The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


School Shootings and Social Disintegration

Without a doubt, it is possible to identify a multitude of causes for the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, no single one of which could be called THE cause. In addition to causes which actually contributed to the disastrous event, there are accompanying conditions, often mistaken for causes, but which have no genuine causal connection to the event. In the case of the Littleton massacre, it is possible to identify at least four significant causes, which may be viewed as Incitements, as Lack of Restraints, as Ready Means, and as Blue Prints. Incitements are the immediate provocations. The Lack of Restraints refer to personal and social factors that, if present, would prevent the perpetrators from taking action. The Ready Means are the firearms and explosives available and used for carrying out the massacre. And the Blue Prints are urgings, directions, and even training available in the media that provide guidance for how the massacre might be conducted. These will be examined in greater detail below.

Like a putrescent eruption on a human body, the events in Littleton indicate a corrupt and pervasive condition in our society which is not manifest everywhere, but whose basic poison underlies our whole nation. It is a mistake, however, to focus too much on the accompanying conditions and on the individuals who acted out this tragedy, their peculiar dress, habits, and behavior, just like it would be of little value in assessing a diseased bodily condition to note whether the putrid eruption is oozing blood or oozing pus. The rot is much deeper than the superficial appearance, and that is where the real problem lies and where our attention should be focused if we are to gain some perspective on this tragedy.

It would be a huge mistake to search for a single cause. Any attempt to do so only elicits protestations showing how the same cause exists elsewhere, but has not led to a school shooting. And this is correct. Each cause we shall examine here exists throughout our society without erupting in a shooting. But it is when they all come together, and do that intensely, that the chances for an explosive reaction are greatly multiplied. Moreover, the shootings that have occurred in various places across the country suggest that, although all the elements are present to one degree or another, one element may figure in more prominently at one place than it does at another. Therefore, we will focus especially on the events at Littleton.

We tend to resist any explanations of a terrible event that may seem to serve as some kind of valid reason or justification for the event, but there is a difference between justification and understanding. Our purpose here is not to justify, but to understand the significant factors that resulted in this terrible event. Two wrongs do not make a right, but many people act as if they do, and if the first of those wrongs was instrumental in provoking the second, then we are close to understanding the causes of the second, even if that cause is not a justification.

The fact is, the two boys responsible for this event and others of their associates were subjected to constant taunts and harassment. They were considered outcasts, and were picked on by the school "jocks." As these facts have been brought out, the internet has been filled with stories from respectable members of society who were treated in the same way when in high school. These are not inner-city schools, but mostly white high schools in wealthy suburbs where the "jocks" -- the school athletes -- dispense a reign of terror upon other students who may be smarter, more sensitive and artistic, but who are also smaller and less physically powerful than their tormentors. It is unthinkable that this kind of tyranny should go on in a free society, yet it is happening daily in high schools throughout this country and is condoned by the very people who are supposed to be instilling in our students respect for law, for justice, and for the rights of others.

What do school administrators, teachers and coaches do about this injustice? NOTHING! In fact, some of them even encourage this brutalizing and terrorizing of the "nerds," because they feel it makes the "jocks" more aggressive and better athletes, and in many high schools, the athletic program is obviously more important than the academic program, and receives greater attention and funds. How could the victims of this kind of terror feel anything other than anger and frustration? And if the students respond violently to this reign of terror, these same administrators are shocked, and decry the evil that resides in man's soul that would lead some students to resort to violence against these honored members of the student body.

Although this is not the sole explanation of school violence -- there is no single explanation -- it is surely one of the most important elements. It represents a breakdown in the school's administrative control, and a failure of those in authority to protect students from tyranny. Such irresponsible actions by school administrators indicate a neglect of the duty that every form of governance owes to those over whom they have jurisdiction. As Jefferson wrote:

    "[It is the obligation] of every government to yield protection to their citizens as the consideration of their obedience." --Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:172

And this principle has application beyond elected government institutions. When teachers and administrators, who are in the role of governing authorities, look the other way while some kids are being tyrannized, they have abandoned their responsibility "to yield protection to their" students "as the consideration of their obedience." They have permitted injustice to prevail, and they should not be surprised if some students subjected to such tyranny react violently. In the political realm, we recognize that violent resistance to tyranny is not entirely unnatural. After all, Jefferson's own motto was:

    "Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." --Thomas Jefferson: his motto.

