Exploring Reactions to the Violence in Colorado
by John Breeding, PhD
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On April 29th, I participated in a panel of four authors, organized as an event for parents in conjunction with National Child Abuse Week, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Austin, Texas. I am a psychologist, as were two of the other panelists, one in private practice like myself, the other a University professor. Both of these men commented on the recent tragedy of multiple killings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The first, an author of many books on parenting, lead off the evening's discussion by makng a brief comment on the incident, recommending that parents should "limit their liability," explaining that our influence on our children is not so great as we think, and that we need not feel guilty or responsible when something like this occurs. The academician had just written a book presenting research to argue the case that many human traits and abilities are genetically determined, and that parents really need to recognize the limits of their influence on children, and to let go of unnecesary guilt and overresponsibility. He said that the "default point" for human beings was simian wildness as in William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, and that our job is basically to provide an influence to civilize our children. He strongly felt that violence was very biologically determined, and that incidents such as the killings in Colorado, though unpredictable, were to be expected, and could largely be accounted for by genetics.

My purpose in this brief commentary is to invite the reader to take a close look at his or her own spontaneous comments or judgments about the events in Colorado. I believe such comments, with just a little self-inquiry, can provide tremendous illumination on one's guiding beliefs, and an opportunity to consider and reevaluate these beliefs. The effort is worthwhile because these beliefs, often unconscious and inarticulate, have profound implications. Personally, I have grave concerns about the implications of the thinking espoused by my two colleagues. Like them, I believe that human beings come into the world with unique genetic and biological makeup, and that as parents we tend to overestimate our ability to control the course of our children's lives. Many of us err in thinking that our job is to control our children. Mostly, we do this out of fear or shame-- fear that they'll turn out badly; shame that they will somehow reflect badly on us. I part with my colleagues, however, in many ways. The idea that we should "limit our liability" applies a concept to our role as parents which enforces a legalistic self-protective way of relating, pervasive in our society, which I see as extremely unfortunate for parents and children. Concluding that violence is largely biologically determined has even greater consequences. I believe it negates or minimizes the role of conscience, morality and ethics, as well as compassion, caring, and a necesary responsibility for the well-being of all of our fellow beings-- in short, those qualities which to me make us essentially human.

What really is "essential?" What is the essence of our humanness? What is our inherent nature? To the university professor on our panel, the essence of human nature, what he called the "default option," is simian aggression. Contrast this dark view with that of the Dalai Lama's1:

One of my fundamental beliefs is that all sentient beings have gentleness as their fundamental nature. If we look at the pattern of our existence from an early age until our death, we see the way in which we are so fundamentally nurtured by affection, each other's affection, and how we feel when we are exposed to each others' affection. In addition, when we ourselves have affectionate feelings we see how it naturally affects us from within. Not only that, but also being affectionate and being more wholesome in our behavior and thought seems to be much more suited to the physical structure of our body in terms of its effect on our health and physical well- being, and so on. It must also be noted that the contrary seems to be destructive to health.

I love the Dalai Lama. I believe that our inherent nature is that we are born, barring organic brain damage, as highly intelligent, zestful, curious, loving beings. We are also born needing and expecting a tremendous amount of attention, care, nurturance and support by thoughtful, aware adults through our exceedingly long process of development. With such attention, we retain our intelligence and zest, and learn to share with others in a spirit of warmth, affection and cooperation. Without this support, it is true that we often succumb to the effects of neglect, insult and injury, and sometimes act very badly. I don't see this as a default option. I see it as the effect of having been systematically hurt with no recourse to ways of healing.

One very clear sign of our society's failure to meet the needs of our young people is that we put literally millions of school-age children on toxic psychiatric drugs. Ritalin is most popular, but the adult so-called antidepressant drugs in the Prozac family are used more and more on children. Did you know that the effects profile of these drugs is virtually identical to amphetamines?2 Did you know that one of the very well-documented effects of these drugs is violence? The first thing I always ask after news reports of "bizarre," dramatic killings, is whether the killer was on one of these psychiatric drugs. Although I regrettably did not have this information at the time of the Barnes & Noble panel, I now know that at least one of the boys, Eric Harris, was on a Prozac cousin called Luvox.3 So was Matthew Beck, killer of four in the "lottery shooting" one year ago.

I agree with the university professor that such violent events can be expected, not however because of our inherently violent nature as he argues, but because of our failures to provide a healthy, nurturing community for our young people and for all of us. It is hardly surprising, given the massive problems we have in our society, that these events do occur. Comments about such events coming "out of the blue" seem always to say more about the lack of adult involvement and attention to the young people who commit the horrible acts, than they do about the actual situation. I believe that to reduce such actions to biological determinism has nothing to do with real science, only with the pseudoscience of psychiatry which gives toxic drugs to people. It has everything to do with hopelessness and despair, feelings with which our young people are contending in massive doses. Adolescents are faced with the arduous task of coming of age in a distressed society. Let's not project the hopelessness we feel as adults onto our young people. Let's work on that ourselves, and do whatever it takes to be fully engaged in supporting, encouraging, and providing meaningful opportunities for them to become adults who are true to their unique, individual natures.

End Notes

  1. The Dalai Lama (1997) Healing Anger. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, p. 4.
  2. Breggin, P., and Breggin, G. (1994) Talking Back To Prozac. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  3. See Dr. Ann Tracy's website at www.drugawareness.org.