Active shooter situations. The need for police officers in schools. Statistics showing firearms to be the leading cause of death in U.S. children. These are foreign concepts to us baby boomers.
It’s not just random mass shootings, though, that have shattered lives. Other violent crimes -including murders- have surged, a phenomenon that in some cities, is largely being attributed to gang activity. Children are being gunned down in increasing numbers. And we women have become more vulnerable to predators, in part, because of misguided policies that prioritize the needs of violent offenders.
None of this is sustainable. Our future survival requires a swift change in direction.
Our Nation’s Problems Transcend Guns
Most of us can agree that violent felons, the drug-addicted, and those with a history of certain types of mental health illnesses shouldn’t be given easy access to guns. We should indeed do better at enforcing current gun laws and fixing holes in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Most importantly, schools should be fully equipped with effective security – including with police officers and armed guards. No expense should be spared.
Taking these steps to mitigate tragedies are critical, but they’re also not a panacea. For several reasons.
A recent Wall Street Journal editorial notes that young men who commit school shootings rarely have criminal records, in which case background checks wouldn’t be effective. And aren’t those intent on doing harm capable of finding other methods – whether by obtaining illegal guns, mowing through a crowd of parade-goers, or pushing people to their deaths onto subway tracks? And what about knives? The U.S. may have freer access to firearms and be one of the world’s leaders in gun deaths, but in Europe where gun laws are stricter (especially in northern and western Europe), it’s stabbing deaths that prevail.
The onus for what ails us as a nation is deeper than the weapon being used. Something much more nefarious is happening, something that transcends gun laws and that has eroded the heart and soul of this nation. As the Wall Street Journal editorial continues,
“Firearm laws were few and weak before the 1970s. Yet only in recent decades have young men entered schools and supermarkets for the purpose of killing the innocent. That a teenager could look at a nine-year-old, aim a gun, and pull the trigger signals some larger social and cultural breakdown.”
Government can create and enforce laws. What it can’t do is legislate morality or fix our nation’s brokenness. Only we can do that.
What we can do is pay attention to the glaring correlation between the rise in our nation’s violence and the decline of societal values. This is not about glorifying bygone eras; criminal offenders, bullies, and psychopaths have always walked the planet. The difference is that the values that have historically allowed our nation to overcome challenges, given people’s lives meaning, and instilled a sense of hope, are now largely MIA.
Broken Homes & MIA Parents
The two-parent household has been in steady decline since about 1960, per Pew Research Center. During that time, 73% of us were living in a two-parent home. By 1980, that number had decreased to 61%. Today, it’s just 46%.
This is an American tragedy.
Children need foundational components (like guidance, discipline, a sense of being protected, unconditional live, and permanence) to thrive and navigate life’s many challenges.
This is not to say that “good” traditional families don’t produce psychopaths and criminals; or conversely, that single parents aren’t capable of raising upstanding citizens. A cohesive family structure, however, does improve a child’s chance of success.
A psychologist who researches school shootings found that of 56 shooters studied, 82% grew up in broken homes. This includes homes without two parents, or those that are rife with substance abuse, chaos, criminal behavior, domestic and child abuse.
When this foundation has been destroyed, young minds will inevitably flounder. There is no government program, nonprofit, or amount of money that can replicate what a cohesive family structure offers.
When chaos in the home overflows into the classroom, the problem is compounded. Students are allowed to disrupt class. Brawls ensue. Guns are brought to school. Innocent students (and teachers) are seriously injured and deprived of academic rigor.
Lack of Purpose
Knowing that our lives have significance is a human need. Some of the things that have traditionally given meaning to people’s lives (including in their youth) are a relationship with God (or if you prefer, a benevolent Higher Power), service to others, and seeing your hard work pay off, whether via earning good grades or getting a quarter for mowing the neighbor’s front lawn.
These are all things, incidentally, that have diminished in U.S. society. Fewer people are practicing their faith. Volunteering is down. The nation’s report card is receiving failing grades; this means children aren’t learning the basic skills needed to become productive citizens, or to have their curiosity and sense of wonder quenched.
Loss of Human Connection & the Dominance of Big Tech
We humans are social beings who require adequate interaction with others (the definition of “adequate” varies by individual) for optimal mental health.
As a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my friends and I had zero access to technology, unless you count the little television with four channels. We also didn’t have smartphones, social media sites, Internet, or streaming services.
What we did have was honest-to-goodness friendships, ties to the community, and exposure to the world around us. We rode our bikes. We played on the playground’s swings and monkey bars. We walked to the corner store to buy penny candy. Free time was filled with Girl Scouts, dancing school, treks to the public library to explore new books, attending church and cultural events.
It was a simple, yet fulfilling life that allowed us to feel loved and to grow as human beings.
Real human connection has been largely replaced with technology. The results have been disastrous: Important topics deserving of deep reflection have been reduced to hashtags and buzzwords. Our conversations with each other have become angry, mean-spirited, and divisive. Or we hesitate to speak independently for fear of being canceled.
Technology is also changing our brains, perhaps in ways we’re probably not yet aware.
In his book, The Tyranny of Big Tech, Senator Josh Hawley summarizes a study on the link between social media use and mental (and physical) health.
“Across social network sites, more time browsing led to more social comparison, more self-criticism, more fear. The social media sites practically ran on it. And the strange thing was, the more one suffered the fear of missing out, the more time one spent on social media. Psychologists found fear of missing out consistently related to greater and greater levels of social media use. Isolated, nervous, depressed individuals couldn’t seem to get enough—they were addicted, as if to a narcotic.”
The effects of social media have also been devastating for young people. As Hawley continues,
“In the words of one researcher, ‘the effect of screen activities is unmistakable: The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression. Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.”
Untreated Mental illness
Mental illness encompasses a wide range of disorders including major depression, OCD, schizophrenia, and antisocial personality disorder. Each of these illnesses has unique properties and expresses itself differently. And within each category of illness, are individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and severity of symptoms. In other words, mental illness is not the same for everyone.
In the U.S. about one in five adults has a mental illness. In younger people, anxiety and depression is thought to have increased substantially since the 1950s. In fact, in Americans aged 15 to 24, suicide is now the second leading cause of death.
Tragically, studies show that most adults and children aren’t being adequately treated for their mental illness. This is awful of course, for the individual, who may be saddled with a debilitating illness that severely impacts quality of life.
It also adds risk to society. While the majority of people with mental illness are non-violent, some are – and they’re falling through the cracks.
Cops are Caught In the Middle
At the same time as mass shootings have increased, crime has surged, and our culture is eroding, the thin blue line -the only thing that protects us from societal evils- has been severely frayed.
Cops are being targeted with violence in increasing numbers. Zealous prosecutors indict them for upholding the law. Politicians use them as leverage. They work within a system that releases repeat criminal offenders. They’re spit at, kicked at, punched, and blamed for society’s woes. They’re vilified regardless of what actions they take. As an editorial in Law Officer points out,
“It’s an odd time in American Law Enforcement. We face political backlash if we “train warriors” and at the same time, we face backlash when our actions aren’t warrior enough for those same naysayers.”
As a result, feelings of demoralization have permeated police departments, as has the inability to maintain adequate staffing levels.
Given this perfect storm, why are we surprised when innocents are slaughtered?
Working in good faith to mitigate tragedies like the one we witnessed just last week -as well as addressing our surging crime problem- should of course be prioritized. We won’t stop future incidents, however, until we look inward. Our nation’s brokenness won’t be solved quickly or by the government; it’s up to us. Are we up to the task?
This article originally appeared at For The Blue.