This cannot be used to justify murders that are out of all proportion to the injuries inflicted, of course; but it is pointed out to indicate the explosive kinds of reactions that tyranny invokes. Under certain circumstances, and where oppression creates necessity, violent resistance is entirely justified, as it was with the events leading up to the American Revolution. Thus, in a sense, the failure of teachers and administrators to yield protection creates a situation where those oppressed may be driven to some kind of violence, or else accept meekly and submissively the tyranny being meted out to them. When we are dealing with tyranny, we are dealing with forces that typically evoke violent reactions. When the impetus to resist tyranny is present, the response is often not tempered by maturity and sound judgment, especially not in children, and may build over time and become entirely irrational. When other factors are present in combination with the injustice of brutality, tyranny may easily result in an explosive reaction similar to that which occurred in Littleton.

This lack of administrative responsibility has not always been as it is now. One of the advantages of being an older person like myself is that you have lived in different times, and have experienced different social norms against which you can compare the present. When I was a kid, there was, of course, a tendency for school-yard bullies to tyrannize younger kids, and some schools were worse than others in this respect. But teachers and principals were there to stand up to the bullies, and to knock them into line. And often the knock was a physical one, too. They would not look the other way when a complaint was lodged. They considered it part of their job to maintain a decent environment for all students, and they were not afraid to intervene to stop school bullies.

Apparently, not so today. Any teacher who strikes a student with a ruler -- a common occurence in my day -- will probably lose their job and face a lawsuit. But whacking a student with a ruler is not necessary. There are other forms of punishment that can be just as effective. Often nothing more is necessary than the simple exercise of authority: merely saying the magic words, "Stop that! We will not tolerate that!" Instead, the usual response today is to punish the victim for making a disturbance with his resistance, or for making a threat against the bully. The school administrators seem afraid to confront the bully themselves, or are afraid that the appropriate punishment might hurt the athletic program.

Admittedly, my high school experiences occurred in a Jesuit institution, and as has been pointed out, none of the school shootings have occurred in Catholic schools. The discipline is much more strict in those schools than in public schools. But rather than explaining away the difference, that only emphasizes the point being made: the need is for a strict policy of fairness and respect for the person of other students, carefully enforced by the school administration. If this is what makes the difference, why need we look any further for causes?

The truth is, the public school teachers and administrators can be just as despicable as the tyrannizing jocks that are their charges. Many don't even want the jocks to stop! Andrew Hudgins, in a recent N.Y. Times op-ed piece, reported that

    "The coaches... liked players to be aggressive on and off the field. A football player once told me that one coach drove him and his friends to the park on at least two Sunday afternoons and watched as they attacked groups of "hippies" having picnics."

Hudgins relates many other acts of tyranny that the "jocks" pursued with impunity. In their indifference to the violation of the rights of weaker students by the "jocks," irresponsible school administrators probably tell themselves that the tyrannizing of students is an insignificant thing: just some athletes having a little fun. But this is a terribly humiliating and demeaning experience for those forced to undergo it. If they accept it without suitable resistance, the victims are forced to compromise their integrity, their own sense of decency and self-worth. Any person with any sense of self-respect at all is bound to resent the injustice of all this, and the resentment has a way of growing and gnawing at a person's consciousness. Add to that some of the other factors examined below, and you have a situation that is almost surely bound to end in violence and tragedy.

The tyranny in the high schools has no doubt been growing since the more than fifty years ago when I attended high school. High school coaches are invariably former "jocks" themselves, and they will tend to respond with the same permissiveness which they received, perhaps even allowing things to go further. It is often asserted that participation in athletics builds character, and no doubt it does build a sense of teamwork, leadership and discipline, plus a competitive spirit. But unless some administrators think that injustice, brutality, no sense of decency, and a disrespect for the rights of others are also aspects of character, we must begin to question whether the athletic programs, as administered, are fulfilling the aim of building character. After all, criminal gangs also build a sense of teamwork, leadership and discipline.

It is likely that we can expect further explosive reactions unless there is an end to this sort of thing. High school athletic programs have assumed a place that is entirely out of proportion when they dominate the whole educational program and corrupt the school's commitment to the respect for human rights. What is the meaning of a Free Society if its institutions have the license to violate the rights of individuals with abandon? Equal rights are being asserted by all kinds of previously injured groups, and high school students are fully capable of recognizing the extent to which their own rights are being violated with official sanction.

