Reaction to Littleton:
Another example of parent bashing

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

A reader writes: "Thank you for your website and insights.I watched (as have many) with horror at the aftermath of the teenage killings in Littleton, Co. What do you believe it is that our youth are showing us about ourselves? What is this shadow and how do we go about transforming this?" - R.C. Rodgers.<P>

Like most Americans, I was not only horrified but transfixed before the television by the events in Littleton. My thoughts immediately went to the 1959 film "Compulsion<P", the true story of two rich-kid college students, Leopold and Loeb, who attempted the perfect murder. I also thought of the 1976 "Carrie,", in which a girl incinerates her high school as revenge for being tormented.

In other words, the events had the timeless quality of a waking dream. And indeed it was notable how often interviewed residents of Littleton said they kept waiting to "wake up." Thus, from a psychological perspective, one could say that the events plunged the country into the unconscious, or its negative "shadow," to use Mr. Rodgers' term.

The reactions, more than the killings themselves, were revelatory. In one of the most amazing uses of television I've ever seen, "Nightline" organized a "town meeting" in which residents of Jonesboro, Ark., where a similar shooting occurred the year before, gathered in a church to talk about their experience for the benefit of Littleton residents. Littleton folks in understandably smaller numbers gathered in a television studio to listen and respond.

What was eminently clear was the need to fix blame and, of course, parents were immediately held responsible for the behavior of the murdering children. To everyone's surprise, the mother of one of the young Jonesboro killers showed up at the Nightline meeting. Other parents and host Ted Koppel demanded she apologize for her child's actions. A juvenile court officer who tried to speak about the suffering of the woman's child was silenced in rage.

Thus, once again, pathology was reduced to family dynamics. The infuriated blame of parents for the acts of children with obvious mental illness demonstrates how much we continue to live in the myth of developmental psychology - the idea that all of our problems can be reduced to what occurs in the interactions of children and family.

Indeed, any effort to construct a larger view of what occurred in Littleton was immediately resisted. The mother of one slain Jonesboro student blamed "gun-toting" America, the broad culture of violence. Although she was applauded, another man sprang to his feet to defend guns with the tedious and long disproved bromide that guns don't kill people, etc. (We know from the experience of Great Britain, just for starters, that gun control does help reduce violent crime.)

The response to gun control is indicative, too, of how we are thrashing about in unconscious irrational feelings and thoughts. Despite incontrovertible evidence that gun control reduces violent crime, people of all intellectual capacities argue against it passionately, as if King George were still at the door and the only thing standing between the integrity of the Constitution and anarchy were Charlton Heston and his six-shooter.

The wisest voices in the Nightline event belonged to other children. They, without exception, noted that these were not children from bad families. But they were not kids who had ordinary problems, either. They described kids who were daily abused at school - thrown against lockers, beaten up and called names -- by other children. They were so ashamed of their experience that they didn't even confide in their parents. (Instead they told the world on the internet, which in itself is a statement about how unconscious we are about violence. We don't even take it seriously when it's publicly threatened.) In other words, the kids were victims of violence themselves.

Could there be more surreal irony than hearing angry adults argue for the right to own guns to protect themselves from assault, even as they criticize other parents for their children's obtaining guns as a defense…against the violence <I>they <P>are suffering? What insanity to think that people can be abused regularly without seeking retribution modeled by the culture in which they live.

The idea that children's experience in 1999 can be completely contained and regulated in the family is absurd. Parents cannot monitor their children's exposure to all media, including the internet, television and popular music. What insanity, on the one hand to note how violent forces have overtaken America's popular arts, and on the other hand continue to support unrestricted gun ownership. We're going to ban Marilyn Manson for his violent imagination and give Charlton Heston, who has the real guns, a medal? Such radical cognitive dissonance - a failure to resolve what is rational and true with one's beliefs -- points to our culture's utter devotion to its cowboy ethics at any cost - even the cost of its children's lives. A child's world has grown far, far beyond the reach of the immediate family, just as the world of adults has grown far beyond its earlier containers in the church and job.

So, to answer Mr. Rodgers' question, what is being revealed in Littleton is the violent nature of America finally turning back on itself - as do all disowned impulses and instincts. It is the unconscious demanding conscious acknowledgement. It will not be transformed by blaming parents or censoring popular culture or avoiding our responsibility to act unpopularly by speaking out against guns. Nor do I think the school curriculum can be held accountable. I think as a start real controls need to be put into place to limit access to guns, in the way we attempt to regulate any symptom as the first approach. Let's try it, if only as an experiment.

Then we must find some means, through our political, educational and spiritual organizations perhaps, to acknowledge, rather than deny, the violent impulses that have ruled America so long. It is important to understand that these violent impulses are rooted in the same aggression that has built America into a world power. This country was seized from another culture - the Native American one - and this ethic of righteous violence has never ceased to rule us and saturate all our interactions, so that we are always sorting ourselves into the powerful and the weak. Go anywhere in the world except within our own boundaries and you will hear this repeatedly stated.

I do not mean for a moment to suggest that this process might not be somehow inherent to human nature, particularly in the male. But as long as we deny that we have given permission for our violent impulses to run us without inhibition, we cannot offer protection to those who need it. It doesn't matter that aggression may be natural and by offering protection to wounded and abused children - and adults - we intervene against our own instincts. What matters is that, unlike lower animals, we are <I>able><P> as self-reflective individuals to do that and should.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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