School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Truths We Must Face To Curb Youth Violence

By Amitai Etzioni — June 09, 1999 14 min read
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Conservative Republicans are right when they tell us, in response to the school tragedy this spring in Jefferson County, Colo., that “gun control will not solve the problem of youth violence.” Liberal Democrats are right when they claim that it is ludicrous to assert that parents and educators could solve the problem by bringing up kids right. Free-speech advocates make a good case when they maintain that putting filters on the Internet will not stop youngsters from making pipe bombs. But all these advocates unwittingly fall into one and the same logical trap, or deliberately use half-truths, to stop us from embracing those measures that they oppose. It is true that no measure will solve the problem; there are, though, several that would significantly curb youth violence.

The lesson from the Columbine High School shootings, which one prays we will continue to draw on rather than allowing it to fade into familiarity like too many tragedies before it, is as dull as it is important: Social phenomena are “overdetermined.” They are caused by a combination of several factors, and hence attacking any one of them will not eliminate the problem. There is no silver bullet and no magic cure. But this valid observation should not be used to conceal the fact that of guns, the culture, and the Internet, each carries some of the blame. It follows that if we tackle any of them, we shall reduce the problem some; if we treat several, we shall do even better. But, truth be told, it cannot be completely licked.

  • Guns. The gun lobbies argue that guns do not kill people; people kill people. There’s no question they are half-right. People make a difference--more about this shortly. But so do guns. Think about the 1,000 or so children who die each year from accidental discharge of firearms they find in their homes and play with. Think about the guy who stood on the tower of the University of Texas and killed 37 students with a gun. He would not have killed that many if all he had was a knife or a monkey wrench. And the two school killers in suburban Denver would have been wrestled to the ground if they hadn’t been armed with rapid-fire guns, which sent even the SWAT teams with their bulletproof vests and semi-military training ducking for cover.

The gun lobbies have been making a lot of political noise over the fact that in some parts of the country, New England for instance, in which there are numerous guns, the murder rates are much lower than in the South, also awash with guns. See, they say, the difference is in the culture, not in the availability of the tools of mayhem. But if one is going to draw on cross-cultural comparisons, why stop in New England? If England, and all other democracies, are also included, we see that whatever the culture, the fewer guns, the less killing.

Given that guns account for a chunk of the problem--that is the way to think about single factors, in terms of what social scientists call “variance"--several more points need to be made for those who must deal with the gun-loving lobbies.

First, there is no “right to bear arms” that the press so often speaks of. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The meaning of this right has been tested before the highest court in the land five times over the past 155 years. In each and every case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there are no constitutional impediments to imposing gun controls on individuals. This is the reason the National Rifle Association as a rule does not challenge gun-control measures in courts, but instead makes large campaign contributions to legislators, in order to block gun-control legislation or repeal it. It should be noted that NRA monies played a major role in defeating 24 Democratic members of Congress in the last election who supported the Brady Bill.

Second, the NRA is right that the diluted Brady Bill, and other such measures, will not do much good. The reason is that they are very limited in scope and gun sellers get around them through loopholes larger than ocean liners. (For example, background checks of people buying guns during gun shows have not in the past been required. If a manufacturer changed the name of an assault weapon, forbidden guns could become legal because Congress has banned a specific list of guns--by name.) But the conclusion from the fact that current gun-control measures are rather weak is the opposite of what the NRA implies: Our children’s safety requires not fewer gun controls, but more, of the sweeping and encompassing kind Canada, Britain, France, and Germany have.

Finally, the NRA reminds us that Colorado is one of two states in which minors are not able to legally own guns, and “look how much good it did.” Well, laws are of little value unless they are enforced. Look at the low budgets of those in charge of controlling firearms, especially the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and see where the inaction lies. If the NRA, with its tremendous lobbying power, allowed Congress and state legislatures to provide the budgets and other means gun-control laws require, law-enforcement agencies would be able to do their jobs.

  • Education. Parents and teachers should teach youngsters values, which will make them into good, peace-loving people, we are told. There is little doubt that education does make a difference (as do the economic conditions of the neighborhoods in which it takes place and the historical factors that lead some people to be more alienated than others). We should realize, though, that education centered around negative prohibitions, like Just Say No, is not going to work; we need messages that youngsters find meaningful and compelling, values and missions to Say Yes to.
Teaching self-restraint and responsible conduct is most successful when young people are positively involved in some other activities, rather than when they are only asked to refrain from what they are tempted to do.