    No Restraints:
    Lack of Character Development

Given this brutality, these humiliating experiences, this frustration at school teachers and administrators who refuse to intervene and, if anything, lend encouragement to such terrorism, the wonder is not that there are violent reactions, but that there have not been more of them! What is it that causes some students to endure brutality and not react to it violently? What makes some students rise above their oppressors and refuse to take vengeance for the injustice to which they are subjected?

Part of it undoubtedly is the very weakness that the "jocks" exploit. In truth, most of these student victims are indeed incapable of offering physical resistance. Often they are mere children, and their tormentors are the physical equivalent of grown men. If they were to attempt to offer real resistance, these grown men would then do them really serious injury. And, of course, it is at such a point that the school administrators will finally intervene -- and punish the victim! So, the question naturally arises, what is it that prevents most students from reacting as the two students at Columbine High School reacted?

The difference is a matter of the "development of character" -- a concept that seems to be foreign to our modern views of personhood. The character you manage to develop determines how you will respond to the adversities of life. In fact, the essence of character and morality is how a person responds to injury and adversity, that is why adversity tends to develop character -- or drown it finally. To well-developed personalities, the experience of tyranny makes them resolve never to exercise such tyranny over another and to oppose tyranny of any kind, in any place. This is the response of a well-developed character to the lack of character on the part of others. To the less-developed personality, those same experiences of brutality make them want to get revenge, to respond with hatred and violence, to do injury to their tormentors. Of course, we all will probably experience the feelings associated with a less-developed personality; but it is our character that determines whether we will act on those feelings or not. And to make matters worse, all the lessons being drilled into young kids by all the violence in movies, TV, video games, etc., is almost invariably to seek revenge, to opt for the violent solution. Why, then, are we so surprised when some students act in accordance with the lessons they have been so consistently taught?

Those with a poorly developed character do not think in terms of keeping themselves on a correct path, even though confronted with injustice and brutality. Hatred pervades their personality, and they frequently move into racism, white supremacy, and the admiration of brutal leaders of the past, such as Adolph Hitler. They tend to group together with others of like minds, and this lends support to their injured sense of self-esteem, but it also reinforces the hatred and desire for revenge that is common to them all.

Nevertheless, given this lack of a developed character in the students who respond violently to ostracism, brutality, and injustice, we are compelled to ask, Why have these students failed to develop morally? What was lacking in their lives that turned them down a path of hatred, isolation, and revenge?

To answer precisely in this particular situation would require a study of the students, their family life and the influences that shaped, or failed to shape, them. Apparently, there was little parental supervision. Reportedly, the students were building pipe bombs at home in their basement for a year before the tragedy, and presumably the parents were unaware of it. The teenage years are difficult, and parents often have minimal contact and communication with their children. It has been reported that the parents of one of the students, Dylan Klebold, were hardworking, intelligent, and did not believe in violence or guns. But in the absence of adequate communication between parents and child, the moral principles of the parents have little chance of being transferred to the child. It is in the interrelationship between parent and child that moral principles are illustrated and conveyed.

Essential to the development of character is teaching young people how to respond to injury, to bullies, to injustice. This training comes almost invariably from older, mature persons, and may happen at home, at church, or in school. We have already seen that the students were neglected at home, and ostracized at school. Church rarely has any important influence unless it is reinforced at home. Any instruction whatsoever the students may have received at school could only have been experienced as an meaningless contradiction, because the school was the instigator and protector of injustice. So we can be almost certain that the two students responsible for the massacre had little moral training and little chance to develop their character in a constructive way. What training they received was from their peers, who were as inexperienced and immature as they were, and would only reinforce the hatred and revenge they already felt. Persons with good self-esteem, with a well-developed moral character, find ways to deal with difficult situations. Though thoughts of revenge doubtless will pass through their minds, they search for better ways of handling difficult situations. But young people who lack self-esteem, who have minimal moral training, when confronted by such difficult situations, feel isolated and alone and resentful. They have no guidelines to fall back upon. Their anger and resentment builds, and they become more likely to resort to violence.

