In light of the heartbreaking tragedy at Newtown, I am reposting a talk I gave in 2007 after the Virginia Tech shooting.

June 28, 2007 – SANGAMON COUNTY, ILLINOIS — The tragic events that occurred last April at Virginia Tech rendered all of us speechless. The best I am able to offer to the families of the victims and to members of the Virginia Tech community is to join the rest of the nation in offering my condolences.

In the painful analysis of what happened in Blacksburg, we are left with more questions than answers. We ask, how is it possible that a quiet middle class suburb can produce such violence and hatred? We ask, shouldn’t it be harder to acquire guns? Shouldn’t we ban violent video games? Is it something we’re eating?

It is easy to be distracted by the misuse of guns, and the tastelessness of certain music, video games, websites, TV shows and movies. In some sense, though, all of these are reflective of some rather powerful social dynamics that have been shaping American culture during the past century. Ultimately, the guns and the shows of violence in pop culture are like the rocks that end up hitting us in the avalanche. They can hurt us and they can even kill us – but it does us no good to outlaw rocks. We have to examine what started the avalanche.

Allow me to point out a few interesting generalizations about our country.

  • Around 1915, the population of the U.S. shifted so that a majority of Americans lived in large cities rather than in rural areas. From 1970 to 2000, however, suburbanites began to displace city dwellers; the percentage of Americans living in suburban areas shifted from 38% to 50%, while the urbanites dropped to just 30% of the American population.
  • While most Americans still live within 100 miles of their birthplace, at least one out of five families changes its residence each year.
  • In 19th century literature, the iconic American family living under one roof most often consisted of middle aged parents and their multiple children, along with grandparents and occasionally a spinster aunt or bachelor uncle.In 1970, less than 18% of American households consisted of just one person, and households with five or more people represented about 20% of all households; but by 2000, large households now only represent about 11% and one-person households represent 26% of all households. The iconic American family is now fairly often represented in our culture as the single parent with one or two children.
  • Affordable air conditioning for the home was introduced in the 1930s. By 1997, 93% of all housing units in the warmer climates of the South had air conditioning, a circumstance which appears to have had a pronounced effect on the increase in population in the Southern half of the U.S.
  • As late as 1969, one fifth of American households did not own a single car.Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2000, however, 30 million vehicles were added to American households on a net basis, and it is common for Americans to spend 60 to 90 minutes alone in their cars going to and from work.
  • More than a quarter of all Americans watch television every night, and one third of those go online while they are watching TV. One group projected that in 2006 the average American will have spent 575 minutes a day – over 9 hours – consuming various types of media, including TV, radio, the internet, recorded music, DVDs and video games. Books and magazines represent a mere 37 minutes per day of that total.
  • Look on any residential city street with homes built from 80 to 100 years ago, and you will see rows of tightly collected houses, with ample front porches for sitting and taking in the sights and sounds of a neighborhood.Look on any suburban street today, and you will often have a hard time finding the front doors of the houses; the most prominent feature will be a driveway, or a garage, or a gated wall. Is anybody home? You be the judge.

To crystallize all this – in a century, we went from being a people who rarely moved; lived within multi-generational extended families, mainly in small towns or rural areas; enjoyed homes with front porches on which we actually spent time; and generally worked within a short distance of our places of employment …

… to being a more transient people, collected within fractured nuclear families; living in suburban homes with hidden front doors, often located a significant distance from our jobs, spending significant hours of each day seated within our cars or barricaded with our air conditioning, watching TV, surfing the Net or playing video games.

One thing that small town America did very well was provide moral stability. Living out in the open, within a community of acquaintances, there was a certain built-in deterrent to doing harm to your neighbors. It was the glare of community disapproval.One learned early that actions had consequences – and generally speaking, that good actions have good consequences, and bad actions have bad consequences.

What happens in the dark? The cockroaches come out and do their work, until someone turns on the kitchen lights and sends them scattering. Fungus grows. You can spread out your arms, but you can’t see what you might be hitting with them.

I don’t mean, by pointing out every-day differences between America Today and America Past, to promote the idea that we need to reorder ourselves into a kind of mythical Leave it to Beaver or Little House on the Prairie lifestyle — that would be a vacuous suggestion. When the spirit of an age passes away, there’s no returning to it; you simply have to do the best you can within the spirit of your own age. And I do not intend, by the way, to indict the Internet or air conditioning as the roots of all evil. They are not.

I do wish to point out, though, that in America we have gone from being primarily social actors to being de facto solitary figures, and that we should not be surprised that a certain kind of unremitting solitude produces anti-social behavior.

