In the 1960s Bill Roberts forever abandoned youthful innocence for the killing fields of Vietnam. Not long ago something happened to Bill that brought back the terror he felt years ago in guerrilla warfare.
His recent brush with death was not in a war in Southeast Asia. It happened in Portland, Oregon, a prosperous city of a million and a half people. The enemy wasn't Vietnamese guerrillas but gun-toting gang members in a school yard.
Mr. Roberts serves as principal of a school attended by my children. He is still a soldier, but his fight is with the explosion of youth violence that began 20 years ago in America.
With the American prison population up to 1,800,000 from 750,000 in only 10 years, violence among young people affects every stratum of American life.
Easy solutions are hard to come by because the problem with youth violence is not a trend fueled primarily by desperation and poverty. It is driven by powerful forces and influences that lead some children to treat other human beings as if they are of no more value than the electronic video-game figures they mindlessly kill off by the hour for amusement.
With the lines between fantasy and reality confused and blurred, some American youths have received the unmistakable message that it is entertaining to kill. The two teenaged gunmen who killed and maimed 35 students and teachers at Colorado's Columbine High School in May laughed as they roamed the classrooms and hallways and gunned down their victims.
Does our culture teach children that killing people is not a big deal? Violent movies, video and computer games, and many television shows certainly send that message.
Strangely, many violent teenagers are possessed of a sense of invincibility. Not only do they evince no fear of God, they have little fear or understanding that they could be killed as easily as the fictional characters on a video-game screen.
After a 15-year-old boy confessed to the May 1998 shooting of 22 students and his parents in Springfield, Oregon, commentators pointed out that explosive violence had crept from the poor, inner-city communities of the 1980s and early '90s onto the manicured lawns of suburbia.
Not only is homicide one of the greatest risks to our youngsters, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, it has progressively permeated the national landscape. The epidemic of gun violence began to peak among youth in the late 1980s, ravaging a predominately poor minority generation of inner-city residents, according to James Garbarino, director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University.
National Council on Crime and Delinquency president Barry Krisberg notes a difference in today's profile of youth violence. Recent mass-murder attempts and episodes "had nothing to do with drugs or guns," he said. "Some were from affluent communities and intact families."
In the last six years 11 of 12 mass shootings with multiple victims took place in cities with populations under 80,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report nine of these were municipalities with a smaller population than 52,000.
Initial studies indicate a shift in violent youth behavior out of the low socioeconomic stereotype. Harvard School of Public Health professor Deborah Prothrow-Stith characterizes the movement of youth violence from poor urban communities to the rest of the population and regions as an effect similar to any other epidemic. "It's the second wave," she said. "First [it strikes] the most vulnerable community, and then it spreads."
Copy acts have also proliferated. In one study 25 percent of young violent felons said they got the specific idea for their violent activity directly from television. "I can do that" is the remark attributed to the 15-year-old Oregon shooter in a conversation two months earlier to his school-bus driver when he heard about the school massacre by two youths in Paducah, Kentucky.
Murders committed by teens ages 14 to 17 tripled between 1976 and 1993, then dropped somewhat, according to University of Oregon sociology department chairman Robert O'Brien. However, observers point out that upward trends in youth violence may be masked somewhat by imprisonment, aggressive policing and a dynamic national economy.
A Childhood Jungle
Youth violence is, at its core, an outgrowth of an American crisis of values. Successful child-raising requires values flowing from a firm commitment to children—a commitment that requires time, attention and resources. In their absence, children grow up in a veritable jungle.
It doesn't have to be so.
Consistent, loving guidance of children works. Demonstrating concern works. These parental commitments help stop violence by preventing it. They require a child-centered approach that touches the spirit of the child rather than a manipulation of material circumstances masquerading as attention.
A central message of Jesus Christ regarding children is that they are to be loved because "of such is the Kingdom of God." He showed that true love works. The explosion of youth violence is a clear warning that time is running out to begin practicing Christ's approach before it's too late.