Although schools can provide some moral training, and governments can assure that some minimal level of morality be maintained in society, neither of those institutions can compare to the importance of parents in guiding their children in ways to deal with life's problems. Not everything can be handled at the level of legal restriction. Parents can and should be more restrictive on what kinds of entertainment young kids enjoy than the government ever can. Kids should be taught that just because something is available doesn't mean that it should be indulged, and there is no one that can put that message over better or more effectively than parents.

    Ready Means:
    Easy Access to Weapons

"The gun made me do it," might be a cute paraphrase of Flip Wilson, but it does not reveal any great truth about what incites a human being to action. It is not the weapon that makes individuals do anything. This is what is so frustrating to gun buffs. They know that guns are used in sport, and that the use of the gun is not evil in itself. Indeed, Jefferson recommended the use of the gun for exercise.

    "A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks." --Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 1785. ME 5:85

It is not the culture of the gun that is our problem, but the culture of killing. Guns just happen to be the most efficient way to kill, and the preferred instrumentality in real life and in violent and dramatic TV and movies. How much less dramatic is the knife and especially poison, so that in their constant search for more and more violent effect, creators of entertainment prefer the gun and explosives.

Having said that, however, it is clear that some reasonable amount of gun regulation is called for, and possibly some reasonable control over the culture of killing. Of course, those who oppose all gun control legislation whatsoever assert that "Laws do not curb the lawless," but only hamper and restrict the law abiding. But because laws do not curb the lawless, shall we then have no laws? That attitude is a symptom of the break down of law and order in our society. Laws are NOT just for law-abiding citizens. They outline the standards of behavior and morality that a society sets for itself, and say to all: This is where we draw the line; these are the limits we wish to set upon ourselves. Our problem today is, the whole criminal legal system is in a shambles, mostly created by the legal system itself as it looks for short-cuts and political solutions to the problem of crime. Laws lose their effect when their enforcement is uncertain, when the police themselves so frequently break the law.

Proper laws and regulations are the hallmark of a civilized society. Precisely what that should be, may be difficult to determine in specific cases. Too often we focus on the superficial manifestations, instead of concentrating on the real problems that are the source of behavior. The guns, etc., are just the supplementary hardware. Hoping to control gun violence by gun control legislation would be like fighting lynching by outlawing rope. It's not the rope, but the misguided people who use the rope. Now, if there were a situation where every light pole had a hangman's noose on it at the ready, where songs extolled the use of the hangman's rope to eliminate undesirables who will only go free if brought to trial, where little kids received hangman's nooses as toys, then you might say that we had a dangerous obsession with "rope culture." In other words, there are limits beyond which the obsession with killing, whatever the instruments, becomes pathological. But the means of killing, in and of themselves, are not the cause of problems.

What we need to do, then, is REGULATE, not ban. And we should regulate, if possible, in such a way that the purpose of the Right to Bear Arms will be protected, while the people themselves will be safe from any excessive misuse of firearms. That is a principle that is reasonable in a free society, whatever the results to which it leads. The original purpose of the Second Amendment was, of course, to assure that the people should be able to protect their homeland from invasion, and their freedom from a despotic government. That is why the Second Amendment assures to the people that they will be able to possess arms, which in turn permits the formation of a well-regulated militia. Although there are other justifications for individuals possessing arms, those are not addressed, or are included under the right that is identified. If we read the 2nd Amendment along with the 10th, we realize that the right to keep and bear arms is a power reserved to the people themselves, which is neither "delegated to the United States by the Constitution," nor is it "reserved to the States." It is a right of the people. Thus, the people possessing arms means that the people could throw together a militia organization as needed in the face of any emergency in order to protect themselves. This is the best assurance for "the security of a free State."

So, what kind of regulation might there be? Surely young children, mental patients, and felons, should be prevented from possessing firearms, and adults who give or allow such persons firearms should be held fully responsible. Certainly, law-abiding adults should not be prevented from owning firearms. Whether we should go beyond such minimal regulations is questionable, however.

It may be that the Second Amendment needs to be re-written. The real protection afforded by the Second Amendment was for the people of a state to have the arms necessary to form a militia and to defend themselves against any threats to their peace and security. That purpose is a little out of date today. We do not have armed militias consisting of free citizens who can be called upon to defend their homeland. The kinds of weaponry have changed in the last 200 years, and it serves no rational purpose for ordinary citizens to have certain kinds of automatic weapons, if they are not going to be a part of a militia. Semiautomatic handguns in the hands of individual citizens, such as were used at Columbine High School, therefore serve no useful and necessary purpose for civil defense. The whole concept of the right of a citizen to possess firearms needs to be reconsidered, redefined, and asserted anew.

