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No Quick Fixes
Yocheved Golani

No Quick Fixes

© Yocheved Golani 1999

"Let us beware of applying our intellects to condoning evil or to making ourselves into 'a splendidly wicked' people. Twice this century has spawned overwhelming state terrorism -- in communism and in fascism. We cannot afford such blindness to history and such naiveté as to embrace the morality of the cool." -- Roger Shattuck, "When Evil Is Cool", Atlantic Monthly, January 1999.

In the spirit of Shattuck's sentiment, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has a simple lesson to share with the public which witnessed the epidemic of campus shootings presently recurring in the United States. Volokh graduated from UCLA at the top of his 1992 law school class, and clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the US Supreme Court. A constitutional and firearms law expert consulted by experts on both topics, Volokh insists that "irresponsible media coverage and over coverage" of shootings at American school campuses bears blame for the proliferation of a nightmare that now averages a recurrence every 100 days in the United States. This phenomenon has been recurring since the first such incident at Moses Lake, Oregon, in 1992.

In regard to the Columbine massacre, Volokh states, "The Colorado murderers violated about 20 laws, from existing gun control laws to the laws against murder. No gun control law would have prevented people with absolutely no moral restraints and absolutely no sense of self-preservation from committing these crimes."

In the April 29th, 1999, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Volokh's brother Alexander wrote, "It's no coincidence that school violence is mostly a problem of public schools. Private-school administrators live in a different world -- having a reputation for violence makes them lose students. Public schools often have captive clienteles, especially in inner cities, and they know it. Just as important, private schools also have more freedom to experiment. In private schools, disciplinary policies aren't civil liberties issues. Uniforms, locker searches, suspension, grade reduction -- all of these time-honored policies are harder for public schools to implement. Private schools get to have private rules. And freedom also means freedom to carry out grander experiments that would be unheard of in the public sector.

Professor Volokh concurs with his brother and his observations take on heightened relevance vis `a vis the issue of 'cooling-off periods' for firearms purchases, and public outcry over the tragedy in Colorado. "The Columbine killers spent a year planning their actions; no waiting period would have stopped them", Volokh continues. "Handgun bans prove equally ineffective: The murderers used shotguns and rifles at Columbine, not handguns." They had also planted bombs, which failed to detonate.

Volokh believes that the only law (if it worked) which could have prevented this tragedy, would have been "a total gun ban." He explains, "This, in fact, is why many gun control opponents oppose even modest, fairly reasonable restrictions on guns. Because they rightly realize that behind these 'reasonable restrictions' lurks the desire of many people to ban guns outright. But even if guns were totally banned, this crime still wouldn't have been prevented. There are over 200 million guns in America today; criminals will always be able to get their hands on them. We ban cocaine, but people still get it; we banned alcohol, but people still got it; the really committed criminals like Klebold and Harris wouldn't be stopped by restrictions such as these." This point was exemplified by thirteen-year-old Seth Trickey’s use of his father’s legally registered weapon, in Oklahoma.

"A gun ban would disarm only the law-abiding; it would do little to stop crime", says Volokh. "Sometimes trying to ban certain behavior, even out of the best of intentions, does more harm than good." He opposes President Clinton's proposal to ban the sale of handguns to persons under the age of 21 as a futile gesture. Volokh is also concerned about the role of gun ownership in stopping incipient crime. That concern is validated in countries such as Israel, where legal firearms serve a greater social purpose. The classic Jewish outlook dictates that it is far wiser to be prepared to rise in moral and physical self-defense before the enemy strikes. This philosophy is especially relevant to the innocent and to the unarmed.

"Moral freedom", Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches, "is almost a sine qua non of Jewish life. Without it "the whole Divine Law of morality with its demand for the most free-willed devotion of all one’s existence and purposes…is an ununderstandable proposition (Commentary to Bamidbar 19:22)." In his December issue of Crosscurrents, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, of L.A., comments on Hirsch’s observation that, "Hovering over this sense of freedom is the awesome specter of death, overwhelming not only in its certainty, but in its snuffing out of our sense of control of our essential selves. How free are we, if we ultimately lack even the freedom to simply be?" Pithily, he [Hirsch] wrote: "nowhere is there place for the moral "thou shalt" next to the physical "thou must."

Consonant with Hirsch's outlook, Volokh emphasizes that, "Gun control is not a gesture that addresses the issue. Attempts to ban guns are like Prohibition. If the law would work perfectly -- if banning guns or alcohol would have actually eliminated guns and alcohol -- then the laws might have been good ideas. But the world doesn't work that way."

