Do We Believe In Our Children?

If you went to a Catholic school, you learned about the saints, the selfless men and women who faced rejection, torture and even death as they stood up for their faith.

“Could you be as brave as the saints?” Sister would ask.

Of course we could.

“Well, what if someone walked into this classroom now, pointed a gun at your head and asked: ‘Do you believe in God?’ Would you deny him?”

We knew what she wanted to hear: “We would never deny him.”

“Even to save your life?”

“No, never.”

We never would-we thought-because it would never happen.

But, of course, it has.

Two months ago, Cassie Bernall lay on the floor of Columbine High School, a gun pointed directly at her. “Do you believe in God?” her tormenter asked. “Yes.” It was the last word she ever said.

Today, Cassie Bernall is revered by many Christians across the nation. Young and old gather at rallies to spread the news of her faith. Some believe that it was God’s plan to take Cassie, so that she, in death, could show others the way.

It’s a difficult rationale-one not without its critics, who claim that some in the evangelical movement are exploiting Cassie’s story to get conversions. But in these days of uncertainty about why such a thing could happen to our nation, “God’s will” is the only answer some people can find.

The questions have swirled for two months. Was it the availability of guns that made them do it? Maybe. Was it the movies? Maybe. Disinterested parents? Maybe. Video games? Maybe. A lack of community, a lack of Christianity, a lack of prayer in schools? Maybe.

The search for a cause is desperate and exhausting. The symptom is finger pointing. We are

under pressure-we must find the answer so that we can find the solution. That’s the American way. But so far, we have come up short.

Other countries watch us with nervous trepidation, hoping they won’t be next. “We know we’re right behind the United States,” said Val Besag, a school psychologist in England, in an interview with Wise Guys. “We’re just holding our breath. What will America do about all these killings?”

Good question. If only we knew.

The harder we try, the worse it becomes. After the shooting in Springfield, Ore., in May 26, 1998, that killed four people, we committed ourselves to end the madness. Before that, after a shooting in Fayetteville, Tenn., we committed ourselves as well. In Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama-each time we slam down our fists and swear, “Never again.”

Still, statistics tell us that nearly every day in America, a child kills another child. Staggering.

It’s the school massacres, of course, that grab our attention. They stand out like blood on a wall, executed in our most hallowed place-the suburbs-by our most privileged race-young white males. But children in urban areas are even more at risk. Statistics tell us that a black teenage boy is seven times more likely to be murdered than his peer who is white.

“Everything’s just gotten worse,” a 16-year-old lamented after a shooting outside Harry S. Truman High School in Co-op City earlier this year. “The fights after school, the little gangs fighting over nothing, and now someone’s got shot.”

After Columbine, we all understand. And we all warrant a portion of the blame. It is a tough pill to swallow, but in scrambling after our American dream, we have somehow trampled on our children, and we have taught them to trample on others.

Here we stand at the last moment of what the world willingly agrees is the American Century, when our economic and technological progress cannot be matched. It is the century of social advancement, of accumulated wealth, of megamillionaires who still don’t have enough money. It is the century of American games and gain.

A magazine advertisement sums it all up: “Isn’t it time you started thinking about No. 1?”

Isn’t it time we stopped?

Our children emulate us and imitate us. They, too, crave their toys: their designer clothes, tennis shoes, beepers, cell phones, even guns. The currency of their value system. A survey reveals that the average student spends 1,500 hours per year watching television, 600 hours in school and 33 hours talking to their parents. And we wonder why we and teenagers are so out of touch.

Imagine this. A gunman walks into your office, into your boardroom, into your dining room or den and asks: “Do you believe in America’s children? Are you willing to spend time with them, to listen to them, to hear when they’re lonely or scared?”

It’s a life-or-death question. What’s the answer?

Terry Golway is on a short leave. He will return next month.