    Blue Prints:
    Training for the Culture of Violence

We have examined motives and the lack of restraints leading up to the massacre. We have considered the ready means available to children for committing mass murders. Now we must examine the patterns of violence that served as a kind of blueprint for the shootings. Notice that not one of these elements acting alone is sufficient in itself to produce the kind of tragedy that occurred in Littleton. But all four working together can create a combination that makes that kind of incident more likely, if not inevitable.

There exists a subculture of violence that has pervaded our society, and that instructs and encourages young people in the commission of unlawful acts. This Trojan Horse, this undermining force in our society, is allowed to exist and to continue its work of social disintegration under the guise of the very freedom that makes our society possible. Freedom of Speech, so necessary in order to foster the open criticism of government and the free flow of information needed for social progress, is demanded for the pernicious propaganda that would destroy society itself. Closely connected to the culture of killing, whose results we have been witnessing, are those facets of entertainment that encourage and promote the use of guns in street violence. And this culture of violence, this enemy of the people and of the free society they have created for themselves, demands protection for its poison under the false idea that Freedom of Speech is an absolute right, subject to no restriction whatever on its content.

Those who would place great restrictions on the ownership of guns as guaranteed by the Second Amendment, are often the very same persons who scream the loudest at any suggestion that there be any restrictions on the free expression guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yet, in every recent school shooting, those kids responsible for the violence have been heavily involved in the kinds of music with lyrics that encourage and promote the kinds of violence they create. To suggest that this is purely entertainment and has no effect upon behavior is absurd. It is to ignore the long history of the spoken word in the form of propaganda and advertisement that has always been employed to alter people's behavior.

The student who shot into the prayer group in Kentucky reportedly had never fired an actual weapon, yet he displayed a kind of expertise and accuracy that was remarkable. He had much experience with video games, and his shooting technique revealed firing skills that are peculiar to such games, i.e., moving from one target to another without waiting to see what effect a given shot had. All of this suggests that these violent video games are indeed training grounds for killers. Using them for training marines may be appropriate; but making them readily available for molding young children is insanity.

It is as if these pernicious forces have discovered our Achilles Heel. They are able to undermine our youth and our society, and we are powerless to do anything about it, out of some mindlessly strict adherence to a rule that was never intended to be absolute. Indeed, the very principles of our free society are being used in order to destroy our society from within.

But the protection of socially destructive speech is a foolish extension of the principle of free speech. It has long been recognized that there is no absolute protection of speech, that the First Amendment does not allow a person to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theatre when there is no fire. We are speaking of the difference between liberty and license. Liberty is always limited by the equal rights of others, because liberty not so limited is license.

The truth is, the principle of not yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre was first enunciated as part of a prosecution that was actually a violation of speech that should have been protected. It was used in an attempt to silence Eugene V. Debs and his protestation against this nation's entry into World War I. This was the very kind of speech that the First Amendment was designed to protect, and it was a disgrace that such a trial ever occurred. It may be that the perversion of the law in that instance has acted to preempt a more rational rule for restricting speech that might otherwise have been formulated.

The purpose of the First Amendment was to assure that criticism and information about government and society should circulate freely -- information that some despots would want to suppress in order to hold the people in subjection. The idea that socially destructive propaganda should be protected out of some mindless adherence to "free speech" is to turn the whole idea of liberty on its head. Of course, the problem with limitations arises, because one person's socially destructive propaganda is another person's valid criticism. But in the matters under discussion, this question does not really arise. We are dealing with things that no rational person would describe as valid social criticism, and it is with such extremes that such limitations must be relegated.

Some respond, "There's no reasonable way to trim liberty." That is pure nonsense. Rightful liberty is always trimmed by the equal rights of others, by the rights of a whole nation. It is trimmed by what a society agrees as necessary and desirable for its own survival -- the protection of their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Like Jefferson says,

    "Of liberty I would say that, in the whole plenitude of its extent, it is unobstructed action according to our will. But rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add 'within the limits of the law,' because law is often but the tyrant's will, and always so when it violates the right of an individual." --Thomas Jefferson to Isaac H. Tiffany, 1819.

