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Lessons from Columbine
Yitzchok Adlerstein

Lessons from Columbine
Yitzchok Adlerstein

What have we learned in the month since the Columbine High tragedy?

We found out that the problem will not simply go away, that others are prepared to act similarly. We learned that there are no simple solutions. We have made the acquaintance of a plethora of experts who have told us what does and does not cause teen violence.

"The proliferation of guns in America is sheer madness!" clamored critics in most other Western countries. "It wasn't us," responded the NRA, which promptly modified their byword to read, "Guns, pipe bombs, and high explosives don't kill people; people kill people."

"There is too much violence in movies and videos," the Feds concluded, and called the hoary sages of Hollywood together for a closed-door meeting. "Not us," they retorted with much sanctimony.

It is hard to imagine that anyone could have acted with greater insight than the local school board in Littleton in decisively addressing the underlying problem. They banned black trench coats.

Hollywood, however, tantalizes with its ability to exceed the capacity of our puny imaginations. So it is not surprising that the television critic of the Los Angeles Times produced the argument that delivers the coup de grace to media responsibility for the Littleton tragedy.

Just in case we might think that the innumerable acts of violence depicted on TV might tend to desensitize some people to the taking of human life, Howard Rosenberg (April 23) offered incontrovertible proof to the contrary. "There are probably ten depictions of goodness on TV for every one of hatred. Thus, if TV is the icon that some insist, it must be making us nicer, right? Or is hate a more powerful influence than love?"

Either, then, we should drop the notion that visually wallowing in the ugly impacts us, or we should make America a better place by airing more sitcoms. Tough choice.

Just to make sure we get the message, Rosenberg retooled the argument a week and a half later, (May 3) responding to the popular impression that Leonardo DiCaprio's blowing away a high school in "The Basketball Diaries" might somehow be implicated at Columbine High.

"Why is DiCaprio's dreamlike murder binge in that relatively obscure 1995 film thought by some to have driven Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold to commit a massacre, when DiCaprio's selfless heroism in the hugely watched "Titanic" is not credited for inspiring young Americans toward righteous acts on behalf of others?"

We can be pretty sure that Rosenberg was not studying the Talmud during all those station breaks. Pity. He missed a good deal of Jewish insight.

In a cryptic passage, the Talmud (Pesachim 112B ) finds it important to teach us the proper motivational calls to direct at animals and others in our employ. "The cry for an ox is hen hen; for a lion - zeh zeh; for a camel - da da; for the men who pull barges - ilni hiya hela v'hiluk hulya."

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk offers a remarkable explanation (Meshech Chochmah to Exodus 12:21). Our inner needs roughly fall into two categories, he says. Some of these we share with the animal world: desires to eat, drink, survive. These often take forms that are not so pretty. We may all in fact have tendencies to extreme aggression. We also have higher-level urges, though, leanings towards behavior that can be appreciated only by thinking, elevated beings.

The lower drives respond to simplicity and repetition. Like the ox- or donkey-driver, we will get the ear of the animal within us by a mantra-like rehashing of a small sound-bite. Frequent reminders of a clever but brief aphorism might do the trick.

The higher-order drives require higher-order appeal. Simple words and images don't make the grade. Arguments have to be subtle, persuasive, and nuanced. A close-up of a slice of chocolate mousse may be enough to make us salivate; a picture of starving tribesmen in Africa is usually insufficient to get us to jump up and enlist in the Peace Corps.

"Is hate a more powerful influence than love?" Not more powerful - just very different. Hatred is base and primitive, and therefore excitable through more primitive means. You can stir it up through repetitive exposure. The need to lavish love upon others, however, has to be carefully taught and nurtured.

At the root of this, of course, is Judaism's understanding of good and evil. Too many believe that if you remove the evil within man, you are left with good. Various misshapen notions contribute to this mistake. Some believe that Man is essentially good, and will act accordingly if freed from infatuation with evil. Others believe that good is nothing more than the absence of its negation. Both of these positions are foreign to Judaism.

Judaism teaches that Man is neither good nor evil. He stands poised between them. The urge towards evil doesn't require much insight. It is part of his birthright, indeed shared with lower species. Striving to do good, however, comes with maturity, insight and intelligence. That is why we don't hold a child responsible for any misdeed whatsoever until the age of bar- or bat-mitzvah. It takes time for understanding to fully catch up with instinct.

This explains both the complexity of Jewish practice, and its vision of human change. As difficult as it is to loosen the stranglehold of evil, it is that much harder to make people good. Judaism's solution comes in two parts. You must first guard against the ever-present, insidious threat of evil. You make a point of rejecting even symbols of the values you eschew. (While others held the Decalogue to be the working model of an elevated society, Jews saw it as only a beginning, an introduction to the real work ahead. It was never enough to proclaim the value of human life, and forbid murder. To make the prohibition work, you had to breed a revulsion to senseless killing. Animals that nourished themselves by devouring others were banned from our plates by the laws of kashrut. When children studied these laws, they learned that it is a good thing to banish the ugly and unseemly, rather than bring it into the family room after dinner.)

The second part is more difficult. Goodness does not rush in to fill the vacuum left by receding evil. You must work to create it through a march of structured, programmed activities that impress its values upon you. Not once a week, not once a day, but constantly.

Rosenberg, then, is wrong on two counts. Coarse stimulation does work on a primitive level, while goodness requires sophistication. The imagery of television - and video games, and movies - is a potent way to tickle and excite our baser drives. Surely it is not the only contributor to the escalation of evil. But it is silly to dismiss its effect.

Its most harmful consequence, though, may have little to do with its content. If Judaism is correct - if good is created laboriously, through doing good deeds - then the hours of passivity spent in front of the television amount to an intolerable drain on quality time that could be used for this purpose.

There will be more Littletons until we take the pursuit of goodness seriously. While others may have to scrounge around a bit to find a collection of goodness exercises, we Jews know exactly what they are called, and where to find them. The word "mitzvah" long ago entered the lexicon of the English-speaking public.

Perhaps, for the sake of our children, it is time that it also became an agenda item.

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