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26th National Convention of American Atheists
by Conrad F. Goeringer
(Convention 2000 Speech Transcript)
Thank you very much.

As you probably know, this weekend marks the first anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. On Tuesday, April 20, 2020, two students named Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into the school building, planted a number of explosive devices, and went on a shooting spree that claimed the lives of 12 other young people and a teacher. Twenty one others were injured, and Klebold and Harris ended up taking their own lives. I wrote in the autumn 1999 issue of American Atheist Magazine that the gunmen ended up as actors in a mushrooming national debate over religion, values and the status leading of cultural institutions. I also suggested that the Columbine event was bound to become one of the defining themes in the year 2000 elections.

So, with the anniversary now here there is once again a lot of discussion and self-examination about everything having to do a whole cluster of issues related to Columbine, especially the behavior of young people. What I hope to do today is demonstrate that especially in the American experience, this is nothing new. The cultural and political fallout from Columbine is just the latest example of our reactions as a society to intergenerational conflict and stereotyping. The debate over youth in the society and as well as the phobia that an entire generation of young people were on the verge of rampaging out of control, or falling into the predatory clutches and influence of some group of villains, this is something that, like violence, is as American (and common) as apple pie. This debate over young people has often involved more subtle themes, including gender, empowerment, economic and social change and, of course, religious values.

Another point I’d like to raise is that the Columbine incident, and how the news media, and political leaders, and religious groups and other key institutions in our society reacted, is all part of a deeper and wider question. To illustrate this, try to think back to April 20, 2020 and those images you may have seen on television. It was a view from a helicopter circling above Columbine high, and down below, a serpentine line of students -- all of them running -- was pouring out of the building. On each side they were lined by police and SWAT team members festooned in body armor and toting automatic weapons. And maybe you noticed it --the students were running, frantically, their hands were locked above their heads. The cops seemed unsure -- they kept yelling something at the kids, and they appeared uncertain about where to point their pistols and rifles and tear gas grenade launchers. And I was struck by the ambiguity in this image. Were the students under arrest? Were they being saved? Were they potential victims? Evil-doers? “Perps”? Was this a rescue, or something which resembled more that selective videography of the so-called “bad guys” that we see on programs like COPS and AMERICA’S MOST WANTED, where a malefactor -- very often young, and a person of color, it seems...-- is shown prostrate on the ground, or handcuffed, or like those Columbine students, with his or her hands locked above the head?
I couldn’t be sure, but as it turns out that body language was beamed into our homes and offices, and it has become a sort of visual metaphor for so many things Columbinesque. It also speaks loud volumes about our ambiguity toward young people. Are they victims or perpetrators? Should they be rescued, or place under curfew and arrest? Are they being protected, or controlled? We just can’t seem to make up our minds.

But deep down, American culture with its mostly-Protestant ethos, has viewed young people as a Janus-like blend of saint and devil. They are potentially WILD AT HEART, much in the way Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern were in the movie of the same title. There have been recurrent debates over this, beginning especially with the first waves of the industrial revolution, as young men and women began drifting away from agrarian familial arrangements. Periods of social dislocation and stress fuel these worries, too. War seems to accentuate the angst over youth and gender roles. So does technological change. When women began to move into the manufacturing centers and started to do what women had never done in such numbers before -- have their own money -- there was a wrenching national outcry from religious and civic groups. And technological innovations like the invention of the telegraph, the development of silent and then spoken movies, even the mass production of records -- all of these were at the center of heated debates over the status of young people, just as the internet and video games are today.

We can learn a great deal not so much from the Columbine incident -- because that really IS an anomaly -- but from how we have reacted to it. So let me make a few observations about intergenerational conflict.

* Social perceptions of young people, especially the question of how they be reared as children and prepared as adolescents -- are often linked to prevailing religious ideologies.

