There have been many eloquent statements, in deed and thought, about the terrible event in Blacksburg. All we can do is look at the larger picture, in search of perspective and wisdom.
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
(Editorial): No Guardrails
Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1993, Dow
Jones & Co., Inc.)
The gunning down of
abortion doctor David Gunn in Florida last week shows us how small the barrier
has become that separates civilized from uncivilized behavior in American life.
In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are
now so many marginalized people among us who don’t understand the rules, who
don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no
notion of self-control. We are the country that has a TV commercial on all the
time that says: "Just do it." Michael Frederick Griffin just did it.
protester of intense emotions, he walked around behind the Pensacola Women’s
Medical Services Clinic and pumped three bullets into the back of Dr. Gunn.
Emptied himself, Michael Griffin then waited for the police to take him away. A
remark by his father-in-law caught our eye: "Now we’ve got to take care of two
As the saying goes,
there was a time. And indeed there really was a time in the United States when
life seemed more settled, when emotions, both private and public, didn’t seem to
run so continuously at breakneck speed, splattering one ungodly tragedy after
another across the evening news. How did this happen to the United States? How,
in T.S. Eliot’s phrase, did so many become undone? —
We think it is possible
to identify the date when the U.S., or more precisely when many people within
it, began to tip off the emotional tracks. A lot of people won’t like this date,
because it makes their political culture culpable for what has happened. The
date is August 1968, when the Democratic National Convention found itself
sharing Chicago with the street fighters of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
The real blame here
does not lie with the mobs who fought bloody battles with the hysterical Chicago
police. The larger responsibility falls on the intellectuals — university
professors, politicians and journalistic commentators — who said then that the
acts committed by the protesters were justified or explainable. That was the
beginning. After Chicago, the justifications never really stopped. America had a
new culture, for political action and personal living.
With great rhetorical
firepower, books, magazines, opinion columns and editorials defended each
succeeding act of defiance — against the war, against university presidents,
against corporate practices, against behavior codes, against dress codes,
against virtually all agents of established authority. —
What in the past had
been simply illegal became "civil disobedience." If you could claim, and it was
never too hard to claim, that your group was engaged in an act of civil
disobedience — taking over a building, preventing a government official from
speaking, bursting onto the grounds of a nuclear cooling station, destroying
animal research, desecrating Communion hosts — the shapers of opinion would
blow right past the broken rules to seek an understanding of the "dissidents"
(in the ’60s and ’70s) and "activists" (in the ’80s and now).
personal virtue known as self-restraint was devalued. In the process, certain
rules that for a long time had governed behavior also became devalued. Whatever
else was going on here, we were repeatedly lowering the barriers of acceptable
political and personal conduct.
You can argue, as many
did and still do, that all this was necessary because the established order
wouldn’t respond or change. But then you still need to account for the nation’s
simultaneous dive into extensive social and personal dysfunction. You need to
account for what is happening to those people within U.S. society who seem least
able to navigate the political and personal torrents that they become part of,
like Michael Griffin. Those torrents began with the antiwar movement in the
demonstrations, though, were merely one part of a much deeper shift in American
culture — away from community and family rules of conduct and toward more
autonomy, more personal independence. As to limits, you set your own. —
The people who provided
the theoretical underpinnings for this shift — the intellectuals and political
leaders who led the movement — did very well, or at least survived. They are
born with large reservoirs of intelligence and psychological strength. The fame
and celebrity help, too.
But for a lot of other
people it hasn’t been such an easy life to sustain. Not exceedingly
sophisticated, neither thinkers nor leaders, never interviewed for their views,
they’re held together by faith, friends, fun and, at the margins, by fanaticism.
The big political crackups make the news — a Michael Griffin or the woman on
trial in Connecticut for the attempted bombing of the CEO of a surgical-device
company or the ’70s radicals who accidentally blew themselves up in a New York
brownstone. But the personal crackups just float like flotsam through the
country’s hospitals and streets. You can also see some of them on daytime TV,
America’s medical museum of personal autonomy. —
It may be true that
most of the people in Hollywood who did cocaine survived it, but many of the
weaker members of the community hit the wall. And most of the teenage girls in
the Midwest who learn about the nuances of sex from magazines published by
thirtysomething women in New York will more or less survive, but some continue
to end up as prostitutes on Eighth Avenue. Everyone today seems to know someone
who couldn’t handle the turns and went over the side of the mountain.
These weaker or more
vulnerable people, who in different ways must try to live along life’s margins,
are among the reasons that a society erects rules. They’re guardrails.
It’s also true that we need to distinguish good rules from bad rules and
periodically re-examine old rules. But the broad movement that gained force
during the anti-war years consciously and systematically took down the
guardrails. Incredibly, even judges pitched in. All of them did so to
transform the country’s institutions and its codes of personal behavior
(abortion, for instance).
In a sense, it has been
a remarkable political and social achievement for them. But let’s get something
straight about the consequences. If as a society we want to live under
conditions of constant challenge to institutions and limits on personal life, if
we are going to march and fight and litigate over every conceivable grievance,
then we should stop crying over all the individual casualties, because there are
going to be a lot of them.
Michael Griffin and Dr.
David Gunn are merely two names on a long list of confrontations and personal
catastrophe going back 25 years. That today is the status quo. The alternative
is to start rethinking it.
Truer words were never written.