A Year after Columbine: How do we Heal a Wounded Culture?

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A Year after Columbine: How do we Heal a Wounded Culture?

April 14, 2000 18 min read
The Honorable Bill Owens
Contributor, The Foundry

I have been governor of Colorado for just over a year now and I would like to say that my first year in office was primarily defined by passing the largest tax relief package in Colorado history. I would like to say my first year as governor was primarily defined by the overwhelming approval the voters gave my plan to jump-start road construction without raising taxes. I would like to say that my first year was defined by the sweeping plan I unveiled to reform public education.

But I am not naïve. I know that my first year as governor will forever be defined by the tragedy at Columbine High School and the soul searching of Coloradans and people all over the country in its aftermath.

I remember April 20, 1999, as if it were yesterday. I remember the moment I first heard about it, praying to God that it was a mistake. I remember going to the school and seeing the anguish on the faces of parents as they waited to hear whether or not their sons and daughters were alive. I remember the unbearable pain on the faces of the Columbine students. And I remember attending the funerals of the slain children whose promising futures were so brutally taken away from them.

In the wake of this tragedy, I heard from all across America the words, "Never again!" But as we approach the one-year anniversary of Columbine, I ask: Do we truly mean it? Do we truly have the courage to do what it will take to change a culture that produces such alienated and violent children?

I have thought about this question every day since April 20. And unfortunately, there is no easy solution. So many people are quick to blame it on guns. But in fact, those two killers broke scores of laws, and one more law--or a dozen more laws--wouldn't have changed the hate in their hearts. Others want to blame the parents. After all, how could they not know their sons were building an arsenal of bombs? And many of us want to blame violent movies, video games, and Internet sites.

However, what all of these contributing factors boil down to is the fact that our culture is badly in need of repair and healing. Great civilizations are not made overnight, and they are rarely destroyed overnight. During the dark days of World War II, Winston Churchill angrily said about Britain's enemies: "What kind of people do they think we are?" For more than two centuries Americans have believed that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. But the question is, does our culture truly celebrate and teach the values that made America the greatest nation on earth, or is our culture itself slowly eating away at the foundations of our nation?

It is important to remember that culture is more important than the state. It is an insight that a Polish priest had more than 40 years ago: If he could help re-awaken the true spirit of Polish culture, then the totalitarian communist regime would eventually crumble. And Pope John Paul was certainly proven right.

A strong culture is created by free men and women of good character. Our friend James Q. Wilson says that character means empathy for others and self-control, and that character is formed by the process of good habits--in all of our acts. What does this mean?

It means that the solution to youth violence will come one child at a time as parents teach their children the difference between right and wrong. The solution will come when parents turn off violent and hateful television shows. More important, it will come when parents teach their children how to discern the good from the bad. And it will come when we realize that we cannot abandon our children to the dark side of the Internet.

The solutions to youth violence will not be easy to find. Frances and I have two teenage children and another headed that way. And they can run circles around their mom and dad when it comes to surfing the Internet. No one ever promised us that parenting would be easy. But it is essential.

Literally hours after the tragedy at Columbine took place, the finger-pointing started. So many people--both in and outside of Colorado--have tried to politicize the tragedy. They immediately started calling for more gun control laws. And at the margins, we in Colorado are trying to make it harder for criminals and children to access firearms. But it is not that simple. As I mentioned before, the killers at Columbine broke dozens of existing laws--murder, assault, possession of guns, and destruction of property, just to name a few--within minutes of stepping onto the school grounds.

Fortunately, even some of those most personally affected by the tragedy understood the real cause of Columbine. I want to read to you some excerpts of an address given by Darrell Scott, father of Columbine victim Rachel Scott, before the Colorado House Judiciary Committee:

The first recorded act of violence was when Cain slew his brother Abel out in the field. The villain was not the club he used, neither was it the NCA--the National Club Association. The true killer was Cain, and the reason for the murder could only be found in Cain's heart. I am here today to declare that Columbine was not just a tragedy, it was a spiritual event that should be forcing us to look at where the real blame lies! Much of that blame lies here in this room. Much of the blame lies behind the pointing fingers of the accusers themselves.