The Ten Commandments order us to HONOR FATHER AND MOTHER, the Bible is filled with exhortation to “obey” those in position of authority beginning with parents and magistrates. That is why so much of the discussion about young people, especially the stereotyping and demonizing, comes from religious spokespersons and movement. Much of this has to do with the intergenerational conflict with parental authority, so you have legislative initiatives for so-called “parental rights,” you have demands even from religious conservatives that the state become a handmaiden in regulating what youngsters may see, or hear, or write, or how they may dress, even if they can walk down the street at a certain hour. Even more extreme is the belligerent defense of corporal punishment -- and everyone knows that doesn’t work -- or the more frightening proposal by Christian Reconstructionists, that the death penalty be invoked for youngsters who rebel against their parents. That is extreme, but perhaps the more socially acceptable secular equivalent of this is the current penchant for trying an increasing number of possible juvenile offenders as adults. It’s worth noting that we have a record number of youngsters behind bars or caught up in the labyrinth of the criminal justice system, and interestingly, the number of young black juveniles and black men has reach a record high. We throw them in prisons, jails and -- the politician’s favorite, which is the juvenile boot camp. And for me, anyway, it’s interesting that two of the groups in the society which are least empowered -- that’s black people and young people -- are the objects of such extraordinary judicial attention.

A lot of this, especially as it relates to young people, finds roots in the Calvinist beliefs of the 18th and 19th century that youngsters were willful and disobedient creatures who had to be restrained and “broken.” Unitarians and other religious groups beginning in the 1830s started to question this view, and new theories and sensibilities have competed ever since.

* Another point is that technological innovation has often fueled worries over how it may impact youngsters and young adults.

This began with the industrial revolution and the rise of commercial farming. Children were less under the supervision and control of the father; young men and women often left home to seek their fortunes in the urban industrial metropolis or, later, the western frontier.

I mentioned the invention of the telegraph, and it’s interesting to note that the spread of that new technology prompted many of the same sort of fears and worries that the internet does today. There is a wonderful little book on this written by a British journalist named Tom Standage, it is aptly titled THE VICTORIAN INTERNET. Like the internet, the telegraph was cited as a remarkable invention that would do everything from abolishing war to linking the world together in a sort of 19th century Global Village. People met over the telegraph, they were telegraphically married. Different groups were highly suspicious of the telegraph, though, and how it could be used. One reason may have been the involvement of so many women in this burgeoning industry, especially in rural areas.

There were also fears that the telegraph would become a haven for fraud and skullduggery, especially with the invention of telegraphic codes. Different groups, including some newspapers, feared that the new technology would put them out of business (it didn’t, they thrived because of the telegraph...). Many people, especially those in government, were concerned that the telegraph had the potential of being a subversive technology, especially when it brought unflattering or horrifying reports of military campaigns. There were fears that the telegraph would accelerate the pace of commerce and information flow to such an extent that people would, literally, have to work around the clock if they were keep up and compete. There were fears of a Victorian era “information overload.”

But there were also concerns about how the telegraph might free young people from the constraints of parental supervision. As young women poured into the workplace, especially the telegraphy industry, on-line courtships, flirtations, affairs and even marriages proliferated. The 19th century novelist Ella Cheever Thayer wrote a popular telegraph romance aptly titled “Wired Love,” which was based on an on-line courtship. A more cautionary piece appeared an 1886 issue of the telegraphers’ journal “Electrical World,” and this claimed to be the true story of a Brooklyn newsstand proprietor who hired his young daughter to operate a telegraph line. The woman supposedly began flirting with a number of young men over the wire, including one gentleman who was married. The two arranged to meet, the father found out and intervened. The 20-year-old daughter then quit the newsstand, got a job at a telegraph office and continued her electrical assignation. The father then reportedly followed her to a rendezvous and threaten to “blow her brains out,” and the daughter had him arrested.

There is another interesting aspect to this social anxiety about the telegraph, especially as it relates to young people. There were diffuse fears that the telegraph would allow young couples who were courting each other against the wishes of parents a new and clandestine way to communicate.

There is another group of actors here, too, and that is unfaithful married couples. It was very common for lovers to use newspaper classified advertisements as a way of communicating, exchanging affections, and setting up rendezvous and assignations. The printing press had been around for a long time, but during the Victorian era this technology thrived in the form of competing daily newspapers that often put out several editions a day. Pages were filled not just with current national and international news -- something made possible by telegraphy -- but commercial and cryptic personal ads, many of them from young couples. The situation was often described as scandalous.

Telegraphy made infidelity and courtship even easier, and rendered it more anonymous. Interestingly, this led to the wide spread use of codes and cyphers -- especially for commercial purposes -- and this in turned stimulated a whole debate over the role of government in breaking coded messages. But the point is that from the perspective of parental authority, the telegraph -- like the automobile and the thriving marketplace that allowed younger people to sever the bonds of economic dependence on family units -- brought about a revolution of its own.

