Thursday, April 19, 2007

What about us?

There's a missing piece in the discussion about the Virginia Tech massacre. The psychiatrists are showing up on the talk shows, discussing what may have gone wrong in this young man's brain to make him react so violently, so differently than how we rational folks act. The blame game is in full force - gun laws are the culprit, removing God is the culprit; what were the parents doing, why didn't the administration try harder to intervene with this kid? If there were a simple answer, we'd have it and not have to worry about next time.

But what about us? What are we doing to bring down the chances that this is going to happen again?

As I understand it, mass murderers share certain traits. Oftentimes, they are marginalized by society. They're not the athletes or the beautiful people that command power simply because they were blessed with good genes. They're not the comedians or the jovial folks who draw people to them because of their warmth and openness. They're the strange ones, the kids who don't seem to fit in with any group, the ones who don't have a lot of friends and are often the target of foolish pranks and hurtful comments.

I remember those kids. Heck, at one time, I was one of those kids. At another time, I was one of the hecklers. There was this one kid in school who was a constant target. He was a goofy looking kid, with the proverbial Coke bottle glasses and inability to walk and chew gum. He neglected his personal hygiene and had a propensity to get into your space. People were ruthless. I admit, I joined in. Twenty years later, I read that he's in jail for soliticing sex with underage girls. The cycle of hurt continues.

Yes, there are plenty of people out there who were bully targets, and they grew up to live good and productive lives that didn't include grabbing a gun and shooting their classmates. I'm happy for them. And I'm not about to suggest that being nice to the weird kids is going to solve our problems and lead us to a worldwide singing of Kum Bah Ya. But we can't ignore the fact that a lot of us still haven't figured out how to treat each other with common decency, and we haven't passed it onto our kids. We continue to worship money, charisma and good looks, and we ignore those who make us feel uncomfortable.

I had my first reporting internship when I was a college junior. One night, I was sent to cover a speech by a guy named Bob Keeshan, better known as our Captain Kangaroo. This was in the '80s, when the catch phrase of the day was "Just say no." But Mr. Keeshan told folks that saying no wasn't enough. He said (and I paraphrase) we need to be teaching our children about the richness of life and the importance of treating each other as we would ourselves. If we do that, then saying no would come naturally.

A simple answer? Probably. But you know, Bob Keeshan was talking to a mental health group in Roanoke, Va., which is about 40 miles from Virginia Tech. Maybe that's why his words keep coming back to me now. Maybe that's why my 9-year-old and I had a long talk the other night about the weird kids and how, even if you don't become their best friends, you don't need to join in when the other kids make fun of them. "But I'm afraid to tell them to stop, Mom." Yeah, I know, honey. I know. How do I equp her with the strength to defend the powerless? I'm still working on that one. In the meantime, I'm stepping back and taking a long, hard look at how I treat the strange folks in society. Because my kids are watching me. And their future is worth it.


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