Mr. Scott went on to read a poem that he wrote before he knew he would be appearing before the Judiciary Committee:

Your laws ignore our deepest needs, your words are empty air.

You've stripped away our heritage, you've outlawed simple prayer.

Now gunshots fill our classrooms and precious children die,

You seek for answers everywhere and ask the question, "Why?"

You regulate restrictive laws through legislative creed

And yet you fail to understand that God is what we need.

Now, I can only imagine the pain Darrell Scott has gone through every day since the murder of his daughter. But I can certainly understand his frustration with misguided blame. As Mr. Scott said, "The real villain lies within their hearts."

But I know that there is still more good than evil in this world. I saw it first hand because, while the tragedy at Columbine High School showed us the absolute worst in two young men, it brought out the very best in the people of Colorado.

We saw David Sanders--a man, a teacher, a father--sacrifice his own life to save the lives of dozens of students to whom he had dedicated so many years of his life. We saw groups of students helping one another to avoid the gunfire, and then dropping to their knees in prayer, clinging to each other for support and hope.

We saw men and women of law enforcement putting their own lives on the line, moving toward the sound of gunfire.

We saw neighbors give of their time, their money, and their prayers to victims and their families. We saw Colorado embrace the Columbine community, grieving with families and friends whose lives were shattered by the horrible tragedy. And that night across America we saw parents hold their children a little tighter and a little longer before putting them to bed.

Those same parents, however, were asking themselves: What has happened to the days when we could let our children play outside unsupervised? What has happened to the days when the only guns and knives our children possessed were plastic and came with a Halloween costume?

Don't tell me those days are gone forever--I don't believe that. I believe that the history of America shows a country and a people that has, time after time, walked up to the very edge of the abyss, looked over, and stepped back. We have done so in the past and we can do so in the future. For an example of this one only needs to look at the dramatic drop in crime rates, as Americans stopped making excuses for criminals and instead started locking them up. We walked up to the very abyss when it came to crime, looked over, and decided to do what we had to do to reclaim our streets.

Unfortunately, we--as a society--seem to have increasingly blurred the lines of right and wrong. When people in the highest political offices say, "Do whatever you have to do--just don't tell me about it," or, as Vice President Gore said when asked about his questionable fund-raising methods: "There was no controlling legal authority," we are sending the message that, by removing yourself from responsibility, you won't get in trouble should your questionable conduct be discovered. This is not a message we want to send to our children. A message such as this seemingly gives our children license to do wrong, as long as they can justify their actions in their own minds.

You may remember thirty years ago when Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned us about the risks of "defining deviancy down." Basically, Senator Moynihan said that we are at risk--year to year and generation to generation--of lowering our moral standards so that what used to be considered deviant behavior is now considered acceptable behavior.

Senator Moynihan predicted this trend would continue, damaging our families and our society--particularly minorities. People called him foolish. People called him racist. And regrettably, our culture did not heed his warning. Yet look at what has happened in 30 years--and not just to minority families. We are seeing school yard shootings where kids 13, 14, and 15 years old from middle-class white suburban families murder their classmates in cold blood. We are seeing young girls in middle school having babies, and all too often abandoning them in toilets and trash bins. We are seeing boys fathering children and then walking away to let someone else assume their responsibility. America's inner cities are filled with young men who are godless, fearless, jobless, and fatherless.

I want to talk about that for a minute--the fact that too many children are growing up without a father. A report released last year by the National Center for Fathering shows that more children are growing up today without fathers in their homes than ever before. In 1960, 8 percent of America's children were living with their mother only. That number was up to 18 percent in 1980, and this year it is up to 24 percent.

As disturbing as this trend is, there is amazingly little concern expressed among social scientists about the ramifications of this trend.

While issues such as youth crime and violence, illiteracy, and teenage pregnancy are debated almost daily, we practically ignore the correlation between these issues and fatherlessness. Yet it has been shown conclusively that children who are raised without an involved father are much more likely to experience juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and poor school performance than are children who have an active father present.

Sadly, it is also evident that these trends are far more prevalent in boys than in girls. Let me offer a few stark statistics:

  • Reading and writing scores in Colorado show that boys are consistently at least 10 percent behind girls in reading and writing proficiency.

  • Boys under the age of 18 commit five times more violent crimes than girls the same age.

