The early reports on the afternoon of April 20 sounded just too familiar: shots fired in a school, children wounded, children dead. Then it emerged that the death toll at Littleton's Columbine High School would be far higher than those in several similar incidents over the past year and a half.
One week later, we're still shaking our heads in disbelief - I hope.
As we near the end of both the century and the millennium, increasingly it seems that our society is not merely frayed or torn; it's been ripped apart. In the case of the Littleton killings, the primary motivation is clear. These two teen monsters weren't political terrorists; they were cultural terrorists who murdered in the name of a bleak, bloody worldview obsessed with death, cultivated in large part by the entertainment media.
A penetrating article in the April 22 Washington Post by reporters Kevin Merida and Richard Leiby merits quoting. It describes our culture as "one giant playground filled with accessible evil, darker than ever before." They write of the "horrifically realistic - and vicious" computer games "like Postal, in which the goal is to slaughter innocent bystanders, including cheerleaders who moan for mercy," and musical forms known as "death metal" or "grindcore," with bands appropriately named Cannibal Corpse and Visceral Evisceration. Throw into the mix vile shock-rockers like Marilyn Manson, graphic Internet sites - the list goes on, and on, and on - and you begin to see the overwhelming evil that is pounding America's youth.
So why do some continue to deny the obvious?
Take Howard Rosenberg, the TV columnist for the Los Angeles Times, who on April 23 wrote that "some myopic Americans see media as the root of all evil. The mantra: If it's bad, television - or the movies - caused it." Since Mr. Rosenberg quotes me at length expressing views which he proceeds to belittle, I assume I'm one of those "myopic Americans."
No, Mr. Rosenberg, I'm just one of those who's fed up with the excuses.
I don't believe - no one believes - that the media are "the root of all evil." If we trace the human propensity for wickedness to its source, we arrive at original sin, not Jerry Springer. But in this technology-driven age, the media are the most powerful external influence on the young, whether we like it or not. When children are asked who their role models are, they don't name parents, teachers, or clergy. Overwhelmingly, they name entertainers.
What responsibility do these role models have to society?
Mike De Luca, an executive at New Line Cinema (the company responsible for "The Basketball Diaries," which contained a now-infamous scene in which a student in a black trenchcoat shoots up a classroom) is less contemptuous of reality than Rosenberg, but waffles nonetheless. De Luca admits that "you'd have to be without a conscience to not think about" media violence's impact, but adds, "The real problems [are] bad home life, bad parenting...Entertainment can be a sort of last straw or the moment of dark inspiration." Mr. De Luca, if a movie provides a "moment of dark inspiration" leading to hideous violence, how can it not be a "real problem"...
Of course, corrupting entertainment product isn't the whole story. Such depravity can flourish only in a moral and spiritual vacuum, and, sad to say, the recent growth in religion has by no means touched all of America. It might have at least come close had the media afforded it the proper attention. In Manhattan and Hollywood, however, religion remains a largely foreign concept. A 1998 study found an average of less than one religious reference for every three hours of prime time programming. Moreover, many of those references were negative - overwhelmingly so, when it came to depictions of the devout laity.
Watching the Littleton coverage, one witnessed the absurdity of such harsh portrayals of believers. Those who lost loved ones in this massacre spoke not angrily, but peacefully, explaining that their faith would see them through this ordeal. If there is a made-for-television movie about this tragedy, will religion be given the prominent, positive role it deserves? Will Hollywood spotlight that angel, Cassie Bernall, who took a bullet rather than disavow her God?
But we live in superficial times with Band-Aid solutions to real problems. Second Amendment defenders are once more the whipping boys, and yet there were guns long before there were school shootings. When will we get serious about what's happened to our culture, which has ceased reflecting the best of America and is now preoccupied with nihilism and despair? Its monument can be found at Columbine High School. And it's a monument all of us, through our actions, or our inattention, or our excuses, built.