Colorado, Camels and Straws
Jude Wanniski
April 27, 1999


Memo To: Bill Bennett, co-director, Empower America
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Analyzing the Colorado Killings

I'm writing this to you, Bill, because I think you may have spent more time thinking about American cultural pathologies than almost anyone else I personally know. I know you have been trying to divine the reasons for the tragic events in Littleton, because everyone in the country seems to have put their finger on a different reason, not all of which seem reasonable. People with narrow political agendas always use events such as Littleton to explain why they might not have happened if only their cause had been realized. Liberals always put the blame on the availability of guns, but clearly guns had nothing much to do with the Littleton deaths. Without a gun, Timothy McVeigh did a lot more damage with a bomb assembled with fertilizer. Conservatives often blame the permissiveness of society and the absence of school prayer -- conditions perpetrated by liberal courts, teachers and politicians.

I think you would agree, though, that when something this extraordinary occurs, there are A BUNDLE of reasons for it. Which brings us to the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Most of the reasons offered are not useful in trying to fix it so that it does not happen again. The perpetrators were nerds, for example, and some of their victims were boys who bullied them. There will always be bully boys, so we might as well forget those straws. Guns can be replaced by home-made bombs, so there is no answer there. Parents working two jobs don't have time for parenting, but for most of human history fathers worked six days a week and mothers worked seven. All change, though, takes place on the margin. (This is why I call these daily offerings "Memos on the Margin," as I am looking for new things that are happening around me that are causing change.) If we are going to do something really significant in changing the culture of violence, we have to go through the bundle of straws on the camel's back and try to remove those which can be removed with the least difficulty.

When Littleton occurred, I asked my colleague, Peter Signorelli, to give me his thoughts. I think Pete, who has been with me for 17 years, is on a par with you in having thought about the human condition and these social pathologies. Like you he is a Roman Catholic. I guarantee he has read more than you and I put together in his life, in several languages. (When he turned 50, he began teaching himself Arabic, so he could better understand the Muslim mind.) I'm not going to guarantee that he has exactly identified the problem, but he did give it a good shot, and so I wanted to share his thoughts with you, and my website family.

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To: Jude
From: Peter
Re: Columbine High School, Colorado

As is everyone else, I am numbed and perplexed by the shooting deaths of 15 people in a Colorado high school. It has brought forth all kinds of ideologically-based assertions. The hysteria being whipped up in favor of gun-banning is an example. Here is my impression (and I admit it is just an impression).

With the collapse of communism, there has not been a flourishing of a fluid democratic capitalism as one might think in the post-Cold War era. Instead, I think we can see that nihilism is the more potent force. Communism at least did have the redeeming value of professing a "moral" universe. They simply secularized the morality. They preached the "Kingdom of God" and "manna from heaven" as something for the here-and-now. But there still was a notion of morality beneath, a notion maybe as simple as why should there be poverty, ignorance, starvation, war and death when societies possess the capacity to so organize the means of production as to overcome all those evils? On that basis, at least communism had a moral appeal. Of course, some of us who were attracted by that learned later that the world's problems are not poverty, hunger, suffering, per se, but rather sin. In that sense some of us are forever radicals, as Jesus Christ is a far more revolutionary answer to the problem of the world than is any Marxist ideology. But fluid societies are not reflected by today's capitalism. The collapse of communism has left a moral vacuum in the world that capitalism has not yet addressed. This breeds nihilism. We see it in the Balkans, in Rwanda, and at Columbine High school in Littleton, Colorado.

I think that a case can be made that as we trace back this development it can be shown that a concerted assault against the notions of Truth, Beauty, and Good gained great momentum in the late 1960's and early 1970's. It did not appear in a vacuum, but its spread was abetted by the ruling elites, who accommodated it. Academia was ravaged when the professors began to discard any criterion for determining right from wrong, when any opinion was accepted as just as valid as any other, and actual evidence was discarded as capitalist/imperialist bias, or as racist or sexist, etc. It is not that academia no longer taught "Truths." It rarely did anyway, but it began to accommodate the belief that all is relative, and that there really is no fixed criterion of standards. It tied in with assaults across the board on all institutions of authority.