  • While there are more college age men than women in America today, far more women go on to college than men.

  • And, perhaps most disturbing, boys are five times more likely to commit suicide than girls.

So what has happened to the American family? What has happened to the days when marriage was a sacred vow taken between a man and a woman? What has happened to the days when families sat down for meals and talked about what was going on in their lives? What has happened to the days when children saw their parents as role models? Let me share some more statistics with you:

  • Children living with a single mother are six times more likely to live in poverty than are children whose parents are married.

  • Three-quarters of all women applying for welfare benefits do so because of a disrupted marriage or live-in relationship.

  • Children in stepfamilies and single-parent families are almost three times more likely to drop out of school than are children in intact families.

It is clear to me that there is an answer to the cultural challenge we face. It is clear that we must once again look over the abyss, step back and strengthen our families. Let me say it again--we must strengthen our families. There is no institution more important to our success. Strong families are our first and most important bulwark against youth violence and other social pathologies.

And one of the most important things government can do to help strengthen American families is to lessen the tax burden on our families.

In 1950, just 2 percent of the average family's earnings went to the federal government. That number was up to 17 percent in 1970 and all the way up to 25 percent in 1995. Since 1950 the federal government's effective tax rate on our families has gone from 2 percent to 25 percent. The average American family of four now pays more in taxes than the family members spend on their own food, clothing, shelter, and transportation. No wonder that even with a prosperous economy so many people continue to feel like they live paycheck to paycheck.

And we are seeing more working mothers and fathers who would rather be stay-at-home parents, but they realize that they need both incomes in order to pay the increased taxes.

That is why in Colorado I have made tax relief a major priority. Last year I signed the largest tax cut in the state's history--including a permanent reduction in the state's income tax--and we will cut taxes again this year. We reduced the tax on capital gains and we eliminated the marriage penalty tax--something I know many of you here in Washington are working for at the federal level.

As governor, I may not be able to give Colorado families more hours each day to spend with each other, but I can certainly do my part to see that they keep more of the money that they worked so hard to earn. We need to support families because it is within the family that children learn the commonsense values of faith, honesty, and hard work.

A second place where children learn these values is at school--or at least they should. Unfortunately, too many children are being allowed to fall through the cracks in today's public school system. Too many of our children face the prospect of failure and poverty because we are failing to prepare them with a high-quality education--not just in terms of academics, but also with regard to character.

Some of you may be familiar with a landmark report--conducted in 1983--entitled "A Nation at Risk." This report focused our attention on the decline of educational achievement among high school graduates--and the sobering consequences of poverty, ill-health, and violence. The report stated that our nation is losing the war on ignorance.

Well, it is 17 years later and we are still a nation at risk. Why is it that a survey in the 1940s listed the top five disciplinary problems in public schools to be talking, chewing gum, making noise, running in the halls, and getting out of turn in line, while a more recent survey listed the top five discipline problems to be drug abuse, alcohol abuse, pregnancy, suicide, and rape? Why is it that education today is all too often about fear, and not about hope?

Colorado has the best educated citizens in our country, measured by college graduates and graduate degrees per thousand residents. Yet:

  • Thirty percent of Colorado's third grade students cannot read at grade level.

  • Nearly 50 percent of Colorado's seventh grade students cannot read at grade level.

  • One-half of all Hispanic students drop out of school.

As governor, I have made public education reform my top priority. My entire education reform plan is centered on the belief that every child--rich or poor, white or minority--can learn. And that during the seven hours a day that children are in school, they can certainly be taught the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics.

And while most of America's private institutions have changed dramatically over the past twenty years, America's most important institution--our public schools--have not.

Let me tell you of an all-too-typical dilemma of a mother with an elementary school child. Mom must be at work by 8:00 in the morning, but school doesn't start until 8:30. So the mother must find day care before school starts, find a way to get her eight-year-old daughter to school while she is at work, and then find day care again after school is out.

Now let me tell you about a father who can barely get his teenage son out of bed to be at school when it starts at 7:30 in the morning. And every afternoon, the father worries about what his son will be up to after school gets out at 2:30 in the afternoon, with good reason. After all, when I talk with law enforcement officers about youth crime, one thing is clear: Youth crime peaks in the afternoons between 3:00 and 6:00, when our children are home but their parents are not.

