When I read a story like this -- a man charges into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, orders teachers and boys to leave, ties up girls aged 6 to 11 and starts shooting them in the head -- and then add it to all the other recent stories of women being attacked and sometimes killed for their fetuses or babies -- it makes me wonder whether people are getting worse. It is difficult to imagine such a degree of evil.
Are People Getting Worse?
To be sure, evils of every stripe have been committed throughout human history. And yet I wonder whether the increasing anonymity of daily life, combined with our highly secularized world -- one that largely forbids any discussion of religion in all public schools and most workplaces -- could be contributing to this appalling degree of depravity among some individuals.
Anonymity is a factor too. With America's population about to reach 300 million, it is easy to get lost in a crowd. It's even easier to stop caring very much about the well-being of the people around you.
There may be other factors as well. In this age of instant global communication, few acts of extreme violence escape the wide net of the news. If ignorance was ever bliss, those days are gone.
Instant communication also may be leading to more copycat crimes. It is odd, and perhaps not coincidental, that this attack on Amish girls follows within less than a week the hostage taking of girls and killing of one of them in Colorado on September 27, 2006. One man "lowers the bar" for behavior -- attacking and killing school girls only -- and another man follows within a week.
But when it comes to the question of whether people are getting worse, perhaps it would be more productive to change the question. Whether or not people are getting worse, what to do about it?
We Need More Religious Training
Religious training is one partial solution. We don't need to turn public schools into Bible study classes, but God should at least be mentioned in the classroom and workplace from time to time. God is mentioned on our currency; he certainly should not be ignored completely throughout the school day.
The world's major religions encourage and even require one to acknowledge a higher power than one's own immediate gratification. If they are any good, religions also inspire people to decent behavior. The total blackout on even mentioning religion in schools leaves kids in a moral vacuum and has the potential to undermine the religious training children receive elsewhere.
Starting in elementary school, children should receive at least a few hours of training about the fundamental beliefs of most of the world's major religions, with more emphasis put on the religions that are most widely observed in the country and in the world at the time. If 80% of Americans are Christian, then Christianity should get at least a little more emphasis than Judaism or Islam, each of which is observed by less than 1% of Americans. Schools don't need to teach religion as such, but "God" should not be a forbidden word and prayer should not be reserved for the moment when a pop quiz is announced or the aftermath of a school shooting.
Parents also need to make sure that their children attend Sunday school or other appropriate religious education. Kids need to be reminded at least once a week, and preferably several times a day, that there is a power higher than themselves and that being a decent person matters.
We Need Character Education in Schools
Another partial solution is secular character and values education in all schools. Some schools, my daughter's included, are putting greater emphasis on character education, making it a part of their curriculum. That certainly cannot hurt and may help.
If your school does not have a basic values curriculum such as a teaching of the "six pillars of character" starting in the early years of school, ask why not and urge that such training be integrated into the curriculum. It need not cost anything, nor need it take any time from the core curriculum. Children learning to write need topics anyway. One such topic can be to write about how they demonstrate one of the traits of good character. Children learning history can find a famous character and learn what was admirable about them. The opportunities are endless; they should be grasped.
The Killers: Study, Medicate, Lock Up
There may be other factors too. We need to closely at look at the killers, unpleasant though that may be. What, besides a lack of adequate character training, brought them to the level of depravity at which they were willing to harm and kill other human beings without mercy? As adults, were they treated too leniently by the criminal justice system or the mental health system? If we are not locking people up where they belong, or not locking them up long enough, it's time to get more serious.
We Need Defensive Weapons in Schools
Given this pattern that is developing of attacks on schools, I believe it is time to make sure that every school has at least two on-campus security officers, principals, or teachers with access to a locked up, but loaded, weapon. Those individuals should be carefully screened and rechecked annually to make sure that they are not themselves mentally unbalanced, depressed, or of questionable judgment, and they must be trained to make sure that they can use their weapon effectively if needed. This would also provide protection in event of a terrorist attack on a school like that which happened in Beslan, Russia.
The availability of 911 calls and local police officers is not an adequate substitute. As this Amish school shooting demonstrates, too many can be killed before off-campus help arrives.
Scoff if you wish, or raise questions about how to ensure that a firearm isn't used inappropriately or doesn't fall into the wrong hands -- but the fact that schools are known to be weapon-free zones is surely a factor in this developing pattern of violence targeting children and teachers. By definition, anybody who preys on schoolchildren is looking for an easy target.
Who Is Ultimately Responsible -- And What We Must Do
We will never prevent every act of violence, nor does the responsibility lie primarily with us to do so. The person who does evil is the one responsible for that evil, and nobody should fall into the trap of blaming "society" or the government first when something like this happens.
That being said, for our own mutual protection, we should take another look at what we can do to make this kind of violence less likely to happen or less likely to succeed when it does happen. If we can address these questions wisely and well and make some course corrections, we will save innocent lives.
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