A CNN report on the May 23 mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school began, “we may never know why a shooter gunned down 19 children and two teachers in a massacre Tuesday at Robb Elementary School …” Not specifically, no. Reasonable explanations often betray such evil acts. But it is not impossible to diagnose the moral muck from which such tragedies emerge. Putting aside the gun culture of America – a sociological reality backed up by constitutional imperatives – the United States suffers from a breakdown of the family, growing irreligiousness, and a deterioration of rules and standards that signal expected good behaviour, all of which contribute to the callousness that leads to the easy taking of lives.
On March 18, 1993, the Wall Street Journal published a famous editorial, “No Guardrails” (about the shooting of abortionist David Gunn), noting “how small the barrier has become that separates civilized from uncivilized behavior in American life.” It said there was a growing number of people “who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that the rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.” The editorialist pointed to the date that tipped “the emotional tracks”: August 1968 Democratic National Convention when an anti-Vietnam War mob violently clashed with police. “The real blame,” the Journal noted, was with academics, pundits, and politicians who excused and justified the mob’s violence. Since then, politically motivated rationales that excused more than explained have become the norm, and “America had a new culture, for political action and personal living.”
Things have only gotten worse in America since that editorial 29 years ago. From tearing down school and workplace dress codes to commonplace swearing on television to the unlawful actions of the executive branch, every norm of established authority has been questioned and, in many cases, overturned.
At the same time, the Journal noted, personal “self-restraint was devalued.” Codes of conduct, both formal and informal, that governed proper behaviour, were torn down, deemed infringements on personal autonomy or, more recently, examples of ruling class prejudices or the vestiges of white privilege. The Journal called these codes of conduct “guardrails.” (One such guardrail was the prohibition on prenatal killing, smashed by Roe v. Wade in 1973, which has not been restored with the overturning of the infamous decision.)
Ignoring guardrails usually has higher costs for vulnerable people, as most of the managerial class have the resources that substitute for moral resilience. Those on the margins of society are often the victims of other pathologies, including broken homes and declining religiosity.
The decline of religious practice in the home is an obvious smashed guardrail. As people eschew religious observance, they are more likely to follow the rules, or lack thereof, signalled by the broader society, which as already noted has shed its sense of right and wrong. Religious observance has been steadily declining since the 1950s (it’s ahistorical high-water mark in America) but the number of adolescents attending weekly church services dropped precipitously over the past 30 years.
The breakdown of the family seems to be a concomitant problem with growing secularization.
In June, W. Bradford Wilcox, Wendy Wang, and Alysse ElHage wrote a research brief “Life Without Father: Less College, Less Work, and More Prison for Young Men Growing up Without Their Biological Father,” for the Institute for Family Studies. It found that 31.5 per cent of boys are not living with their biological father (the vast majority solely with their mothers), and their research confirms what previous studies have discovered: stark disparities in which fatherless boys are more likely to have bad outcomes including not completing college (14 per cent to 35 per cent for those who live with their dads), idleness as defined by not working or looking for work (19 compared to 11 per cent), and incarceration at most age cohorts, notably the ages of 28-34 (21 per cent and 10 per cent respectively). Other research on fatherless boys show they are also more likely to die of drug overdose, commit suicide, commit crimes during adolescence, and live in poverty as a child and remain in poverty as an adult. Even when taking into account other factors such as income and education, these problems are more pronounced for fatherless boys. The IFS brief’s authors note that “the decline in marriage and rise of fatherlessness in America remain at the center of some of the biggest problems facing the nation.”
Wilcox and his colleagues explained why: Lacking the day-to-day involvement, guidance, and positive example of their father in the home, and the financial advantages associated with having him in the household, these boys are more likely to act up, lash out, flounder in school, and fail at work as they move into adolescence and adulthood. Even though not all fathers play a positive role in their children’s lives, on average, boys benefit from having a present and involved father.” In other words, these boys have no guardrails in their homes.
George Barna, a senior research fellow at the Family Research Council, says that a person’s “worldview is fully developed before the age of 13” and therefore “young children listen to and watch their parents for clues on how to live an appropriate and successful life.” Many boys live without these good sources for clues on how to live. Adam Coleman, author of Black Victim to Black Victor, wrote in the New York Post that fathers provide critical guidance to their sons in numerous ways including providing a “blueprint for manhood,” “a source of protection,” “a source of security,” “a builder of confidence,” and “a teacher for how to regulate your emotions,” “the son’s purpose compass” that guides them “towards purposeful adulthood.” Coleman concluded his column in the aftermath of the Uvadle, “Our boys are being forgotten, and being treated as such creates chaos for us all.”
Indeed, a 2021 analysis published in the journal Psychology, Crime and Law looked at 48 academic studies and determined that they overwhelmingly demonstrate “a positive relation between single-parent families and the level of crime.” A 1993 survey found that the vast majority of teachers (71 per cent) and police (90 per cent) said “a lack of parental supervision at home is a major factor that contributes to violence in schools.” Lone-parent households are less likely to have children that are sufficiently supervised.
That is not to say that every child of a single mother or progeny of unchurched parents will grow up to be a mass murderer. There are bad seeds sewn in many fields, and we must not ignore the role of personal agency in the committing of evil acts. The majority of children from broken homes will not commit heinous crimes; some children nurtured in loving two-parent homes will end up doing beastly things. There are good irreligious people just as there are evil religious ones. But the social science confirms the old truth that the best environment to raise children in is the two-parent home, and that families that are engaged in their churches and communities, are the ones most likely to raise kids that are successful and resilient and less likely to commit serious crimes.
An uncivilized culture should be a contradiction, but it describes large segments of our population. Those living at society’s margins, whether because of poverty, racism, or, it needs to be said, family breakdown, need society’s guardrails the most … as do their possible victims in tragedies such as those at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School on May 23.