Did we think we would get away with it?
In the coming days and weeks we will hear much discussion about how video games, television shows, and the movies have contributed to the rising tide of violence that seems to be engulfing American society. Such talk has already begun. I have no wish to challenge or dismiss a substantial and painstaking body of research that explores the influence of a violent popular culture on impressionable, and perhaps unhealthy, young minds. But it is not, to invoke a fashionable cliché, the “culture of violence” that threatens us. It is, rather, the breakdown of civilization and the growing prevalence of barbarism, the causes of which lie in the past.
Did the heirs to Western civilization in the twentieth century think that they could murder hundreds of millions of men, women, and children and then to expect that their descendants would not also find themselves splattered with blood? We did not get away with it, even though Americans were spared the worst. To be sure, much that spews forth from television, the movies, talk radio, video games, music, and the arts is relentlessly vulgar. Yet, the purges, the world wars, and the Holocaust coarsened our souls, corrupting our manners, morals, values, and standards of judgment. And it has taken the massacre of school children at last to remind us that the Founding Fathers of the United States saw it as their moral duty to bring civilization to the New World, which, in their view, was more important even than preserving it in the Old. What, I wonder, would they think of their handiwork now?
We must choose between barbarism and civilization. We must, as W. H. Auden put it, either love each other or die. Today, many of our fellow citizens, and perhaps especially our young people, have lost, or never possessed, the restraint and compassion essential to civilized life. Not surprisingly, they have developed a death wish. They perhaps hope that the end will come soon, and even in some instances they attempt to bring it about, for they have lost the ability to cope with life. They have become what the southern essayist Richard Weaver once called “moral idiots,” those incapable of responding to the challenges of being human. Heartless and indifferent, they live not immorally but amorally, without the capacity to tell good from evil or even to measure the extent of their depravity. They may find their progenitor in another young man wielding a pistol, who, nearly a century ago, initiated the ordeal that in the end turned the twentieth century into a charnel house.
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