"So what," I asked my host for Sunday dinner, "was the biggest change you saw in student behavior during your 30 years with the police department?"
Dan Stearns, a deacon in his church who had just retired from the local police force, surprised me with the promptness, the directness, and the urgency of his answer. No stalling, no searching for words. "It's their acceptance of violence," he said. "It's part of who they are. People've always had fights-but it's at a new level. Sometimes I just can't believe that human beings can behave like they do toward each other."
My Sunday dinner was sandwiched between two remarkable weeks. Just behind us was the week that had found the nation preoccupied with the firing of Don Imus, a man who had risen to stardom precisely because he had never been able to control his violent mouth. Just ahead-though none of us knew it then, of course-was the week that would find the same nation consumed with yet another campus massacre, trying desperately to understand how a young man could so totally lose control of his natural human instincts.
So my host's comments about college students and violence weren't in response to the terrible events at Virginia Tech University; they actually predated the massacre by 20 hours or so. And our conversation was distantly removed from Blacksburg, Va., the site of the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States. Stearns had instead for three decades been on the police force of Carbondale, Ill., home of Southern Illinois University, and about 600 miles west of Virginia Tech. So in a very real sense, there was hardly any connection at all between our Sunday dinner conversation and what was soon to happen in Blacksburg.
Yet in another sense, the connection was vivid and profound. For Stearns is exactly on target: Violence has become a way of life for students in America-and even for students in seemingly out-of-the-way and unlikely places like Blacksburg, Va., and Carbondale, Ill. Students have come to believe that they can control that violence-that they can, at will, dial it into or dial it out of their lives just as they please. And they have come to believe it because that is what we as a society have taught them.
American students have heard this for a generation and more on a dozen different fronts. In ever-increasing intensity, our movie and television industries have cranked up both the kinds and the volume of what is said to be permissible violence. Don Imus and his violent vocabulary may have been temporarily silenced, but the nation's music industry remains saturated with lyrics that make no effort to hide the hideous nature of their subject matter. The practice of abortion-typically (and understandably) highest in cities and counties occupied by big state universities-argues powerfully to every participant that the taking of a tiny human life is just fine so long as it's accomplished quietly, antiseptically, and within the law.
So the message goes out: Yes, you can play with violence. You can constantly extend the borders of the game. You're in charge. Don't worry.
Don't worry, that is, until another Blacksburg comes along. Then the words of a just-retired police officer from another university town halfway across the country might haunt you a little: "It's their acceptance of violence. . . . It's at a new level."
No one intended that it go quite this far, of course. No one guessed it would get this out of control. Everyone said we could monitor things as we went along, and then quiet things down when they began to get out of hand. We really did think we could play with fire and not get burnt.
On the Sunday between those two weeks, editorialists and commentators were quietly congratulating the nation that Don Imus' kind of violence had been dealt with. A few days later, I sense, they weren't quite so sure.