Issues involving parental and societal control over young people were also fueled by another technological innovation, and that was the phonograph.. The fears so many people have today about the internet -- that young especially would be exposed to all kinds of salacious, violent and corrosive influences-- was mirrored early in the 20th century by dire warnings from religious groups, social aristocrats and even progressive reformers.

Edison had constructed the first practical phonograph in 1877, a device that recorded sound on a wax cylinder, and he envisioned this invention primarily as a business tool. It was up the German-born American inventor Emile Berliner in 1887 to adapt this technology to a flat recording medium, and lo, the 78 rpm record was born. By the early 1900s firms like the Columbia Gramophone Company and the Victory Talking Machine Company were producing a consumer’s conucopia of different recording artists and styles.

Not everyone was happy with the offerings, though, and there was considerable outcry against two musical forms in particular, jazz and blues. Jazz was considered anarchic, rebellious, it’s reliance on improvisation broke so many of the rules. It often emphasized an exuberant and loud style over musical finesse. And what affronted so many was its Afro American roots.

Different styles of jazz poured out of Chicago, New Orleans and New York, and as if on cue, the technology of mass produced recording was there to transport this new and subversive musical form into social gatherings and private homes.

Some of it was downright sexual. Different jazz styles lent themselves readily to festive and suggestive dancing. There was also what might be called a jazz culture. The respectable side of this were the big bands, but often, if you wanted real jazz, you went to Harlem or the black side of town. Jazz was often associated with booze joints, something which rendered this musical form even more rebellious and subversive during the era of prohibition. It was feared that white youngsters -- especially young girls -- would succumb to the suggestive lyrics, and one of the most popular instruments of the genre -- the saxophone -- was denounced as a tool of the devil, and perhaps aptly described as the “sexaphone.”

Certain dance forms have also been banned, and as with the censorship of music, the rationale was often that it corrupted the morals of youth. This was often coupled by stereotypes of young people as being wild, out-of-control, given over to loud, disorderly and raucous behavior. Records -- even at the beginning of the century -- were often seen as vehicles for bringing into the sanctity of the home disorderly and downright blasphemous forms of entertainment..

I want to touch upon two other technologies which have had profound social ramifications, and which also have been at the center of a debate involving young people, and these are radio and the motion picture. There is a whole history of efforts to censor and regulate these two communications media. With radio, those of you who attended the 1993 convention in Sacramento might have heard me speak on the Orson Welles radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS. The fallout from that historic hoax included pleas from a number of political officials including members of Congress and the head of the FCC suggesting that government needed to intervene and control the content of material on the airwaves.

Modern perceptions of teenagers as rebellious and out of control hooligans owe much of their genesis to the 1950s which, despite the stereotypes, was a time of profound social and economic transition. The fifties was the birthing of the baby boomers; men and women had come back from the war and established families. Patterns of familiar organization and parental control shifted as suburbia blossomed, and fathers spent more time away from the home working and traveling. There was an attendant loosening of some parental controls, especially with absent fathers and at least some older teens increasingly mobile thanks to the automobile, and even such lures as the drive-in theater -- the “passion pit.” And there was considerable worry about the radio as a vehicle for exposing teenagers, often in the privacy and secrecy of their rooms, to salacious lyrics, rambunctious ideas and a pop musical form that was soon dubbed rock and roll. If we look back at the music censorship of the 1950s, I think we see a lot of the same types of patterns and claims and bizarre political behaviors going on today in respect to the internet.

Now, the incident at Littleton raised renewed concerns over the content of everything from movies and television to videogames and lyrics in music. None of this, though, was really new. In the fifties, the explosive popularity of radio -- especially the fact that it was now standard fare in automobiles and had become a portable entertainment medium -- triggered outcries from religious, political and civic groups. In 1951, for instance, stations across the country responded to pressure by banning songs like Dottie O’Briens “Four of Five Times,” and Dean Martin’s hit, “Wham Bam, Thank you Ma’am.” The following year, a folk group called The Weavers were blacklisted in many markets due to their political lyrics. Some tunes weren’t banned, but the lyrics were changed so as not to offend the presumed sensibilities of the community. In the song “These Foolish Things,” lyrics like “gardenia perfume linger on a pillow” were changed to a more incongruous image, “a seaplane rising from an ocean billow.”

Songs like Webb Pierce’s “There Stands the Glass” which supposedly condoned drinking were banned from radio play, and so were lyrics with purported references to sex and drugs. Cole Porter’s classic “I Get A Kick Out Of You” was Baudlerized, a line stating: “I get no kick from cocaine” was changed to the more ridiculous “I get perfume from Spain.”

