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Life Is Precious--or It's Not

Violence: When our presidents and film heroes solve problems by killing people, what do we expect from our children?

May 02, 1999|BARBARA KINGSOLVER | Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel is "The Poisonwood Bible" (HarperCollins, 1998)

In the aftermath of the high school killings in Littleton, Colo., we have the spectacle of a nation acting baffled. Why would any student, however frustrated with mean-spirited tormentors, believe that guns and bombs are the answer?

If we're really interested in this question, we might have started asking it awhile ago. Why does a nation persist in celebrating violence as an honorable expression of disapproval? In, oh let's say, Yugoslavia, Iraq, the Sudan, Waco--anywhere we get fed up with mean-spirited tormentors--why do we believe guns and bombs are the answer?

Let's not trivialize a horrible tragedy by pretending we can't make sense of it. "Senseless" sounds like "without cause," and requires no action. After an appropriate interval of dismayed hand-wringing, we can go back to business as usual. What takes guts is to own up: This event made perfect sense. Children model the behavior of adults, on whatever scale is available to them. Ours are growing up in a nation whose most important, influential men--from presidents to film heroes--solve problems by killing people. It's utterly predictable that some boys who are desperate for admiration and influence will reach for guns and bombs. And it's not surprising that it happened in a middle-class neighborhood; Institutional violence is right at home in the suburbs. Don't point too hard at the gangsta rap in your brother's house until you've examined the Pentagon in our own. The tragedy in Littleton grew straight out of a culture that is loudly and proudly rooting for the global shootout. That culture is us.

It may be perfectly clear to you that Nazis, the Marines, "the Terminator" and the N.Y.P.D. all kill for different reasons. But as every parent knows, children are good at ignoring or seeing straight through the subtleties we spin.

Here's what they see: Killing is an exalted tool for punishment and control. Americans who won't support it are ridiculed. Let's face it, though, most Americans believe bloodshed is necessary for preserving our way of life, even though this means we risk the occasional misfire--the civilians strafed, the innocent man wrongly condemned to death row.

If this is your position, I wonder if you'd be willing to go to Littleton and explain to some mothers about acceptable risk. In a society that embraces violence, this is what "our way of life" has come to mean. We have taught our children in a thousand ways, sometimes with flag-waving and sometimes with a laugh track, that the bad guy deserves to die. But we forgot something. Any of our children may someday be, in someone's mind, the bad guy.

If you want the loss of these precious lives in Littleton to mean something, use it to nail a permanent benchmark into your own heart: Life is that precious, period. Establish zero tolerance for murder as a solution to anything. Start by removing from your household and your life every television program, video game, film, book, toy and CD that presents the killing of humans (however symbolic) as an entertainment option. Then move on to harder things. Force yourself to discuss the moral lessons of capital punishment. Demand from your elected officials diplomacy instead of a war budget. Look into what we did (and are still doing) to the living souls of Iraq, if you can bear it. Tell your kids, and someone else's, that you're not proud of our country's history of bombing people in nations we disdain.

Sound extreme? Don't kid yourself. Death is extreme, and the children are paying attention.

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