Tim Kern, author of several articles and books and former national radio talk-show host of Talking Sense -- A Cup of Coffee For Your Mind broadcast from Kansas, and now broadcasting on the American Freedom Network, notes that " it is already illegal to sell handguns to those under 21, so the President is grandstanding." Kern points out the difference between the two efforts: "Prohibition correctly required a constitutional amendment. Modern efforts at banning other products -- tobacco, handguns -- ignore this constitutional requirement in the name of expediency."

Volokh points out that the flurry of school shootings began in late 1992, "even though there've been plenty of guns, plenty of violent video games, and plenty of bad parenting before that. What happened to trigger this? Perhaps it was the very fact of the media coverage of the first shooting. It's at least possible that many of these teenagers, spurred on by the attention -- even negative attention -- that the earlier killers had gotten, see this as their one chance at fame. If this suspicion is right, then perhaps the media might consider instituting a voluntary (not legally mandated) policy of not reporting the murderers names." Volokh doesn't claim this would be a perfect solution -- he thinks no such solutions exist here -- but suggests that such a policy might discourage at least some would-be killers who are in part motivated by a desire for a twisted sort of glory.

Volokh adds that there are no quick fixes to the problem, despite societal pressure to secure them. As it is, gun ownership is a flash point, and these bizarre school-yard crimes beg comprehension. The volatility of an emotionally charged public can easily limit the effectiveness if the law. In regard to the issues of safeguarding the public from the harmful affects of the poor or absent mental health and hygiene amongst perpetrators of these campus slaughters, he advises that responsible persons rely on facts and construct opinions from them. "Public policy has to be rational, addressing the issue as it is, not as we want it to be," says Volokh.

As Professor Volokh examines the futility of building an easy link between guns and shootings, Tim Kern, presently of Tulsa, Oklahoma, looks at another aspect: the reasons why the heinous acts are appealing to teens in the first place. "After a brief, though significant note that most, if not all, of these teenage shooters were treated with psychotropic drugs either during, or recently prior to, the shootings," Kern says, " it pays to explore the triggering events and thoughts of the teenage murderers. The high school teacher who left the classroom just last spring (after Columbine) says, 'Unlike most of the experts, I talk with the kids. And I listen' He has found that his students have plausible insights, and, drawing on their own experiences of classmates who have gone over the edge (in suicides, for instance), he discovered other common threads, threads which look to be critical, given the recent release of the Columbine killers' tapes."

Kern believes that the disaffected teens will gravitate toward evil as a means of making a point, after they have been shut out by peers and authority figures. He believes this to be true of private and parochial (including yeshivas), as well as public-school, students. Kern emphatically states, "After the Columbine killings, all we can do is make educated guesses, of course; but that is also our responsibility, and those of us whose insight is clearest have a greater responsibility."

"I have been told that 'the common thread running through these (school shootings) is the ready availability of guns'", Kern sighs. "True, to the extent that hit-and-run car accidents involve cars; but the real question is, 'why'? What accounts for the bombs in Columbine? Is that common thread the availability of pipes?"

In light of the limited information available about Seth Trickey, age 13, who allegedly pulled a 9mm semi-automatic, high-capacity handgun from his backpack and started shooting his Fort Gibson Middle School classmates on 12/6/99, Kern's point of view makes sense. Trickey had been described as ‘a good, quiet kid’. He had had a birthday party the week before. Police officers are re-interviewing the attendees as this article goes to press.

Kern wrote in his prescient op-ed piece to Kansas newspaper, the Witchita Eagle last April, "The problem is rage. The kids were so angry, so frustrated, that these irrational acts looked like the best option to them. Rage is the dangerous result of frustration, brought on by the kids' perception of injustice. From what I'm gathering, these kids were isolated and shunned by the cliques and jocks, but, unlike lots of other outcasts, these kids went the violent route. They weren't total outcasts; they had each other." Time Magazine's release of the "Columbine Tapes" supports Kern's theory about alienation and rage. The detailed planning and sardonic comments made on those tapes by Klebold and Harris betray warped cynicism and a convoluted thinking pattern that portrays psychological dysfunction.

"They may have been taught a modern equivalent of François, Duc de La Rochefoucauld's thought: ‘œIl n'appartient qu'aux grands hommes avoir de grands d'fauts (Only great men can have great faults)’. Of course ‘a great man’ was not intended to mean wonderful man, but a significant, or notable one. Notable men of history have been good -- or evil. Evil is easier, and we discount it as we perform it ourselves, as noted by Emerson (and recently demonstrated by President Clinton)". Kern's article continues, "After it starts, the process of becoming an outcast escalates. Even their legitimate arguments are ignored. They lose any chance of joining the mainstream. Their only identification comes from other disaffected kids (and their role models are evil, but successful people of history). They feel injustice, they try to work it out through 'proper channels', but they are spurned. As their frustration grows, they cast about for ways to get the attention they crave, and find that they can get a lot of attention by doing something outrageous, something dangerous, something fatal." Kern’s conclusion shares a resonance with Volokh’s.

