Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.
It may well be that Steven Kazmierczak, a former student at Northern Illinois University and the most recent school shooter, was simply a deeply disturbed individual. But we cannot ignore the fact that he was also a product of the U.S. culture of violence.
America is a nation plagued by violence – in our homes, in our schools, on our streets and in our affairs of state, both foreign and domestic. Violence permeates our entertainment culture with its glamorization of death and destruction in movies and video games. Indeed, it is estimated that by the time a child reaches 18, he or she will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders on television.
Our nation has one of the highest murder rates and levels of incarceration of all industrialized nations in the world. We even export violence, with one of this country’s most profitable exports being weapons. All too often, these same weapons fall into the hands of our enemies. America is now seen as a violent empire with wars that stretch back to at least the beginning of the 20th century.
But why is America so violent?
Some choose to lay the blame on our proliferation of weapons, increasingly impersonal technologies, a disparate distribution of wealth, materialism, the erosion of families, drugs, isolationism and so on. Others decry easy access to guns as the reason for our nation’s predilection for violence, especially when it comes to school shootings, and champion gun control and zero tolerance policies as solutions – albeit band-aid fixes.
Certainly, these are all factors. However, I would suggest one more: We are teaching violence to our young people.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that children’s prolonged exposure to media violence normalizes the violence and leads to increased acceptance of it. This is likely to result in increased levels of fear, depression, sleep disturbance and aggressive behavior.
Indeed, a 10-year review of media literature found that “the primary effects of media exposure (e.g., television and movies, rock music and music videos, advertising, video games, computers and the Internet) included more violent and aggressive behavior, increased high-risk behaviors such as alcohol and tobacco use and accelerated onset of sexual activity in children and adolescents.”
Violent lyrics have also been found to increase feelings of hostility in the absence of provocation or threat, while sexual violence in music videos and other media desensitizes male viewers to violence against women.
We then come to violent video games. Because of their nature, which reinforces the learning process, video games affect children more strongly than other media. They have reward systems for behavior that often involves violence, and which is repeated over and over.
Clearly, violence begets violence. But it is more than that. The problem lies with us, in our communities, our families, our growing isolation from one another and our lack of spirituality and values.
We have lost our moral compass, and it’s destroying us as a country. The majority of Americans today, especially the younger generation, have no sense of what is right and wrong. Having traded our spiritual values for a bowl of materialistic porridge, we have failed to impart these meaningful moral lessons to our children.
Materialism has eclipsed both spirituality and community, stripping us of the very things that once gave our lives meaning and worth.
The American community that once bound us together has been shattered. The loving relationship between parent and child is now separated by mom and dad’s 24/7 connection to work in the form of a BlackBerry, computer or their maniacal attachment to a cell phone.
More and more children grow up living out of a suitcase, shuttled between households of divorced parents. And the watchful, caring eye of a parent or neighbor has been shelved for youth online communities where teens don’t have to learn to deal with the difficulties of real-life, face-to-face relationships.
Dr. James P. Comer, professor of psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center, suggests that in order to treat the damage done to the next generation, “We’re going to have to work at systematically recreating the critical elements of community that once existed naturally. We can’t go back to the past, but there was a time when people cared about each other and would look out for each other.”
Restoring the elements of community is a critical part of the process. If we are to reverse the tide of violence in America, the principles of nonviolence must also be taught – in our homes, churches, schools and communities.
Unless we want America’s future to be plagued by violence, we will have to commit to drastically altering the way we act, think and relate to one another. It’s time to get our children away from headphones and video games, get parents away from cell phones, stop hiding behind technology and be human again.