Every time a tragedy strikes, particularly one that involves children, we go into long soliloquies about all the things we need to do to help children deal with their grief. Any time, for example, that there is any kind of school violence, we call in "grief counselors."
But it is adults, not children, whose moral paradigms make it hard for them to make sense of tragedies like the one in Newtown, Connecticut.
One of the things you notice about children is that they deal with good and evil very simply. When they are introduced to someone new--whether in real life or in a book, the first thing they ask is, "Is he good or bad?" Once you have answered that question, the rest is easy: Good people do good things and bad people do bad things.
It makes complete sense. The problem is that our cultural authorities have abandoned a common sense view of good and evil and embraced instead a welter of confused beliefs about morality. Psychology, which means "the study of the soul," no longer acknowledges a soul. And philosophy, which means "the love of wisdom," no longer acknowledges wisdom. These are disciplines which, unfortunately, have cut themselves off from doing the very things they were invented to do.
And if you add to that the fact that we have an entertainment industry that no longer acknowledges virtue and heroism, and gives us one anti-hero after another, you have a complete recipe for moral confusion. If you wonder why so many people in this world are so screwed up, don't bother asking a sociologist. All you have to do is watch one episode of Dexter or Breaking Bad.
Most adults are morally confused, but most children are not--at least not until they are initiated into adult moral confusion at places like public schools. In fact, in all of the expressions of concern by the media and by politicians about the fate of children involved in these things, it often seems like the adults who are traumatized, at least if their inability to make moral sense of the situation is any indication.
Although I will have to say that the politicians so far have done rather well. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and President Barack Obama said all the right things. It was the media that performed its customary job of being morally obtuse. And pretty soon the politicians will descend into moral confusion too, as soon as they start talking about how the answer to the school shootings is gun control, despite the fact that Connecticut has among the nation's most stringent gun control laws. In fact, they're already doing it.
What I would like to see is a small army of competent children whose job it is in circumstances like the one that occurred Friday to sit all the professionals down who are always called in to give advice in these situations and make sure these adults are thinking about things properly.
I'm thinking of a scenario such as the following:
CHILD COUNSELOR: Now could you tell me how you're feeling right now? What do you think about the shooter who killed those people at the school?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: I don't know. What do you think?
CHILD COUNSELOR: Look, cut the crap, buster. Just give me a straight answer.
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Well, it's terribly complicated. I mean, there is still so much we don't know about the shooter: What he was thinking at the time, what his childhood was like, what kind of relationship he had with his parents.
CHILD COUNSELOR: At what point in your life did you start feeling like you had to complicate fairly simple situations like this one? Nevermind. I'm going to show you a series of pictures and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes into your mind:
[Child shows adult picture of doll]
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Vulnerable.
[Child shows adult picture of monster]
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Misunderstood.
[Child shows adult picture of children in classroom]
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Dangerous place.
CHILD COUNSELOR: I said "word." That means one. Pay attention!
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Sorry.
[child shows adult picture of Sigmund Freud]
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: [tearing up, lower lip quivering] ... Father!
CHILD COUNSELOR: I think I see the problem. [Child attaches electrodes to adult's wrists] Now, answer these questions please: What do good people do, and what do bad people do?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Well, it depends on what you mean by "good" and "bad" ...
[Child presses button, causing adult to seize up in electricity-induced convulsions]
CHILD COUNSELOR: Now let's try that again: What do good people do, and what do bad people do?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: [Paying much more careful attention now] Uh, well, good people [He looks fearfully at the button near the child's hand] ... good people ... [He looks at child's lips, which are forming the words of the right answer] ... good people do ... Good people do good things!
CHILD COUNSELOR: And bad people?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Bad people ... bad people ... [Child mouths correct answer] ... Do bad things!
CHILD COUNSELOR: Very good. Now tell me this: How do we know good people from bad people?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Uh, well, its hard to divide people into neat categories ... [Sees child's finger moving toward button] I mean, I mean, we know good people because, [beads of sweat form on adult's brow] ... because, Because they do good things!
CHILD COUNSELOR: And how do we know bad people?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Because they do bad things!
CHILD COUNSELOR: Very good. [Child removes electrodes from adult's wrists, adult clearly relieved] So when someone walks into a school and shoots people, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
GRIEF PROFESSIONAL: Definitely a bad thing.
CHILD COUNSELOR: And so when someone ask us why the man did this, what is the first answer we should give?
GRIEF COUNSELOR: Uh, because ... because ... Because he was a bad man!
CHILD COUNSELOR: Very good. You've made excellent progress. And now our time's up.
GRIEF COUNSELOR: [stands up, nervously] Thank you so much. Can I go now?
CHILD COUNSELOR: Yes, you can go now. When would you like to schedule your next appointment?
GRIEF COUNSELOR: [Slowly backing toward the door as he talks] Um, how about if I just get back to you?
CHILD COUNSELOR: Okay.
[Adult turns around, grabs the door knob, and goes quickly out. Child hears several doors open and close, and then the sound of someone sprinting down the sidewalk outside]
CHILD COUNSELOR: Mom!
MOTHER: [voice coming from another room] Yes dear!
CHILD COUNSELOR: Can we go get some ice cream now?!
MOTHER: Yes dear. [she says, walking in the room] I'll go get my coat.