Kern believes that kids in general are more frustrated than ever, due to increased regimentation, and less and less attention from increasingly-distant and -preoccupied adults: "Kids have fewer and fewer outlets for accomplishment or adventure, as our society evolves. Adventure? They need a permit to climb a rock. A pickup baseball game is out of the question; the parks are locked unless the users are organized, and their hormones must act up at the scheduled game time (besides, only the 'qualified' kids -- jocks -- have a shot at playing). Old-fashioned fisticuffs have been rightly banned, and fists are obsolete in an era of knives and guns and bombs. In the wake of Trickey's pathetic comment in Oklahoma about why he pulled the trigger of his father's legally acquired firearm, 'Because I'm crazy' makes a case for a sadly unfulfilled human being seeking validation."

"How about quiet inventiveness, as demonstrated by Thomas Edison, or the fictional Tom Swift? Our society doesn't allow access to lots of things that Tom could buy at the drugstore. Kids don't learn how to build, how to experiment; and when they try, the non-understanding adults (who don't know how to build anything, either, and equate inventiveness with some kind of dirty servile work) ridicule or prohibit the activity, driving that adventurous, inventive, and sometimes misdirected spirit underground, relaxing constraints of usefulness and goodness, and further isolating and infuriating the kids."

Kern notes that there are five stages: "...perception of the original 'injustice', an attempt to get redress through proper channels, rebuff from those channels, growing isolation and frustration, and then either depression (sometimes leading to suicide) or rage (sometimes leading to violent criminal activity). The progression is the same; the results vary from person to person, depending the severity of the perceived injustice, the extent of the frustration, and the individual's ability to cope with that frustration. Most kids cope. Some kids can't handle the isolation or depression, and hurt themselves. Others can't handle the internal rage, and become violent. The less physical kids will tend to use technology (bombs, weapons) to compensate for their inability to inflict damage with their fists -- and besides, they would not inflict too much damage with fists (especially against jocks!) and only get in trouble for fighting. Harris and Klebold, according to the tapes, had too much rage to settle for blacking someone's eye, and had no intention of living through their rampage. They needed to do something which would cost their lives; hence the bombs and guns)."

Less than a week after the Columbine shooting, Kern's article asked, "Where do the kids get their ideas? There are more places than ever to get instructions in bomb making; and pseudo-firearms training is available in video arcades, or at home on the Nintendo or PlayStation. Those games do not offer instruction on chemistry, however". He continues, "My students often ask about the 'bomb sites' on the Internet. I caution them that many of the recipes are bogus, that some of the formulations are designed to explode or burn violently and/or prematurely, and that, unless they are chemistry experts and could do it themselves without the help, they shouldn't ever trust such formulations. It takes away some of their zest for uninformed experimentation", Kern notes.

"One should note that chemistry geniuses are revered in our school, not shunned. Knowledge itself is not bad, and should not be censored; we must reward and channel, rather than discourage, the quest."

Kern says, "Let's go to the other side, look at the despicable act these kids committed. They were not all adults under the law, but they all understood exactly what they were planning, and what they did. Sad as their circumstances were to themselves, perversely understandable as they may be, they bear full responsibility for their acts. Lots of people -- teachers, fellow students (I don't include any student accomplices, who are criminals), and especially parents -- are complicit to one degree or another, but the ultimate, horrible responsibility falls squarely on the kids who built the bombs and pulled the triggers."

Kern concludes that, "We teachers need to be careful and observant. The beginning cause seems to universally be in the original injustice. Small slights can be misinterpreted; never assume that the student will 'get over it' without an apology. Be sensitive to each student's reaction to the examples you use, to the remarks you make. Ask questions outside of class, especially of the least-communicative students. Be attentive to what they see as problems, regardless of how trivial or unimportant they are to you. If you think you can provide good advice or a useful perspective, offer to give advice, but only if it’s requested (or unless there is danger involved for the student or others -- and then, you have additional action to take!)."

Professor Volokh concludes: "Before 1997, there wasn't any publicity about mass school shootings; then along comes the first publicized one, and everyone is talking about them. And as a result of all this publicity, maybe a few twisted teenagers (and all it takes is a few) decide that this is their way to escape their insignificance and be noticed. I'm not an expert on this, and I might be mistaken; but this is the only theory that seems to fit the facts. What we should do about it, though, is unclear; since I certainly wouldn't support any laws banning the media from reporting such shootings. 'Responsible media coverage' is easy to call for, but hard to mandate, especially when the public wants to know about these things, and rewards those media outlets which tell about them."

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