But the battle was not over with the capitulation of academia. The tide really turned with the decision made by our government to renege on its contract with the people to maintain the integrity and stable value of our currency. This also may sound like an ideologically-based, even crankish observation, but anyone who takes the time to look will see the abandonment by the U.S. of the gold standard has played a major role in the social-economic disruptions and tragedies that globally have occurred since. There are few bonds between a secular government and the people that can be raised to a level that is almost sacred. Yet throughout history, peoples and lands have prospered when governments maintained the stability of the currency. When it was tampered with, all kinds of social pathologies erupted and those societies came apart. Because that is such a sacred trust, its violation struck more deeply than other assaults on criteria of value and reliable standards of measurement in other areas. The ensuing disastrous inflations and accompanying escalation of increasingly onerous tax rates produced terrible distortions of all the traditional bonds that once bound families and communities together.

As you noted way back in your "Mundell-Laffer" hypothesis, abandoning the gold standard severed the link between effort and reward. That is so fundamental a relationship that the adverse effects of that single act are monumental when compared with others battles lost along the way. There is a clear link between the spread and escalation of most social pathologies today and the abandonment of any effort to maintain the stable value of the currency.

The carnage in Colorado was far worse than the violence bred of rage and frustration that produces school killings in inner cities. Those killings, no less tragic, still are in a different league. Many are second-degree homicides, rage on the spot. Somebody bumped somebody in a school hall, or looked at someone the wrong way, etc. Many lack the premeditation and planning that was in Colorado, and at a number of other suburban schools in the U.S.(even gang wars and drive-by shootings are not in the same league as the Colorado killings.) This is a more virulent form of the pathology. I think it is part of the consequences to be paid for never having corrected that violent breach of trust between the government and the people when the state abandoned any commitment to the quality of U.S. currency.

Other standards "floated" in the wake of that. The North Star itself seemed to be "floating," no longer a guide for the perplexed in any discipline. This is not to say we need a campaign based on restoring the "good old values." But we sure could use a campaign based on restoring the notion that yes, there does exist a criterion for determining the good from the debased. At one time it seemed Alice Cooper and KISS on one level were part of the vanguard of the assault against Truth, Good and Beauty; then Madonna seemed to have become the banner-bearer for that effort. But in my old age now, they look so tame compared to the death-cult that breeds in Heavy Metal groups, and is promoted so diabolically by Marilyn Manson. Marilyn Manson, et al., though, did not cause the problem; they merely reflect it. It is as useless to inveigh against that sub-culture as it is to promote nation-wide gun-control. Neither addresses the problem. We have to hope that the environment for nihilism can be shrunken and dried up, but it will not happen as long as the elite institutions themselves debase standards and values. It strikes me that the debate as to whether a fetus (the Latin term for "unborn child") is human or not is a debasement of standards. If we are still debating whether an unborn child qualifies as human or not, then something is amiss at a very deep level. (This is not to say that anti-abortion rhetoric has to be the top agenda item or litmus test for the GOP. There are many ways to deal with that problem. I cite it just as an example of how far the culture of death has spread in the U.S.)

Returning to a standard that once again links effort and reward is a necessary step out of this mess. It at least resurrects the notion that there are some bonds that are quasi-sacred. As far as "practical" measures, most seem to be ideologically-driven, taking advantage of the horror over Colorado to promote agendas that really will not in anyway challenge the spread of nihilism. The "values" agenda is very tricky. Example often is the best means to affect this. But not didactic examples. We have seen enough front-page pictures of a president accused of serious moral shortcomings emerging every Sunday morning from church with his Bible in hand. A positive example is the movement recently made by Rev. Calvin Butts to cross the racial divide to reach Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City -- a simple handshake, which then became an embrace between two children of God, the grace of which affected all gathered at St. Patrick's Catholic cathedral who seek ways to bridge the racial divide. But some values do have to be writ in stone, and the state, the government can take appropriate action to renew its responsibility to not cheat its own people. When the defense of fundamental values is abandoned by the elites, who can fault those of the population who cannot bear the burden of the terrible consequences that flow from that moral failure at the top?