Voices > Soul Food

Not about Littleton

It's about the next community where such things can't happen, but suddenly do

Issue: "Is our military ready?," May 29, 1999

Memorial Day, though obscured by picnics and blockbuster movie openings, is set aside as a commemoration of American war dead. This weekend, flags will flutter over national cemeteries coast to coast, while we continue to mourn the latest casualties of another sort of conflict-the "culture war."

When that term was coined several years ago, both liberals and conservatives understood it to be metaphorical. But last month 15 people were messily killed in a scene reminiscent of guerrilla combat. It hit us much harder than the baffling maneuvers in Kosovo. It doubled us over in a peculiarly American convulsion: the hand-wringing and soul-searching of a nation that can't forget its idealist roots, even though it has forgotten what those ideals were, and plowed under the soil they sprang from.

But this piece is not about Littleton, the grieving community that took the bullet and continues to pay the price.

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It's about kids today. Speaking generally, they're consumers born and bred-perhaps consumers above all. Everything in their world is an article of merchandise: styles and looks, philosophies and ideas. Having learned that reality is self-determined, they try on "worldviews" and "lifestyles." Having immature tastes (these are kids, after all), they go for the obvious and the simplistic. Black trenchcoats are a fashion statement, like easy cynicism, court shoes, suicide chic, designer jeans, goth. A streak of narcissism skewers the wide spectrum of teenage self-expression: It's all me. I choose, I buy, I decide.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold marched up a school corridor, laughing as they picked off their fleeing classmates-just like in Doom. Were they having fun yet? Apparently. "We've waited for this all our lives!" What's life?

But this is not about Littleton.

It's about adults today. We baby boomers can be proud: We've exerted a disproportionate influence on society at every stage of our development. Our parents were afraid of us; our "movements" threw the country into an uproar. Now, traveling through the body politic like an undigested hedgehog through a snake, we've gained enough seniority to staff board rooms, entertainment syndicates, and executive mansions. The careless mix of good intentions and self-indulgence that informed our youth now seeps through the culture at large, even looks back at us from our nation's highest office. If we can dismiss a chief executive lying to our faces, it may be because we ourselves have more than one face. "We laugh at honor," C.S. Lewis wrote, "and are shocked to find traitors in our midst." If we shrug at truth-telling, why be surprised if the kids don't trust us?

Eric and Dylan got into a little trouble last year, and were sentenced to a probation program that included a class on anger management. At the end of the program they signed contracts promising not to acquire firearms. According to Eric's diary, they began collecting weapons right away, without qualm. What's truth?

But this is not about Littleton.

It's about parents today. The Harrises and Klebolds have come under a lot of scrutiny: What kind of parents would allow their children to build pipe bombs in the basement, even after the neighbors complained? Possibly the kind who would allow the kids to indulge in alcohol or sex at home because it's safer there. The kind who give in to the whims of their offspring to avoid confrontation. The kind who, after their children reach a difficult age, claim they can no longer do anything with them: It's too hard. We love to think our children are all-important to us, and as proof will give them everything except ourselves. To accommodate our own lifestyle choices we stash them in day care, break up their homes, expose them to all our sins and turn a blind eye to theirs. The little boy with the gap-toothed smile parked in front of the TV every Saturday morning has become a sullen teenager in black. But we never really knew either of them. We never acknowledged their need, their humanity-perhaps they were only half-real to us, extensions of ourselves.

Two boys cooked up a movie-plot scenario in which they wiped out an entire school and hijacked a plane. Hey, compared to that, what they really did doesn't look so bad. What's real?

But this is not about Littleton.

It's about holes in the soul, and a culture gone blind while it thinks it sees. It's about substituting lifestyles for life, interpretations for absolutes, appeasing for giving. It's about the next community where such things can't happen, but suddenly do. It's about you and me and the world we've made.

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