Most youthful violence emanates from environments in which brutal adult behavior is modeled and acted out in what National Council on Crime and Delinquency president Krisberg calls a "nihilistic culture that does not promote community and social values."
Not only are right values ignored, but wrong values are often celebrated. "Go to the movies and listen to the music," says Mr. Krisberg. "It's violent, it has misogynist content. There's gross materialism and no ennobling values celebrated."
A New Battleground
The war of youth violence is waged in many communities. On Mr. Roberts' Portland school ground, a battle almost erupted because a 12-year-old student had grabbed a basketball away from a gang member.
A few days later school was just letting out when the gang members arrived with revolvers under their coats and dozens of umbrellas tipped with blades. They were ready for the boy.
What surprised Mr. Roberts and led him to instinctively sense he might witness a murder was the bizarre willingness of the 12-year-old with no violent history to take on the gang single-handedly.
As the boy raced out the front door toward the gang, Mr. Roberts grabbed him, handing him over to two assistants who restrained him in Mr. Roberts' office while Mr. Roberts confronted the gang.
In schools across the nation, principals experience such potentially deadly conflicts. Although this situation passed without harm, Mr. Roberts says he feels sure he will see similar problems again. He fears that America, with its random, bloody explosions of violence, is in some ways repeating the frightening guerrilla warfare of Vietnam.
The tentacles of youth violence have traveled across the Atlantic and the Pacific into most other parts of the Western World. Consider the United Kingdom. In some British schools youth violence and disrespect for authority are out of control. An East Anglian instructor wrote an article, "How We Teachers Have Lost Control of the Classroom" (Sunday Telegraph) in which he said only one goal matters: "reducing violence in schools."
Need for Spiritually Motivated Love
Former U.S. Army general Colin Powell, whose leadership helped the American military and its allies emerge victorious in 1991's Operation Desert Storm, says the problem of troubled youth is the greatest threat to the future of the United States.
Youth violence has its roots in a parental culture that has spiritually abandoned them. More money, expensive schools and government programs run by well-meaning bureaucrats cannot substitute for parental love. Western nations so often look to institutional programs for salvation from social crises, but this is one money can't buy.
The 15 million children living in poverty are not alone in a landscape of emotional, interpersonal and spiritual impoverishment. Many children in prosperous nations grow up without enriching values conveyed by the intimacy of sacrificial parental love.
Many of them have no concept of the sanctity of life, even their own. "This is the way we want to go out," read the suicide note from Columbine High School gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who between them killed 13 people in a rampage of bullets and homemade bombs before they turned their guns on themselves.
With materialism substituted for love, many children have no comprehension of an overriding purpose for life, no sense that life is anything more than a quest for instant gratification. They have scarce knowledge of a Higher Power with endless love who reveals a meaningful purpose and destiny for every man, woman and child.
The discouraging social forces affect almost all of society. Even people who profess to be Christian aren't immune, with divorce and abuse rampant. Too many political and religious leaders have abandoned belief in absolute standards such as those that flow from the immutable law of God. God's standards condemn both lack of and abuse of parental authority as well as the sexual promiscuity that almost always leads to single-parenthood.
As a result, children absorb a chaos of relativistic values that mingle hedonism with self-destructive and aggressive behavior.
The Creator of mankind has the authority to define right and wrong. And He warns that He will reject a nation whose mothers and fathers reject the spiritual knowledge revealed in the law of God.
"My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge," declares the Creator God. "Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you . . . Because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children" (Hosea 4:6, emphasis added).
Youth violence is not a mystery. It is a mistake, a sin and a tragedy for all concerned. But the good news is that the spiritual principles that have always worked still work. Families, communities and nations don't have to be destroyed if they will seek the spiritual knowledge that shows them how to express godly love.
Societies and cultures can change. In the case of America's crisis of youth violence, the problem begins in the home. It is there that parents must learn about and then begin to foster a family culture based on biblical values. Love, if it is genuine, always works. GN