Police across the country staged a series of high-profile jukebox raids. Reporters, local ministers, mayors and other public office hopefuls usually tagged along for the news value of these events, which showed government and church combating salacious influences. Jukeboxes were confiscated, the owners of the juke joints were fined, and radio stations took note. Several big market stations read an announcement that would warm the hearts today of Jerry Falwell or Bill Bennett or C. Delores Tucker. They stated: “Your good-will station, in the interest of good citizenship, for the protection of morals and our American way of life, does not consider this record _______fit for broadcast. We are sure all you listeners will agree with us.”

The Roman Catholic Church was particular active in this campaign. This was the hey-day for the church’s war on obscene or controversial or provocative Hollywood films, and for that purpose the Legion of Decency was unleashed. To combat salacious lyrics on radio, Catholic Youth Organizations (the CYO) was used. CYO officers, often working closely with local police and even radio station owners, began a pressure campaign to prevent “obscene” songs from airing, and even monitored local dances for any offensive songs or dancing.

And during this time, one of the beneficiaries of on-air Bauderlizing was Pat Boone. In 1955 he began a career by releasing “sanitized” versions of mostly black R&B hits that had re-written lyrics. In a song by T-Bone Walker, “Stormy Night,” the phrase “drinkin’ wine” was deleted in favor of the more corporate and less-offensive “ the weather’s fine.” Boone even raided Little Richard’s stock of tunes, including the smash hit “Tutti Fruitti.” Little Richard asked “Boys, do you know what she do to me.” Boone suggested: “Pretty Little Susie is the girl for me...”

The protests were greatest like Boston and Chicago where the Legion of Decency was most active, and where the Catholic Church exercised considerable political influence. Cities across the country responded, though, and in places like Houston, the local Crime Commission -- instead of looking for gangsters -- began monitoring radio stations and creating a blacklist of tunes.

* Now, another point here is that the political and cultural fall out from the Columbine incident involved the use of a powerful weapon -- and one that is almost an American habit if not institution -- and that is demonization and stereotyping. And usually this agenda accompanies the cry that some kind of communications medium be censored or controlled by the state.

In the hours and days following Columbine, schools across the country reacted to the shooting by cracking down on a range of student behaviors. And, incredibly, this came at a time when violence in schools continued to decline. Even with the high-profile shootings at places like Heath High School in Paduchah, Kentucky, the rates of assault, gun possession and other indicators has been falling for several years, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Surveys of parents and students, though, showed that these groups often seriously over-estimated the actual rates of violence.

Dr. Barry Glassner who is Professor of Sociology at the University of Southern California was one of the few level headed and skeptical voices of reason in the post-Columbine media crunch. He noted that this was part of a larger patterns involving things like over-emphasis on crime in the news media, exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims by advocacy groups and self-appointed experts, and the “tabloidization” of investigative news programs which often used hyperbole in narrating their stories. Just one of many examples, for instance, involved the claim that youngsters tip-toeing onto the internet confronted a legion of paedophiles and kiddie molesters supposedly roaming cyberspace with impunity. Hugh Downs on 20/20, warned, “Depraved people are reaching right into your home and touching your child.”

Where did this hyperbole start? I think at least part of the answer rests with an earlier technology, namely, the movies ... film... and as I said earlier, this, too, is a story involving the impact of a new technology, the fears that arose over it and, of course, the demand that the government become involved as a “Big Nanny” monitor.

It really began with the publication in 1824 of a paper by the English scholar Peter Mark Roget titled “The Persistence of Vision with Regard to Human Objects.” And Roget noted that the human eye -- really, the brain -- retains the image of an object for a fraction of a second longer than the image is actually present. Twenty years later, the first crude motion picture was available; it was a band of drawings on the inside of a revolving drum called a Zoetrope, and this was improved by the French inventor Charles Reynaud who built a device called the Praxinoscope, that combined the drum and a system of mirrors. The pictures seemed to come to life.

As if often the case, this technology combined with others. In England, William Henry Fox Talbot and in France, Louis Daguerre were working on photographic processes; and by 1861, the American inventor Colemann Sellers had patented a device known as the Kinematoscope, which used pictures on a turning wheel. The process became more sophisticated as film emulsion improved.

