Violence begets violence, and it is contagious.
America is a nation plagued by violence—in our homes, in our schools, on our streets and in our affairs of state, both foreign and domestic. Violence permeates our entertainment culture with its glamorization of death and destruction in movies and video games. Indeed, it is estimated that by the time a child reaches 18, he or she will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders on television. Our nation has one of the highest murder rates and levels of incarceration of all industrialized nations in the world. We even export violence, with one of this country's most profitable exports being weapons. All too often, these same weapons fall into the hands of our enemies. America is now seen as a violent empire with continual wars that stretch back to at least the beginning of the twentieth century.
But why is America so violent?
Starting with the genocide practiced against millions of Native Americans and continuing through the era of black slavery, the Civil War and onward to the present-day conflicts in the Middle East, our nation's collective history has been indelibly stained with blood. America's history, which few have knowledge of, is not about memorizing dates but understanding what happened in the past and how to deal with it. We have yet to truly come to terms with or make amends for our past actions. The truth is that we must deal with our problems or they'll keep haunting us. America needs an exorcism of its past.
Some suggest that this failure to resolve our violent past has predisposed us to continuing along a path of violence. Others point the finger at a proliferation of weapons, increasingly impersonal technologies, a disparate distribution of wealth, materialism, the erosion of families, isolationism and so on. Certainly, these are all factors. But in the words of the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, we have forgotten God in the equation.
A basic premise in the founding of America was that human beings were created by God. People as such were seen as special, and life was considered precious. However, this view of God and ourselves is increasingly being set aside. I often hear America referred to as a Christian nation. Yet while we might have a large number of churches and people who profess to believe in God, that's as far as it goes. At the end of the day, it is our actions that speak for us. And our actions show us to be a nation lacking in spirituality, morality, compassion and community. These values are neither practiced nor taught. There's no such thing as right and wrong because there are no categories anymore.
Community is a spiritual thing, and we've largely lost that as well. We've become isolationists, caught up in our own private worlds where no one communicates. We turn away from the homeless, the suffering and those in pain. The parable of the Good Samaritan was not merely a Sunday school lesson about helping others; it was a reminder that community is integral to a healthy spiritual life.
The American community that once bound us together has been shattered. The loving relationship between parent and child is now separated by mom and dad's 24/7 connection to work in the form of a BlackBerry, computer or their maniacal attachment to a cell phone. More and more children grow up living out of a suitcase, shuttled between households of divorced parents. And the watchful, caring eye of a parent or neighbor has been shelved for youth online communities where teens don't have to learn to deal with the difficulties of real-life, face-to-face relationships.
Materialism has eclipsed both spirituality and community, stripping us of the very things that once gave our lives meaning and worth. As Holocaust survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl has pointed out, "People have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning."
We have lost our moral compass, and it's destroying us as a country. The majority of Americans today, especially the younger generation, have no sense of what is right and wrong. It can be seen throughout society, from the kids killing homeless people for a game to the 250-pound man who beat an elderly woman to the ground. Having traded our spiritual values for a bowl of materialistic porridge, we have failed to impart meaningful lessons to our children about right and wrong.
It may be that Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho was simply a deeply disturbed individual, but we cannot ignore the fact that he was also a product of American culture. Having lived here for 15 years, he had more than enough time to absorb American values and reflect the lack of them. Thus, the question is not so much "Why is there a Cho?" but "Why aren't there more Chos, McVeighs and Klebolds?"
To borrow from Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. The problem lies with us, in our communities, our families, our growing isolation from one another and our lack of spirituality and values.
If we are to reverse the tide of violence in America, the principles of nonviolence must be taught in our homes, churches, schools and communities. However, we remain a society that is armed to the teeth. Our culture glorifies violence. Even security guards at shopping malls now carry weapons. Our government is especially guilty of using violence as a quick fix. How can we teach nonviolence if our government leaders subscribe to violence?
Unless something drastically changes, America's future is violence. The answer does not lie in gun control; nor is it metal detectors in the schools. What must change is the way we think about and relate to one another. It's time to get our children away from headphones, get parents away from cell phones, stop hiding behind technology and be human again.
This article was originally published on April 26, 2007.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about the Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.