• U.S.

TIME Special Report

3 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

I’m so scared, said the boy, as he took the gun out of his mouth and fell into the arms of the assistant principal, who had come to take it away from him. It’s the last day of school, exam time, and we all are scared, because this is a test we can’t seem to pass. We had exactly a month to prepare since the last school shooting splattered the questions all over our desks: What is wrong with our kids, and our culture, and our schools and our hearts? What will need to happen so that this won’t happen again?

And the clock started running.

Politicians are scared because they showed up for work last Thursday morning with the wrong answers. That National Commission on Character Development the Senate approved on Wednesday seemed aimed at some other problem on some other planet. Even as T.J. Solomon was loading his weapons, even as President Clinton was preparing to fly out to Littleton to mark the one-month anniversary of the massacre, the Senate was debating a juvenile-crime bill. Then the bulletins flashed across TV screens, we were back in the helicopter over yet another school, more running children, fluttering yellow crime tape, flushed sheriffs, nodding anchormen. We didn’t know what it would take to pass the first modest gun-control provision in five years. Now we do.

The news media are scared because we think we should have the answers. We love to explain everything, have the story wrapped up in a box for the weekend. But this is one we can’t make fit. A survey last week by the Pew Charitable Trust found that the Littleton shooting is one of the most closely followed stories of the decade; it lingers in part because of our failure to account for what happened. And we in the media are just as scared that we’re to blame. By telling a violent news story, are we risking imitation? By providing a violent fairy tale, do we invite it? The biggest movie in history puts a double-bladed light saber in every child’s hand or mind, and the lines between news and life and art and entertainment wind up in knots. Last week CBS dropped an especially violent show about the Mafia. “This is not the time to have people being whacked on the streets of New York,” said network chief Leslie Moonves. Besides, the fall lineup was already crowded.

The hardest exams, for once, are the take-home tests. And this time, it’s a test of our will and reflexes. We’ve had a chance to look at the precious microculture of our own household and study its condition. But how many of us actually did anything differently? Spent more time with our children, or someone else’s? Came home a little earlier? Skipped a meeting? Turned off the TV? Called other parents, called a teacher, volunteered to help with some after-school activity–Girl Scouts, theater, baseball–that will happen only if enough grownups show up?

This story always ends up back at home: we’re looking across the table at our kids, at their friends, at the kids down the street and in their class at school, and wondering which ones are in pain and what can be done to help them, which ones think their lives are falling apart and are capable of tearing ours up as well. I’m so scared, said the boy with the gun, and so are we.

–By Nancy Gibbs

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