In the 1890’s Charles Edison set up the first film studio known as the Black Maria. One of his inventors, William K.L. Dickson devised a system that cut sprocket holes in reels or strips of film, and in 1899 there was actually a rudimentary sound picture.

There was a great deal of excitement and debate over both photography and its adaptation to movies. Was it “real” art and legitimate drama? Were the movies, especially, just a form of cheap, even racy entertainment? A good deal of the debate centered on the fact that the nature of motion pictures and the editing that could be performed was a powerful tool in manipulating the minds and emotional responses of an audience. Who else had that kind of power?

Contrary to popular perceptions today, the early silent movies dealt with a number of controversial and gritty themes. It wasn’t all Keystone Kops style slapstick, in this time the cinema was rightly perceived as a compelling and evocative medium. The silents also included themes, subject matter and scenes which were controversial, and would emerge as points of contention later when sound cinema replaced it. Cecil B. DeMille, for instance, made a number of comedies with explicit sexual overtones such as The Affairs of Anatol in 1921, and this even carried over to later spectacles like The Ten Commandments in 1923, and the 1927 production of King of Kings. Orgies, killing and salacious bathing scenes wowed audiences across the country.

Between 1926 and about 1931 when technology was perfected with the Vitaphone equipment, and the new “talkies” are they labeled exploded onto the screen. Movies became a widespread and common form of entertainment, and the studios responded to the growing public demand.

In the 1990s there was a debate over so-called “gangsta rap,” and you had groups like EMPOWER AMERICA calling for regulation of this genre of music. All sorts of claims were made about the music, but nearly 3/4 of a century earlier, there was a similar debate over the Gangster-genre of film. Little Caesar in 1930 made Edward G. Robinson into a star, and films like Public Enemy and Scarface with Paul Muni soon followed. The concerns over violence, and how these movies would influence particularly youth became part of a culture war debate that led to the establishment of the so-called Hayes Office in Hollywood that acted as a kind of in-house censor for the film studios. A Production Code was developed, and the Roman Catholic Church established the Legion of Decency which for over 30 years exercised a frightening influence and even control throughout the country determining what Americans could see at the movies, what producers could produce, what distributors could distribute, and -- long before the McCarthy blacklist and the Hollywood Ten -- what writers could write.

Once again, I think this shows how a new technology -- movies -- ignited concerns over generational issues like how it might affect young people, and how it also raised the question of censorship.

The is one other thing that needs to be said about the cinema, though, and this has been its role in fueling popular stereotypes of young people, and this, too, is grist for a whole other talk, but let me give you some examples.

One genre involves the youth rebellion theme in productions like Easy Rider, The Wild One, and the James Dean classic Rebel Without A Cause. Teenagers are often depicted as troubled, confused, prone to violence and resistant to authority. They seem to waiver between constituting an all-out threat to society and the political order, to a cultural substratum that may be worth “saving,” especially if there is an avuncular priest played by Pat O’Brien in the casting call.

In the 1950s teenagers joined a staggering array of other screen villains threatening the American way of life, including aliens, monsters and political subversives. Bikers blazed onto the screen -- young men, mostly, in the company of wild, fallen women, who terrorized whole communities, and engaged in pitched battles with the police. Teen gangs of “bad” boys were also a cinema favorite. In earlier times, they were rescued from a life of crime and depravity by the neighborhood priest, or they ended up in reform school and later the penitentiary. Maybe they even got the chair! Even so, some of this anti-social rebellion had an appealing cache, and that was something that did not escape the vigilance of the Code office, religious decency groups or even J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. The studios were told in no uncertain language that crime was never to be portrayed in a positive light; the cops or G-men always got their man. Crime never paid. And just about any act of social defiance or rebellion lead the perpetrator down the road to ruin, or that final trek to the gas chamber. The justice system was never to be depicted in an unfavorable light, and authority figures were always to be shown as acting with only the noblest of intentions. The crooks always lost...

* Now, one last thing to say about stereotyping is that it often serves a political agenda.

It often plays the role of obfuscating other problems in the society, which we pass off or ignore by talking about some other group. Young people, especially since the 50s, were particularly useful in this capacity.