Note that limits solely 'within the limits of the law' are not enough to justify such limits to liberty, because any tyrant can pass a law. Liberty is rightfully limited only by the equal rights of others. Thus, the law limiting rights is only justified when it protects others in their rights. If Free Speech threatens the equal rights of others, then it can be limited to prevent that. That is the true basis of the "shouting fire in a crowded theatre" theory -- it violates the rights of everyone in there.

The idea that there is an absolute right to free speech, and that anything goes, is an erroneous idea that has crept into constitutional law. For one thing, the restrictions in the First Amendment were directed at the National government, and NOT at the states. The intention was to leave all restrictions up to the states, and to insure that no general restrictions on speech of any kind should come from the central governmental authority, which was greatly feared by all. Restrictions related to libel, etc., were left up to the states. As Jefferson explained so clearly:

    "[Since] no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press [was] delegated to the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain and were reserved to the States or the people... Thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use should be tolerated rather than the use be destroyed." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft of Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:381

Notice that the people themselves, through their State governments, decide the extent to which freedom of speech is to be abridged and abuses tolerated. It is their judgment which shall decide just how far these limits shall be tightened without lessening the usefulness of free speech, and to what extent unavoidable license shall be permitted rather than eliminate free speech altogether. These are decisions that the people make that affect themselves, and that determine the kind of society in which they have decided they want to live.

When governmental authority was significantly consolidated after the Civil War, the Bill of Rights was interpreted as a general restriction on every governmental body, including those of the states. But it was not intended as such from the beginning, and therefore that interpretation leads to a distortion of the previously written text as well as some distorted views of the rights themselves. In order to retain necessary restrictions on speech, the courts had to resort to certain legal fictions, such as saying that shouting fire in a crowded theatre was not speech but an action that goes beyond speech. I'm not sure how they justify libel actions. But one of the results of all this manipulation is that some restrictions that should be legislated are considered now as prevented by constitutional law. The result is the cry of "Freedom of Speech" for things that are self-destructive and undermine the society in which we live, even things that incite people to commit crimes. But this contradicts the principle set forth by Jefferson in these words:

    "Every society has a right to fix the fundamental principles of its association, and to say to all individuals, that if they contemplate pursuits beyond the limits of these principles and involving dangers which the society chooses to avoid, they must go somewhere else for their exercise; that we want no citizens, and still less ephemeral and pseudo-citizens, on such terms. We may exclude them from our territory, as we do persons infected with disease." --Thomas Jefferson to William H. Crawford, 1816. ME 15:28

Now, if society tries to establish such fundamental principles, can the individuals adversely affected scream, "Freedom of Speech!"?? Under the present interpretation, we are forced to have our children subjected to indoctrination and training that will lead to a destruction of society just because someone claims the unrestricted right to publish that stuff.

We fear any restriction on free speech, and for good reason. This is also the way that despotic governments smother all opposition. This is the way such governments suppress ideas that would undermine their despotism, or ideas of any kind that some faction (such as a religious body) want to suppress. And certainly, we do not want to permit any governmental authority to suppress the free flow of information, whatever the topic. But shall we therefore take away the right of a free society "to fix the fundamental principles of its association"? It is a foolish consistency, blind to essential differences, that does not distinguish between critical information and socially destructive propaganda that is designed to mislead our youth and undermine law and order. At most, there is only a claim that we will be unable to distinguish between legitimate restrictions and the suppression of social criticism. Certainly, this is an extremely difficult area, and we have to tread very carefully. But that does not mean we should not act at all. We know the kind of thing we wish to outlaw. Who can show that doing so will actually be to the detriment of society? And in the absence of such a showing, surely a people have the right to determine the kind of society in which they will live.

    "One of the amendments to the Constitution... expressly declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,' thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others." --Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:382

This gives a hint as to the meaning of freedom of speech. It is not the license to say anything, even that which will destroy the nation itself. Rather, it is the facilitator of thoughtful expression, the enabler of investigation into all areas of life, the means of communication without which liberty itself would be in chains. To assume that it is a license to promote anything self-destructive is like an act of suicide.

    "To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means." --Thomas Jefferson to John Colvin, 1810. ME 12:418

    "[The] law of necessity and self-preservation... [render] the salus populi supreme over the written law." --Thomas Jefferson to John Colvin, 1810. ME 12:421

The survival and welfare of the whole nation is above any written law, and any perverted interpretation of that law.

