The Culture of Death

    “I know it’s an amendment. I know it’s in the Constitution. But you know what? Enough is enough.”
    —Rosie O’Donnell

Enough is. The audience at Ms. O’Donnell’s show applauded yesterday, and I would have too if I’d been there, not for her call to ban all guns but because Rosie O’Donnell was as genuinely moved by the Colorado shootings as the rest of us, and was at least trying to come up with an answer. The political sentiment expressed was radical but was also the expression of a fact: People have had it. Something is different about this story. We’ve been through it before but the reaction this time suggests some critical mass has been reached.

You could see it even in the unnerving sameness, the jarring predictability of what we saw on television as this very specific tragedy unfolded. We all know the Kabuki now, we know it by heart. First the aerial shots of kids fleeing the shooting, then the shot of the girl sobbing in the arms of her friends; after that the Associated Press photo of the boy with his baseball hat turned backwards, gesturing over a body; then the memorial at the local church with kids sobbing and a stricken pastor speaking; then the yearbook pictures of the perpetrators—”He was kind of quiet, kind of a weird guy”—then the neighbor’s testimony about video games and Marilyn Manson; then the debate: “It’s the gun culture.” “It’s the community.”

We all know how to do this now. We have been here before, and too often. The children, in the midst of the horror, all know how to speak to the cameras and give the reporters what they need.

[Header] Groping for Answers

We all know our part. We all know what’s next. The difference this time, so far, is that the finger pointing seems wan, halfhearted. People seem to be groping for that elusive thing, a satisfying answer—or partial answer—or a piece of the puzzle.

Here’s mine. The kids who did this are responsible. They did it. They killed. But they came from a place and a time, and were yielded forth by a culture.

What walked into Columbine High School Tuesday was the culture of death. This time it wore black trench coats. Last time it was children’s hunting gear. Next time it will be some other costume, but it will still be the culture of death. That is the Pope’s phrase; it is how he describes the world we live in.

The boys who did the killing, the famous Trench Coat Mafia, inhaled too deep the ocean in which they swam.

Think of it this way. Your child is an intelligent little fish. He swims in deep water. Waves of sound and sight, of thought and fact, come invisibly through that water, like radar; they go through him again and again, from this direction and that. The sound from the television is a wave, and the sound from the radio; the headlines on the newsstand, on the magazines, on the ad on the bus as it whizzes by—all are waves. The fish—your child—is bombarded and barely knows it. But the waves contain words like this, which I’ll limit to only one source, the news:

. . . was found strangled and is believed to have been sexually molested . . . had her breast implants removed . . . took the stand to say the killer was smiling the day the show aired . . . said the procedure is, in fact, legal infanticide . . . is thought to be connected to earlier sexual activity among teens . . . court battle over who owns the frozen sperm . . . contains songs that call for dominating and even imprisoning women . . . died of lethal injection . . . had threatened to A familair scene kill her children . . . said that he turned and said, “You better put some ice on that” . . . had asked Kevorkian for help in killing himself . . . protested the game, which they said has gone beyond violence to sadism . . . showed no remorse . . . which is about a wager over whether he could sleep with another student . . . which is about her attempts to balance three lovers and a watchful fiancé . . .

This is the ocean in which our children swim. This is the sound of our culture. It comes from all parts of our culture and reaches all parts of our culture, and all the people in it, which is everybody.

It is corny to lay it out like this because we all know this. What I’m writing is not news. It is part of the reason that Hollywood people, when discussing these matters, no longer say, “If you don’t like it, change the channel.” They now realize something they didn’t realize 10 years ago: There is no channel to change to. You could sooner remove an ocean than find such a channel.

Who counters the culture of death? The good parents and good families of our children. They are kind enough, sensitive enough to give them religious belief, the knowledge of a God, a sense that life has coherence and purpose. They are generous enough, and loyal enough to the future, to show through their actions that doing your best to show love is good, doing your work is good, contributing is good. “This is what we do,” they do not say but show. “This is how to live.”

But there aren’t enough to go around. Most of the children who get into terrible trouble and wind up with guns in their hands don’t have anyone to counter the culture. There are a number of reasons, but lately I think a great one is this: So many parents themselves are bound down by the culture, by the sickness of it, which they bear as a weight on their shoulders.

And there’s more. We forget, those of us who are middle-aged, that we grew up in a time of saner, less sick-making images and sounds.

For instance, the culture of crime only began to explode in the 1960s. We have lived in it for 30 years, and most of us turned out OK. So we think our children will be OK too. But they never had a normal culture against which to balance the newer, sicker one. They have no reference points to the old, boring normality. We assume they know what we know: “This is not right.” But why would they know that? The water in which they swim is the only water they’ve known.

The television executive Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News Channel, is a modern man, a smart man who lives in the world. A few years ago I was on his TV show to sell a book. He asked me why I am concerned about violence in the media. After all, he said, television and movies are full of comedy and the country isn’t breaking out in laughter. I laughed and said that was true, but here’s the difference: Violence is an inspiration to the unstable. People who are frailer, less stable, are more subject to the dark images they see. Teenagers, who are by nature in greater thrall to sweeps of emotion and sadness, are most vulnerable. If Holden Caulfield with all his angst had lived in modern America—well, that would be a book.

A man called into Christian radio this morning and said a true thing. He said, and I am paraphrasing: Those kids were sick and sad, and if a teacher had talked to one of them and said, “Listen, there’s a way out, there really is love out there that will never stop loving you, there’s a real God and I want to be able to talk to you about him”—if that teacher had intervened that way, he would have been hauled into court.

[Header] Things in Common

Yes, he would have. It occurs to me at the moment that a gun and a Bible have a few things in common. Both are small, black, have an immediate heft and are dangerous—the first to life, the second to the culture of death.

One more thing: I think every intelligent person I know has been having thoughts like this for years, and they don’t want to, and they’re right not to want to, because it just may be true that this is one problem our resourceful and brilliant country cannot solve. The dark genie is out of the bottle, and swims in the seas.

I’ll tell you who could make some progress though, maybe. Hillary Clinton. All the big media people, the owners and anchors, the studio heads and producers, the creators and disseminators, they all admire her. They support her. She could talk to them, She could ignite a “national conversation.” She could get tough. She could take names. It might cost her—they give her money. But she’s an important member of the community. And you know, it takes a village.