It’s worth noting that critical journalists have found a staggering rise in the number of articles and stories which paint a world around us that is a virtual mine-field of threats. Everything from killer garage doors to ingredients in food, dangerous medical procedures, the possibility that a new neighbor is a convicted sex felon... again, it’s not so much the subject matter, but the hyperbolic and dramatic overtones which accompany the presentation of this information. And much of this rhetoric focuses on teenagers. Morning talk shows have pretty much exhausted topics like UFO abductions or Satanic cults, so now the emphasis seems to be on out-of-control teenagers. These shows often play to hot-button issues such as teens having multiple sex partners, children out of wedlock, or even physically defying their elders.

Within days of the Columbine shooting, state and federal legislators, local school boards, civic and religious groups, and an army of self-proclaimed experts and authorities in the rearing and disciplining of youngsters, all swung into action. The American Civil Liberties Union noted an abrupt spike in the number of complaints pouring in to its offices involving students having their rights violated. Everything from metal detectors and surveillance cameras to more drug and alcohol testing, even psychological testing, dress codes -- and this included a ban on Trenchcoats, and new regulations that required students to use transparent backbacks-- all were proposed.

And again, the irony here was that one of the most unrepresented and powerless segments of the culture -- young people -- were being inflicted with a slew of repressive measures which adults would never tolerate on their own. How far would adults go at submitting to, say, random drug tests or metal detectors. I would hope that we would at least have a debate if some leader proposed metal detectors and body cavity searches at the entrance to a shopping mall. What about a church? Churches have been the scene of some recent violence. How about bars and nightclubs? We have occasional shooting in taverns and saloons, how about a law which mandates the same sorts of measures there that some propose for high schools and grade schools?

Columbine was also summoned during the 106th Congress, as the House of Representatives passed a staggering number of legislative items which violated the separation of church and state, but were presented as being panaceas for a range of problems having to do with youth. It was important to picture the nation’s schools as virtual shooting galleries where students were being brainwashed by evolution and secularism.

In fact, the rhetoric about teenagers and the need for punitive social measures -- everything from those metal detectors and bans on free expression on campuses to posting the Ten Commandments or teaching abstinence as an alternative to safe, informed sexuality -- continues a trend which uses scapegoating, hyperbole, and the creation of what University of California sociologist Mike Males calls “The scapegoat generation.”

Just a few examples...

* We are told, for instance, that there is an epidemic of teen age drug abuse and suicide. In fact, teens -- despite their high numbers -- account for only about 7% of U.S. suicides, and 2% of the deaths due to drug use. In fact, the highest rates of both of these behaviors are among middle-age adults, including parents.

* What about the claims of rampant irresponsible teenage sexuality? What about the notion that we must begin a crash program to teach abstinence, even if the generation of parents and grandparents had ample opportunity to indulge their wishes free of government snooping and proselytizing? Two thirds of the births by teenage mothers are fathered by adult males, not by classmates and horny youngsters. Older males enter the cycle of dysfunctional teen sexuality because most sexually active girls under the age of 15 were victims of sexual abuse and rape by older males. Teenage AIDS is highest among impoverished youths, runaways, and prostitutes who are victimized by adults.

Two studies in California and Maryland, for instance, found that in cases involving girls age 16-17 who got pregnant, 56% of the fathers were 19-24. In almost 11% of the cases, the fathers were 25 or older. The fathers were not peer boys, and it has been adult males who have fathered what we often here referred to as “teen births.”

Talk about Columbine, and sooner or later the discussion turns to teenage sex and AIDS. Groups like the Family Research Council argue that abstinence programs are necessary to combat an ‘epidemic’ of AIDS infection in our high schools, but once again, the statistics reveal a different story. It isn’t that AIDS education is not important, or that teenagers who are sexually active shouldn’t practice safe sex. But reported AIDS cases suggest that the rates of HIV infection are higher in every other age category, including adults 55 and over, than they are in the cohort of those age 10-17, with the exception of those 3-12 and those 5 or younger.

A lot of the sexual stereotyping of teenage girls that you might see on the JENNY JONES SHOW, or hear about from the pulpit or political podium doesn’t tell the full story. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, did a study of teenage girls who had lost their virginity; and we all hear about chastity campaigns, especially from clerical cheerleaders. But in the case of girls 13 or younger who had lost their virginity, 61% had been raped. For those age 14 or younger, it was 43% rape, and 15 and younger, it was 26%. Ironically, even for those girls whose rape experience was their only sexual encounter, they are often reported by studies -- including those of the Centers for Disease Control -- as “sexually active.”