    Denials and Evasions

To treat what these two boys did in Littleton merely as some kind of fluke, as an aberration, as the evil acts of two kids gone bad, is a mistake. It is to miss the message of this indicator which provides a reading on what is happening in American society, the pernicious influences that are loose, the training in destruction that our youth are receiving, the injustices that are allowed to exist unchallenged. To ignore all that is to slip into denial, and to miss the real significance of these shootings.

We may prefer to assume that these boys were evil: two bad seeds that were acting out their natural malevolence. Such an easy explanation lets us all off the hook. It says that all the blame rests on those boys, and we as a society have no responsibility at all. We can then return to our innocent ways, comfortable in the thought that we need look no further than the propensity of man to evil, and be filled with sorrow that these boys yielded to that natural propensity. But such easy explanations are nothing more than an avoidance of hard reality.

Treating the actions of these two boys as something that should have been detected and raised warning flags may have some legitimacy. But that, too, only focuses on the accompanying conditions, such as their isolation, alienation, ostracization, identifying with a sub-culture. It fails to understand the deeper causes that produced those accompanying conditions. It is an effort to suppress the reaction to injustice without correcting the injustice itself. This in turn leads to the suggestion that we should monitor all students who deviate in any way from the norm, and keep them under surveillance as potential killers. And this, finally, leads to a repressive atmosphere in which persons who do not conform to the "all-American" image, who display any degree of individuality, are viewed with suspicion and are pressured to conform. The Conformity Police then attempt to spot danger signals, and further suppress young people who do not quite fit in. Tolerance is pushed aside in the pursuit of conventionality and conformity. Brutality, tyranny and injustice are ignored and allowed free reign in an attempt to ferret out those who stand up to unfairness. Warning signs are noted -- things that these boys were doing that should have attracted attention. But all that is superficial. The real problems, the things we better do something about, are the acts of injustice that are allowed to have free play, the neglect of their children by parents, the deliberately destructive propaganda that is allowed open access. To look for warning signs in individual students is like saying the rottenness in our society is acceptable, and we should focus on those who are reacting badly to that rottenness rather than trying to do something about it.

We are also told that students, and especially students like those who did the shooting, need to learn "conflict resolution," and maybe they do. Maybe everyone needs communication skills, and to know how to express anger and disagreement, how to listen, etc. But there are some conflicts that need to be resolved at their source, not just papered over by teaching students how to accept the status quo and endure what should be unacceptable. The conditions we examined above are such that no student should be subjected to, that all should rightly feel compelled to resent and resist. It is not the reactions so much as the injustice that results in the reactions that should capture our attention.

Those religiously inclined see the problem as "taking God out of the equation." It becomes a spiritual issue, and must be dealt with and resolved on a spiritual level. Making it a religious question also turns away from an in-depth look at the causes, and focuses on the "evil nature" of the perpetrators, neglects things like injustice, a proliferation of weapons, the incitement to violence in the media. All those things have a spiritual dimension, but social problems cannot be solved solely with religious teachings.

    A Mirror on America

These violent events are holding up a mirror to ourselves, to our own failure and irresponsibility in a number of different areas; to a lack of fairness in our public institutions; to a system of social morality in the media that is shaped by one thing: the marketplace, and whatever will sell. Instead of looking at ourselves, however, the almost universal response has been tighter controls and more repression. Few are concerned about athletic thugs beating up weaker, marginalized students. Rather, the concern is that those marginalized students be watched more closely to make sure they, too, do not rebel against their oppressors. It is a "Keep the lid on" philosophy, and it has at its foundation a self-righteousness that wishes to deny that injustice has been allowed to prevail. But isn't that the typical despotic response? Anywhere in the world, the response of despots to unrest amongst their people is not to reform their governments, but to institute tighter controls, to quash any sign of rebellion.

How self-serving it is to ignore these deeper problems, and to go for the superficial aspects, as if that is where the real problem lies! Make students stop wearing trenchcoats! Indeed! What we need is an in-depth look at our institutions and an examination of the ways they have abandoned their rightful mission.

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Cross References

To other essays in The Jeffersonian Perspective

To Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government: Front Page | Table of Contents

© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.