Moral Absolutes, Not More Gun Laws

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Tom Clancy's latest novel is "Rainbow Six" (Putnam, 1998)

Almost exactly eight years ago I was at Walt Disney World in Florida, pushing a wheelchair occupied by a little boy of seven years who had already lost a leg to cancer and would, on Aug. 1 of that year, lose his life. I say this to let the reader know that I am aware of the fact that if there is something worse than the death of a child, I have yet to encounter it.

Fourteen kids and one adult are dead, and for no good reason. The horrid events in Littleton, Colo., last week cause us all first to wince, then to feel the loss of other parents and, last of all, to ask why it had to happen.

This last question cannot ever be answered with certainty. To look into another human heart is something none of us can really do. We can only guess and hope that something like this stays a long way away from our own families. This does not, however, stop people from taking this incident and using it as fodder for their own political views.


The first and most predictable reactors to this event were the gun-control advocates. It had to be the guns’ fault, they said even before the last sad echoes faded. (The two alleged criminals also used explosive devices; why not do away with chemistry class in addition to toughening up gun-control laws?) The media dutifully reported this view, because they, as a rule, follow the cant of the political left, because for the news media the Constitution starts and ends with the 1st Amendment and not even all of that.

“Congress,” this part of the Constitution says, “shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and then it goes on to protect the press, freedom of speech and assembly. This first entry in the Bill of Rights is taught to kids in school as freedom of religion. Yet current political culture twists it into freedom from religion. The political left bridles at the mere recitation of a single prayer in public schools. Why? Well, it offends some of those among us who choose not to believe in God, and since those people may be offended (especially the noisy ones), this small minority is able to impose its views on the majority, and to do so with the blessing--nay the advocacy--of the “progressive” elements of our political culture.

I suppose my first reaction is, what’s the big deal? If atheists don’t believe, what possible interest could they have in the words of those who do? Oh, yeah, the kids of parents who choose not to believe can’t be exposed to a contrary outlook, lest they be polluted by it. We can’t have the public schools inculcating belief in something like that--and we don’t.

Instead we have schools promoting “value-neutral” cant. Modern school books tell kids that stealing, for example, is wrong, not because it’s “wrong,” but rather because after stealing you might feel badly about it later on. Better, isn’t it, to let kids mush along with their own subculture and figure things out for themselves, albeit with the help of rap music and Web sites about Adolf Hitler?

I never attended public schools. My parents sent me to Catholic ones, where education in religion was part of the curriculum, and along with that came a few simple rules: killing and stealing were out. Why? Because they were wrong. A simple bit of advice for a child to absorb, and evidently effective. Nobody shot up St. Matthew Elementary School while I was there--and back then gun-control laws were far more lax than they are now. Crime was also a far more rare event.

There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but the simple fact is that the political left has assumed ownership of the rules of contemporary society. They have replaced right and wrong with something else, and one result of this is that there were no people to take the two adolescent shooters in Littleton aside and say, “Hey, guys, this Hitler chap you talk about, he was not much of a role model, and, by the way, whatever problems you may have with your schoolmates, we can work on that, and maybe if you change a little, they will, too, and whatever feelings of rejection you have will fade away in a relatively short period of time.”


But nobody intervened, and evidently nobody told these two misguided kids that some things are objectively wrong. Perhaps too many public schoolteachers do not view morals instruction as being within their professional purview. Perhaps their union disapproves of prayers and morality-teaching as much as the ACLU does. Maybe it was their parents’ fault, maybe the fault of many segments of society. The final score is dismally simple: These two boys did what they did because nobody told them convincingly that to do so was horribly wrong.

So maybe, just maybe, we can allow public schools to tell kids that some things are just plain wrong? The problem with that is that our ideas of right and wrong ultimately come from a source higher than government. And to say such a thing would offend atheists. But if you remove something and fail to replace it with something else, there will be a downstream effect.

These two kids used guns and some homemade explosives. In the former case, let’s try to remember that guns are inanimate objects. They do not leap up and operate on their own accord. A person, misguided or not, has to do that. The person may be motivated by greed, hatred or madness, and in some cases there is nothing we can do about the wishes of that human heart. But in some cases we can, if we think a little about what ideas we trouble ourselves to teach our children. It is neither difficult nor particularly offensive to instruct children in the better reasons rather than casting them adrift to find the worse ones on their own untutored accord.