To me, one simple way government can help both of these parents is to switch the time school starts. Let elementary school start at 7:30 in the morning--young children are up anyway and parents won't have to find day care before work. And why not start high school at 8:30--saving millions of parents the daily aggravation of dragging a teenager out of bed--and keeping the teenager in school later in the afternoon rather than out in our neighborhoods causing trouble.

These may seem like simple ideas, but unfortunately all across America the public education establishment is resistant to changes that would help parents watch over their children. But what frightens me is the influence that the rest of the world has on our children. You think they are safe at school and you think they are safe at home, but what happens when they are not under the watchful eye of you or their teachers?

I don't often talk about the visit I made to Columbine High School the day after the tragedy. Frankly, images of the bloody hand stains on the carpet and the killings in the library will be with me forever--they are not something I want to mentally or verbally relive.

I do, however, want to share with you something that I noticed while walking through Columbine's drama classroom. As with many high school drama departments, there were movie posters hanging on the walls. What stuck out in my mind, however, was which movies these posters advertised. Not posters like "Gone With the Wind," but more like "Natural Born Killers." Not "Casablanca," but "The Terminator." Not "The Sound of Music," but "Die Hard." This is what our children are seeing when they go to school. This is what our children are taught at school. This is what the children at Columbine saw.

Maybe we can't monitor what our children are accessing every time they are on the Internet, and maybe we can't monitor what our children see every time they turn on the television, but we absolutely can monitor what they see when they walk into our classrooms.

Thus, I return to my earlier point about healing our culture. It must be done one man and woman of character at a time. We must be willing to stand up and say, for example, "Those posters have no place in our schools."

I have heard over and over again that there is nothing much we can do about the situation--that it is out of our hands. It makes me feel like the little girl who kept standing up in the front seat of the car. Finally, her mother pulled the car off onto the shoulder of the road and fastened the child into the seat belt.

The little girl pouted and then after a minute snapped at her mother, "I may be sitting down, but in my heart I'm still standing up."

Well, I identify with that feeling. The current, damaged state of our culture has us sitting down, but in my heart, I'm still standing up. And I'm asking that each of you stand up with me. I challenge you to find a way to change our culture at every opportunity. We are all in this together. We can sit and think or we can act. I prefer to act.

During the past year, especially in the wake of the impeachment trial, conservatives in America have waged a spirited internal debate. Some believe that we must--more now than ever--press our case in politics, in the media, and in the culture about reaffirming the fundamental values of America.

Others have said that because we have failed after decades of trying to change the system from within, we must instead build up separate institutions in education, media, and entertainment that reflect our values, and wait for a better time.

I do not want to get into that debate today or even to take sides in it. But I do think it is healthy for conservatism to take a good, critical look at itself and ask: What have we accomplished and where are we going? We can be proud that we beat the Soviet Union, balanced the budget, and reformed welfare. Yet many of our goals are still unmet.

What I'd like to say to both sides of this debate is this: Always remember that Americans are a tolerant people. It is one of our great virtues. After all, the melting pot of people that made America what it is required a great deal of tolerance for different customs and religious beliefs.

Thus when we set boundaries between right and wrong, when we say there are some things you just can't do, we must do so in a way that doesn't put people down but appeals to, as Abraham Lincoln said, "the better angels of their nature." Whether we are engaged in the political arena or building a separate set of moral institutions, we must do so with charity in our hearts.

Americans quite properly do not like people who live in glass houses yet throw stones. None of us is perfect. But if day by day we demonstrate our resolve in being people of character--both in how we individually live our lives as well as conduct ourselves politically--we will prevail.

Almost twenty years ago, in defining the battle against communism, Ronald Reagan said, "The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith." And friends, we won that battle and defeated communism. We must today continue to heed Reagan's words, this time against an enemy of our own making: a wounded culture.

In our daily actions, we can make a difference. All we need is courage. We've looked over that abyss. We have done it before and we can do it again.

The Honorable Bill Owens was elected in November of 1998 to serve as Colorado's 40th governor. He is a former state Treasurer, legislator, and businessman.


The Honorable Bill Owens

Contributor, The Foundry