The massacre of 32 members of the Virginia Tech community and the Imus affair have, each in a different way, laid bare deeply disturbing problems that plague contemporary American culture.
We are, make no mistake about it, a good people. We are a caring nation, demonstrated by countless acts of good works our citizens perform every day, touching the lives of millions all over the globe. Our charity is exemplary, as is our commitment to fair play. The outpouring of volunteer aid to victims of disasters large and small bears witness to this, as does the expanding work of our many non-governmental civil and human rights organizations. We can be proud of our values and our many practices that embrace those values.
But looking closer, our problems come into view as well.
We are a society plagued by violence (both institutional and individual, organized and random). Last year alone, almost 80 Americans were killed each day by firearms - 32 of them daily in criminal homicides. These numbers may be lower than they were a decade ago, but are still nothing to be proud of. We remain one of the most violent of nations. And we remain the last of the modern industrial nations to use the death penalty, a practice we defend with great vigor.
Our culture is filled with violence. Whether in the cartoons our children watch, in our most popular contemporary films and television programs, or in videogames and much of our popular music- violence is everywhere with us. We have become inured to it, and we too often celebrate it. The violence that puts so many of our young men in prison as well as the violence meted out to them once there has become accepted, as has been the violence we inflict with our foreign military adventures
Violence is a problem in our culture, and we must face it down.
A parallel theme is the problem of hate and the coarsening of our national discourse. Firing Don Imus was the right thing to do, though I fear that had more to do with a loss of advertising revenues than a recognition of the crudeness of his words and the hurt they cause. Imus might be gone, but Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and so many others soldier on. Hate speech is up, as are hate crimes. These, too, are problems that we must face down.
There are some who want to silence any such discussion. (See Charles Krauthammer's rebuke of Barack Obama's effort to examine the lessons we ought to learn about the many forms of violence, in words and deeds, that define our lives; or Rush Limbaugh's charge that it was "political correctness" that was at fault in the Virginia Tech shootings, not hand guns.) But I believe we need to engage in a little soul-searching, asking ourselves some hard questions:
What role do violent films play in making violence not only acceptable but attractive? (Is Cho's use of images purportedly derived from recent films not a case in point?) What role does hate speech play in the public discourse play in promoting hate crimes (and here I wonder if the hate mail I receive quoting some of these characters is also not a case in point)? What role does the prevalence of violence and hate speech in contemporary music and other forms of popular culture play in the degrading of our values and in promoting violent and disrespectful behavior toward women? And what lessons do our leaders teach when they defend Imus, continue to appear on Rush Limbaugh's program, accept political contributions from purveyors of hate and violence, or use such speech themselves (as John McCain did in singing a line from the parody song "Bomb Iran" - a truly awful song which targets not so much Iran but Muslims in general)?
These questions are ones we ought not turn away from.
I close, as I began, recalling our goodness; and yet cautioning that we not ignore our darker side. To focus on either one, to the exclusion of the other, only does us harm. If, for example, we focus only on the good we do, turning a blind eye to our problems, those problems will only fester and grow. But if we see only the evil and fail to recognize our capacities to do good, then we lose hope in the possibility of creating positive change.
I believe we are good, and I know we can become much better. The lessons we can learn from the last few weeks must challenge us all.
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A final note for reflection: the day after the Virginia Tech shootings, a professor from Baghdad called me. He expressed his sorrow, and told me he understood the shock and sense of loss, the feelings of vulnerability and insecurity. "We have," he said, "the equivalent of three Virginia Techs every day in Baghdad."