WHY JONESBORO HAPPENED

In late March, 1997, a couple of barely pubescent, misguided youths (sorry: "youths in high-risk situations") pulled a fire alarm in their middle school, and as their little chums and teachers poured out, proceeded to pick them off one by one with guns, killing four kids and a teacher.

Since then, newspapers, magazines and talk shows have been overflowing with people rushing to push their own agendas in response to a single question: Why?

It’s the breakdown of the family. It’s two working parents. It’s a failure of the school systems. It’s television violence, comic books, movies, corrupt politicians and even (I kid you not; someone notable really said this on radio) the result of centuries of little boys being taught to hate and disrespect women.

Along with the analysis we get an equally voluminous avalanche of prescriptions for preventing this kind of thing from ever happening again: A rise in the minimum wage. Stricter V-chips. New B-chips. More responsibility among Hollywood studio execs. Teacher competency testing. Sensitivity training beginning in nursery school. Longer school days, more after-school programs, midnight basketball.

It’s all crap. Listen to me carefully here, because this is really important. Ready?

There is absolutely nothing that can be done to prevent people from occasionally and randomly slipping over the edge and deciding to commit mayhem.

All those ideas I mentioned above may have varying degrees of merit (from zero to a lot) with respect to a general increase in the quality of life and the reduction of crime. But with 300 million citizens in this country, it is a statistical certainty that, once in a while, a few of them are going to go very nuts. Some will take off their clothes and run naked through Times Square. Some will stand in front of delicatessen windows and talk to the cheese for hours on end. Others will walk into places of business armed with Kalashnikovs and kill a bunch of people before taking their own lives.

(I think they do that — kill themselves — just to piss us off for not being able to do it for them ourselves. Except it’s not very PC to put it that way, so instead we say it’s too bad they didn’t survive so we could understand why they did what they did so we could learn how to prevent it from happening again, which, if you’ve been paying attention, is ridiculous. Better they should save us the trouble of a trial that only adds to the anguish of the surviving loved ones.)

Like I said: there’s nothing we can do about people going crazy.

I even wonder why we get so surprised.

The liberal intelligentsia seem to go to great lengths to ridicule conservatives who decry gratuitous violence in movies and television, probably because the liberal intelligentsia make a good living off television and the movies, and phrases such as "freedom of expression" and the horribly hackneyed "chilling effect" on such freedoms are bandied about freely. I’m a firm believer in first amendment rights (although not a blind adherent), but think about it: the unlawful taking of a human life ought to evoke within us horror, disbelief and outrage. But when you see 5-10,000 killings a year on television and the movies, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that the net effect is a pretty thorough numbing of our sensibilities, to the point where "Joe Blow got shot" has about as much emotional resonance as "Please pass the salt."

Few of us even really know what someone looks like after they’ve been hit with bullets. We visualize a nice, clean little half-inch hole, a thin trickle of blood and a body in peaceful repose. Witness Sonny Corleone getting gunned down in The Godfather and it looking like little more than a bad case of measles. In real life, a machine gun fusillade like that wouldn’t have left enough human being to shovel into a garbage bag.

So why should it surprise us when a 12-year old raised on Schwarzenegger, Willis and Stallone movies thinks it would be a hoot to fire into a group of his playmates? And why do we label as absurd one of the Jonesboro suspects saying he didn’t mean to hurt anyone? The kid’s seen 300 movies in which such actions have little or no consequence — nobody cries out in real pain, nobody grieves, often nobody is even punished — so where’s his basis to believe anything to the contrary, especially at an age when the distinction between fantasy and reality is still a bit blurry around the edges?

But I digress. In light of the forgoing, what should we do?

There are some 50 millions schoolchildren in the US; last year about four of them decided to shoot up their friends at school. With those odds, do we really need 50 million sets of parents worrying that their kids might be potential killers and "doing something about it?"

On the other hand, is there a 12-year old alive anywhere who can be trusted with a remote control killing machine without adult supervision, especially considering that most of those adults can’t be trusted with guns either? Yet most people seem to go to greater lengths to keep their kids away from sugary foods than deadly weapons.

Finally, and most critically: when searching for solutions, why draw a distinction between a 12-year old attacking a school and a 40-year old shooting up a post office? What’s the difference? In each case, someone without a conscience or a brain holds in his hand the ability to move his finger half an inch and end lives.

So if you believe that the right of the shooter to have a gun pales in comparison with the victim’s right not to be killed, the only even remotely practical solution to ending these kinds of shootings is to take away the means of destruction, namely the guns. As I said, to talk seriously of preventing people from going nuts is itself sheer lunacy. But perhaps preventing those lunatics from easily pushbuttoning the murders of innocents is more sensible.

I don’t know what form such a solution would take. What I do know is this: there are moments when I have become so enraged I might have considered blowing somebody’s head off. Had I had a gun handy, who knows? In the seconds it took me to calm down, however, someone else who did have a gun might have ended a life.

The difference in those two situations is the gun. With it, you’re a deadly psychopath. Without it, you’re just another pissed off citizen who’ll get over it without hurting anybody.

Maybe it’s true that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

But for damned sure it’s very rare for people without guns to kill people.


from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld
* Copyright 1996-2001 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

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