Alexander's Column

Justice Delayed

Mark Alexander · Mar. 16, 2001

On Tuesday, a friend of The Federalist, California Congressman Duncan Hunter, sponsored H.Con.Res. 57 “Condemning the heinous atrocities that occurred on March 5, 2001, at Santana High School in Santee, California …[when] a gunman opened fire …, killing 2 students and wounding 13 others.” The Resolution stated in part: “That the Congress…encourages communities to implement a wide range of violence prevention services for the Nation’s youth; and encourages the people of the United States to engage in a national dialogue on preventing school violence.”

The Resolution passed unanimously.

We concur with Rep. Hunter’s sentiments about this incident in his congressional district, although we note that Santana High was in the final year of a three-year Department of Justice grant for $123,000 to study the school’s toxic “culture of bullying.” This research apparently focused exclusively on models of “tolerance” as appropriate responses to bullying. The Santana gunman, who murdered two schoolmates and wounded 13 others, 15-year-old Charles “Andy” Williams, had been bullied repeatedly at school. In the month before he committed these murders and assaults, he had two birthday-present skateboards stolen, he was target of a public in-class episode of harassment from a classmate, and his closest friend from where he formerly lived was killed by a school bus.

The common phenomenon of father-absent criminal youth has been much discussed, but this teenage boy’s mother was absent from his home. However, young Williams seems to have functioned relatively well while at least minimally supervised by mothers of his friends and neighbors in Maryland and Twentynine Palms, where he and his father lived prior to moving to San Diego county.

This incident was manifestly not a “gun problem.” The father of young Williams was in complete compliance with California’s “safe gun” storage laws. Williams took the key to his father’s locked gun cabinet, and stole one of his father’s handguns. In doing so, he not only disobeyed and failed to honor his father; he also committed a crime against his father. Besides, nearly all such public shootings have been stopped like this one was: by another person bearing a gun in defense of the innocent. As criminologist John R. Lott noted, “A couple of the public school shootings were stopped by citizens armed with guns well before the police were able to arrive.”

Young Williams then committed murder; he has since told investigators he planned suicide afterward, which suggests he knew his intended crimes were so wrong he would deserve to die for them.

And this incident was manifestly insoluble by legislative action. As Rep. Hunter summed up, “The feeling in this Capitol when an event like this occurs is usually one of helplessness, because there’s no legislation, there’s no resolution, there’s no law that can reverse what happened.” Nor would any legislation have prevented the tragic events.

Police psychologists have classified Williams as typical of an “avenger mentality” profile. But whence comes such a “mentality,” unless even young persons have an innate craving for justice? This case, more pointedly than other recent school shootings, illustrates the deadly effects of our conscience-killing society.

Charles Colson, active in prison ministry, queries, “Doesn’t anyone see that this is precisely where today’s value-neutral schools and culture have brought us? …The root problem, of course, is sin. We’re seeing a lack of individual responsibility and a failure to cultivate conscience.” The moral sense must be trained, or it yields a broken conscience.

The eminent social theorist James Q. Wilson described how far our common culture has degraded: “One can imagine living in a society in which the shared values of the people, reinforced by the operation of religious, educational, and communal organizations concerned with character formation, would produce a citizenry less criminal than ours is now without diminishing to any significant degree the political liberties we cherish. Indeed, we can do more than imagine it; we can recall it. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, we managed in this country to keep our crime rate lower than it might have been in the face of extensive urbanization, rapid industrialization, large-scale immigration, and the widening of class differences.”

Nevertheless, it would indeed be inappropriate for us to draw conclusions about the specific circumstances at Santana High School; those conclusions are for parents and other responsible adults there to reach. That acknowledged “culture of bullying,” after all, is still under federally funded study. We only offer the following observations and questions based on trends readily detected nationwide, which may be helpful for those determining precisely what went wrong at Santana High.

Criminologists have obtained stable findings that enforcing less serious laws decreases commission of more serious offenses. For example, an enforcement experiment five years ago in Gary, Indiana, featured 50 state troopers enforcing simple traffic laws; over one week, 79 criminal arrests resulted, 23 for felonies. (Similar results have been obtained in New York for enforcement of subway “turnstile jumping,” and in other cities for similar minor offenses.) Habitual law breakers tend to break all levels of laws, so that bringing appropriate punishments against lesser offenders in the process identifies criminals who have caused even greater harmful acts. Also, criminals seem to “train” for their careers by escalating acts of criminality, so that offenders caught and punished early in their “criminal career training” may sometimes be deterred from proceeding down that deadly career ladder.

The most important function of the law for children is as a teacher. Even government schools should understand this, and treat judicious enforcement of laws and rules as an essential educational matter.

But what have many schools been teaching about laws? The Federalist has reported ludicrous instances of zero tolerance policies in which students bringing real weapons or bringing real harm onto school campuses were dealt with much the same as students pointing fingers, shaking food items, wearing jewelry shaped like guns, and drawing pictures of guns – none of which can cause any physical harm beyond, say, a paper cut. By erasing meaningful distinctions between real hurt and intangible “harm,” such policies have ensured that punishment is never proportionate to a wrongful act.

“Zero tolerance” might as well be synonymous with zero sense. And “tolerance” might as well be synonymous with lawlessness. Tolerance only condemns those who explicitly claim certain moral standards are universally binding. And what should we then expect from broken consciences still craving justice? If we refuse to enact simple justice in the smaller matters of theft and slander, what larger lessons have we taught? Nothing more or less than lessons in lawlessness….

What we have created, and what we have permitted to endure, is a culture of lawlessness. It trains its weapons on the conscience, often quite effectively killing or wounding the conscience of the young.

Random acts of violence cannot be addressed by random acts of justice. Justice must be consistent, not capricious – or it is not justice at all.

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