Sick unto death?

Culture | Attacks from without are not the worst kinds of terrorism

Issue: "Ugly truth of partial-birth," April 17, 2004

AMERICA IS IN AN AGE OF TERRORISM. AS WE HAVE had to face up to the shock of people trying to kill us out of sheer principle, the date that first comes to mind is Sept. 11, 2001. But there is another landmark date in the age of terrorism, April 20, 1999.

Five years ago, at Columbine High School in a middle-class Colorado suburb, two teenage boys in trench coats strode through the hallways gunning down their classmates, killing 12 students and a teacher. Then, like suicide bombers, they took their own lives.

When people attack our country from without, we can deal with that-conquer Afghanistan, invade Iraq, control the borders, tighten security. But when the attack comes from within our country and from within our culture, it shakes us to our core. External attacks can actually strengthen a culture, as people pull together to defend their nation and what it stands for. But when the horrors break out from within the culture, when children start killing children, when the place of death is the neighborhood school, there is nowhere to hide.

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The Columbine killings and the copycat school shootings that they inspired are not the only examples of terrorism from within. Employees suddenly go postal, as they say, and start killing their colleagues. We have recently had a rash of mothers killing their children, and fathers murdering their families.

These are all signs of a culture that, while worth defending from external terrorists, may nevertheless be sick unto death.

Since we have lost the doctrine of vocation, in which people see their work in terms of love and service to their neighbors, work is depersonalized and stripped of meaning. As it becomes a matter of selfish fulfillment that often never comes and a contract of mutual exploitation, no wonder the workplace can drive some people insane. Now that abortion has become culturally acceptable, why should we be surprised when some parents kill their children after they are born?

Our cultural dysfunctions are evident in the Columbine massacre. A culture's art is meant to explore and express its highest ideals and insights. The Columbine killers were addicted to art forms-music, movies, and video games-that instead appealed to the thrill of violence and transgression, drawing out their brutality and their darkest impulses.

The purpose of education, both formal and informal, is, among other things, to inculturate children; that is, to give them not only the knowledge they need to make a living, but to form them into productive members of society. In their classes, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were praised for their rehearsal video, which their English teacher considered creative. They never seemed to have been disciplined, either by their school or their parents. In the meantime, their social life was an adult-free zone of cliques and subcultures bitterly antagonistic to each other, a suburban version of Lord of the Flies.

Now, it is certainly true that most teenagers who play &quotfirst-person shooter" video games, listen to music that hails murder and mayhem, and daydream about killing kids who are more popular than they are, do not act out their fantasies. Few unhappy workers actually take the step of killing co-workers. And most parents stop short of actually killing their kids.

But as our Lord says, what happens in our hearts-hate, contempt, lust, and evil imaginings of every kind-are sinful and, to Him, worthy of eternal punishment, even if we never have the nerve to actually carry them out (Matthew 5:21-30). The laws of God and man, accusing the conscience and threatening punishment, hold back the evil in our imagination and emotions, making civil society possible. But, spiritually, they are deadly sins. Today, the devil strides through the corridors of our culture-think of him wearing a black trench coat-killing souls.

And yet, Christ is fighting back. Since Columbine-and maybe, in some circles, because of Columbine-a revival seems to have taken place among American teenagers.

Researchers are baffled by the precipitous drop in teen pregnancy, which is now at the lowest rate since anyone has kept track. The rate of sexual activity is down, and virginity has become not just more prevalent but socially approved. All of this while the adult-run entertainment industry keeps barraging them with more and more temptation. Those baffled researchers have also found that three out of five teenagers are saying that their religion is either &quotpretty important" or &quotvery important" in their lives. And that religion, overwhelmingly, is Christianity.

A return to faith may be the best response to both internal and external terrorism.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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