If your child spends all of his or her non-school time poking around in Internet chat rooms or playing video games, they are engaging in the practiced avoidance of social consequences for their cruelest actions. In the meta-interaction of a video game, we can whack away at virtual human beings without meaningful punishment – the only bad consequence is losing the game, pushing the cancel button and starting over again. In chat rooms, we can be shunned for being obnoxious, but we can always rejoin under a new identity. Participating as a voyeur in the daily violence that television has to offer has no readily identifiable, immediately admonishing consequence at all.

In some children, these circumstances merely create sloth or apathy toward social goals; in the worst situations, they can create a habit of sociopathic behavior. The outdoor, public precedents of each of these activities, on the other hand – beating up people, being obnoxious, even witnessing crime — provided immediate consequences that tended to teach better manners and higher ethical standards.

Is it chat rooms or video games that I deplore? No, other than to remark that they evidence a race to the bottom, fed by value-neutral commerce. What I deplore is a generation of lives structured around institutions and habits that are inherently anti-social, fueled by one of the greatest public frauds perpetrated upon American citizens over the last 100 years: the self-righteous misapplication of a right to privacy as a right to remain isolated and uninvolved.

You have a right to avoid publicity, generally. You have a right to make decisions about the conduct of your health care and to conduct your spiritual affairs outside of the public eye. You have a right to keep your financial information private in order to avoid the misappropriation of your identity and your credit. I want to assert to you today, though, that as an American citizen, you have no right to secede from your community. You have no right to avoid the warning signs of anti-social behavior. You have no right to fail to exercise moral authority within your community simply because you don’t want to get involved. You have no right not to intervene.

We’ll never hear a constitutional scholar say it, but a community simply does not work unless people are willing to participate in it. Or, more importantly, a community in which the inhabitants do not meaningfully interact with each other on matters of ethics and social welfare is not a community at all. Rather, it is simply a mob, an anonymous random selection of human lives inevitably subject to the moral ambiguity of “mob rule,” in which sociopathic behavior is unfortunately often rewarded.

In this context, it is easy to see that the Sixth Amendment right to confront one’s accuser does not exist simply to benefit defendants. It is emblematic of the moral function inherent in the idea of community – the effective exercise of moral authority is always personal and confrontational, it cannot be enforced with anonymity. I believe our founding fathers implicitly recognized that.

It has been discussed, ad nauseum, that the teachers and other officials at Virginia Tech felt powerless, within a maze of privacy regulations and potential liability, to do anything about what they perceived to be a troubling situation involving the young man who ultimately committed mass murder in their community.

So, we are starting with the disadvantage of a physical and social milieu in which, without effort, isolation prevails, and in which socialization is therefore weak. Adopting “isolation” as a kind of ersatz public virtue, we have built around ourselves a fortress of laws, regulations, common law misjudgments and bad habits that actually discourage the very behavior that keeps a community running smoothly.

And all of that is shrouded by the misguided notion that the poverty of my neighbor, my neighbor’s illness, the consequences of my neighbor’s advanced age or of his or her hard times are not my problem. The notion that these are problems that the politicians in Washington, or the financiers on Wall Street, or the capitalists in their board rooms, should be solving – not me.

Well, it is really no wonder that our society is breaking down around our ears and elbows.

There is no morality in society unless I can also get it through my head that I am my brother’s keeper. That is the essence of an ethical relationship. Community moral authority is not solely about restricting behavior – moral authority in the absence of practical human charity and compassion is empty and ultimately meaningless.

I know we want to remain secure in our hermetically sealed cars with our satellite radios, drowning out the ugliest noises; we want to remain comfortable on our couches, watching our TVs and sending emails; and we want to elect Presidents who tell us that we should just sit tight and they will solve our problems. That’s a lie that we’re all participating in on some level.

The tragedy at Virginia Tech shows that, fundamentally, beneath all the manifestly ungovernable debris of pop culture, our communities are not working the way they should. We’re not producing real citizens.

The solution to all of this is not a simple one. Each of us has to examine our own role in providing moral authority within our communities, and we need to exercise courage in seizing the initiative. We need our legislators to examine ways in which we can liberate those of us who would rise to community leadership, to help bridge the gap between the forces that isolate us and the necessity of self-stewardship. And we need a President and a federal apparatus that uses its authority to enable communities to take the leading role in solving their own problems. Our nation’s leaders have to stop pretending they have all the answers, and instead show real leadership in providing us with the tools to help our communities coalesce and flourish.

There is no Superman, there is no Wonder Woman. There’s only you and me, and we’ve got to get busy.

I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.