Our society asks parents and teachers to teach young people not to use drugs and alcohol; not to have premarital sex; not to smoke; and not to express their aggressive feelings. In short, it seeks to repress just about everything that the culture tempts young people to do, those acts that appeal to their raging hormones and impulses.

The most relevant fact for education against violence is that teaching self-restraint and responsible conduct is most successful when young people are positively involved in some other activities, rather than when they are only asked to refrain from what they are tempted to do. Look at dedicated young Mormons, Orthodox Jews, Black Muslims, and many others who have strong religious convictions. Look at those truly engaged in a quest for a healthy body so they can excel in sports, or those deeply involved in community service. None of these young people are perfect or immune to the siren calls of our culture or their bodies. But on average--and this is what we must keep our eyes glued to, not on individual outliers--they do much better than those who are just asked to refrain.

Most important, the debate in public schools about which values we should teach, which unfortunately is so often used to block much-needed character education, is off the mark. What schools should help youngsters develop--if schools are going to help lower the likelihood of more Columbines--are two crucial behavior characteristics: the capacity to channel impulses into prosocial outlets, and empathy with others. Teenagers can learn to channel their aroused urges to activities that do not harm others and yet are self-fulfilling. Sports, if properly conducted, provide a major opportunity.

I refer to physical education more than to competitive sports, and sports conducted in the British manner, where it does not matter if you win or lose but how you play the game. While jocks often pick on other students, such behavior is not inherent in athletic activities. Indeed, when any group of students picks on others, or isolates them, this should not be viewed as a reason to cut back on their activities but as an opportunity for education, to develop the other much-needed capacity, that of empathy. Empathy ensures that we will feel the other person’s pain, and makes it much less likely that we shall hurt, taunt, or isolate him.

Once given these two essential behavioral character traits, specific values that presuppose them can be readily grafted at home, in churches, through voluntary associations, and by other means. Once the two basic personality capacities (or character traits) have been developed, public schools can devote education for specific values to those values we all share--a richer catalog than many assume.

  • Culture. In discussing the role of movies, video games, and the Internet in making our youngsters more violent than they would be otherwise, it is as fallacious to argue that these cultural products cause violence as it is to argue that they play no role.

Among studies showing that what people watch on television has effects was a particularly interesting one conducted in three Canadian villages, which for years were prevented from receiving TV signals because of their location. Shortly after these communities started watching TV as a result of the introduction of cable, crime rose significantly more than in other Canadian towns. To a social scientist, this natural experiment shows that television added something to the causes of crime.

I myself studied a videotape of a toddler watching a violent TV show while playing with his teddy bear. At the beginning of the program, the kid was all smiles. By the time the tape was winding down, the toddler had torn the head off his teddy. In a similar vein, children who have viewed pornographic material are more likely to engage in “orally copulating with another child” and “inserting an object into their anus or vagina or that of another child,” according to court testimony by a psychologist from the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Columbine killers downloaded both their neo-Nazi propaganda and specific designs for making pipe bombs from the Internet. In response, Vice President Gore has worked out an agreement with several major Internet companies to set up World Wide Web pages that will help parents protect their children from vile and violent material.

There is by now a fairly large variety of software products that can help parents, educators, and librarians screen out dangerous materials. These include Internet filters such as Net Nanny, Cyber Patrol, and so-called V-chips, which are now required to be included in all new television sets. Some of these block access to given lists of Web sites and TV shows; others block access to “texts” that include specific, explicit terms.

These filters are attacked by the same false logic and rhetorical tricks which by now are all too familiar. The filters, we are told, will not solve the problem. Hackers can disable them, they will allow some vile and violent material through, and they will prevent access to some material children might find useful. All this is true, and beside the point. Filters do not prevent violence any more than locks on our front doors prevent burglaries or cooking hamburger meat ensures that the E. coli bacterium will never infect us. They “just” make it less likely.

Filters unfortunately also seem to make some people foolish and others immoderate. There are those who argue that parents and educators should “talk” to their children, communicate more with them, take responsibility for their children’s conduct, and teach them to be responsible. Of course we should, but we should also question a society that makes parenting and education so difficult, instead of giving us a hand, for instance, by making jobs more secure and workplaces more family-friendly.

