by condemning the toys that boys and girls play with, the music that young people listen to, the books they read and the clothes they wear.

It never ends.

Strip away the simple pleasures of millions of kids or young adults who behave responsibly because of a few who do not, reduce their choices, control their minds . . . these are always the solutions proposed for a Utopian world. Pounds of prevention for ounces of cure.

If it isn't a trench coat that someone is being ordered to leave at home, it's a cap turned backward, or a skirt too high above the knee, or a black leather jacket. Just depends on your era.

If it isn't the lyric or loudness of a song, then it's the length of the musician's hair, or the way he or she moves on stage.

If it isn't some video, it is a toy rifle that is likely to inspire crime and bloodshed, a knife used for mumbletypeg that might someday be used for murder, or a spin-the-bottle game that is bound to encourage rampant promiscuity.

We ask adolescents not to act immaturely, then go back to treating them like pre-pubescent children and not trusting them, as soon as any of their contemporaries break the rules.

By day kids are taught in class how lucky they are to grow up and live in a favored land, in a society that doesn't inhibit free expression, one that encourages independence and even dissent.

But by night they are told that their video games must be taken from them because a couple of punks hundreds of miles away may have watched them before arming themselves with real guns.

Even though, decade upon decade, children in this country have shot at moving targets at carnival booths, played with squirt guns and cap pistols and air rifles, held joysticks and endeavored to shoot down airplanes or asteroids or assorted villains.

They are told to scorn certain music because the performer of the moment is singing inflammatory words, adorned with bizarre costume and makeup, and adult society must stamp out this scandalous fad.

Just the way somebody once had to stop this Elvis Presley person from wiggling, these Beatles from advising couples to do something in the road, this Jim Morrison from articulating dark fantasies, this Kiss from wearing that scary face paint, this Public Enemy from showing no respect to our police.

As kids interviewed outside a Marilyn Manson concert in Michigan tried to clarify, they don't go to be brainwashed, to be drawn into a sordid world of hatred and depravity . . . they go for the show.


I knew Littleton would lead to this, because of mankind's "if we can save one" theory. If we can save one child by eliminating games, censoring art, restricting nonconformity, the theory goes, then we not only should, we must.

But this would end . . . where? As a video game spokesperson told Ed Bradley, what of the boy who found hidden meaning in J.D. Salinger's literature and assassinated John Lennon? Do we ban a book that millions admired?

We do not.

To help save a child, what we must use is our technological resources--surveillance equipment in halls, metal-detectors at doors--that make schools more safe. Not try to control young minds, just so we can do a better job of reading them.


Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail:

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