What is foolish about these arguments is that they overlook the merit of getting help in discharging our parental and educational duties, from wherever we can. Example: In my household, children were not allowed to watch TV during school days, and their TV time during other days was rather limited. Yes, we talked plenty--"why” is young children’s favorite word. However, given that I worked outside the home, and given that the children were young and hence both their willpower and sense of responsibility were still being developed, locks on the TV sets helped prevent them from undue temptation until they matured. And these locks allowed me to do something other than keeping an eye on two TV sets and two computers in a household with four children.

To reiterate, to argue that we should not “rely” on gadgets is all too true; God forgive the parents who install a Net Nanny and a V-chip and believe they have discharged their educational duties. But to argue that we should refuse the help of such devices is like saying that we don’t need seat belts and should instead simply teach young people in driver’s education to drive “responsibly.”

The immoderate opposition to filters, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association, particularly deserves attention because it raises a major question of educational philosophy: Are we to view children as developing creatures, or as undersized adults, with all the rights thereof? By developing creatures, I mean human beings that begin their lives highly dependent on adults for their well-being and quite unable to form judgments of their own or exercise self-restraint, and who acquire an increasing ability over the years to act in a responsible manner toward themselves, others, and the community. The fact that children are developmental may seem so self-evident that we rarely articulate this elementary fact. It is not so for the ACLU, the ALA, and some extreme children’s-rights advocates.

These associations and advocates take the position that children are basically to be accorded the same rights as adults. For instance, the ACLU opposed limitations on the Joe Camel cigarette advertising, aimed at enticing children to smoke, on several grounds, one of which is that children’s access to information should not be denied. For the same reason, the ACLU went to court and got filters on computers thrown out in public libraries in Virginia, and had them removed under threat of lawsuits in California.

During a meeting with ACLU representatives in Washington, in which other groups concerned with the right to privacy participated, the ACLU made it clear that it was opposed to setting any age limit whatsoever on the rights of children to access any and all material. The special protection of children sought by the Federal Trade Commission, at issue in that meeting, concerned only those 12 years old or younger. Asked if the ACLU would be satisfied if the age limit were lowered, the answer was a simple no. And when courts examined whether filters should be introduced into computers in public libraries to which children have access, the ACLU claimed that “explicit sex information and even pornography do not themselves cause psychological harm to minors of any age.”

The American Library Association takes a very similar position. It denies parents of children of any age the right to find out which books their children have checked out. In a policy that is humorous if not absurd, the ALA tells parents, who must sign a statement accepting liability for books their children lose, that if such parents wish to find out which books they are being fined for, they need a note from their children permitting the library to disclose such information!

As I see it, parents and teachers have not merely a right but a duty to find out what their charges are reading, screening, or playing with. They have a duty to help shape the educational environment of their children, help them choose which books they should read, which music they should listen to, which TV programs they should watch, and which they should avoid. This seems indisputable when we’re talking about preteens; even in the case of teenagers, parents and educators need to be involved rather than shut out. If a classmate of my son committed suicide, and my son seems rather depressed and is spending long hours alone in the library, it is my duty at a minimum to find out if he’s merely reading Dostoevsky, or the Hemlock Society’s how-to books. I also had better find out if one of my children is deep into Mein Kampf, The Anarchist’s Cookbook, or the Unabomber’s manifesto, so I can help him learn to deal properly with these poisonous works.

Helping children develop the moral and intellectual faculties needed to make responsible choices when they grow up is what raising kids is all about. Anybody can provide room and board, and love comes naturally. But developing a child’s character is a parent’s highest duty, one they share with educators, who often do stand in for parents.

Truth be told, the Lord, nature, and social science have not given us what it takes to lick most social problems. Hence, it is rather easy to show that any specific measure will not solve the problem of youth violence or much of anything else. But if we do not allow the quest for the perfect person and society to stop us, we will be able to make it much less likely that we shall face the Columbine tragedy again.

There is very little in our personal and collective lives that is more important than saving the lives of our children. We should dedicate more of our energy and resources to doing so, even if this means we have to proceed one child at a time, for helping one child may save 15.

Amitai Entzioni is the author of, most recently, The Limits of Privacy. A sociologist, he is the University Professor at George Washington University in Washington.

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