Is there an ‘epidemic’ of teen births? Look at the Vital Statistics of the United States, and the evidence shows that for fifty years, adult and teen birth trends have been identical. That’s based on all births, per 1000 females. Births per 1000 unwed females show that the teen birth rate, once again, is identical with those women in the 20-44 age cohort. Teen abortion rates are identical as well.

If there is a common factor lurking in this and the rest of the statistical profile involving teenage STDs and out-of-wedlock children or other problems, it is something that the religious right does not like to talk about. They will talk about how Madalyn Murray kicked god out of the public schools and since then teenagers and for that matter the entire culture has been descending into hell, but when you look at the statistic, in just about every dysfunctional problem involving young people, the common denominator is POVERTY. You find the highest birth rates in communities with the highest poverty rates. One study in California, for instance looked at birth rates among teens and adults and then matched this against the youth poverty rate.

Just briefly, the same type of statistical misinformation comes up when you talk about teen violence. The New York Governor’s Commission on Youth Violence report, for instance declared “Children as young as 13 are shooting other young people for a bicycle or a leather jacket, setting fire to homeless men and women, participating in gang rapes.” Evening news shows gleefully report every story about a group of school youngsters which allegedly plot a murder or plan some other nefarious activity, even if subsequently the whole affair turns out to be a hoax or an exaggeration.

Interestingly, during a debate just a few years ago over the alleged effects of rap music, there was no comment by either national leaders like President Clinton and Tipper Gore, or their religious right counterparts like Pat Robertson and William Bennet, that 2,000 children a year are murdered by parents and caretakers. Males noted:

“The official view must be that the words of rap songs are a bigger incitement to teen violence that the fists, sticks, sexual assaults and other substantiated physical brutalities inflicted on 350,000 children and adolescents each year by the adults they should be able to trust the most...”

And that comes from the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Just some other snippets.

-- According to a 1994Bureau of Justice Statistics study, and this is borne out by subsequent gatherings of data -- youth under the age of 20 were 55% more likely to be victims than killers. Parents are six times more likely to murder their children than the other way around... maybe we should be asking what type of music mom and dad are listening to! Adults are the chief murderers of children and young adults in all measured categories. 64% of slain youths under the age of 18 were murdered by offenders over the age of 18; adults over age 20 account for 2/3 of the murders of children under age 12, and one-third of the murders of teenagers 12-19.

And where do young violent offenders learn their pattern of violence? Is it from listening to LL Cool Jay or watching M-TV, or having an active sex life? Part of the answer to this question comes from researcher Murray Strauss who found that as far as children and juveniles being a threat to their parents, parents inflicted nearly twice as many severe, and nearly four times as many total, violent acts on their teenage children as the other way around. Other researchers have found that 80 percent of children under the age of 10, 2/3 of youngsters in the 10-14 year old cohort, and one third of 15-17 year olds “were hit or struck by their parents within the previous years,” and that parents are four times more likely to commit simple assault, and twice as likely to commit severe or aggravated assault against their teenage children as the other way around.

And the result of all of this, is a deadly and complex blending of parental violence and abuse laying the groundwork for subsequent violence in the next generation. Strauss has noted that “family training” is the genesis of violence -- not television or movies or video games, or the fact that the Ten Commandments are not posted in the school classrooms. Youngsters who are violently and sexually abused are three times more likely than their nonabused counterparts to engage in violent behavior. Studies by the National Institute for Justice show that “violence begets violence ... being abused or neglected as a child increased the likelihood of arrest as a juvenile by 53%, as an adult by 38% percent, and for violent crime by 38% percent...”

So, what does all of this mean in the context of the hoopla and hype and public rituals we see associated with the Columbine shootings...

* The first thing is that there is considerable misunderstanding about how rare the Columbine shooting tragedy really was.

A number of surveys show that adult expectations of violence in public schools come no where close to reflecting the actual situation; respondents on polls often seriously inflate the actual data relating to school violence. The National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, is perhaps the most authoritative source on violence and discipline problems in schools. A comprehensive March, 1998 study for instance showed that fully 43% of schools -- nearly half -- reported no crimes, 37% reported one to five incidents of crime, and seven percent of public schools reported 6-10 incidents. This comes out to about 1,000 crimes per 100,000 students. Some of these crimes were serious... but most were not. They included everything from scrawling graffiti on walls to fist fights. And mixed in with the crime statistics there are reports about how school principles rate a slew of possible school problems. This covers everything from gangs and student drug use to what I would argue is mostly benign and non-violent types of behavior. Drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, “tardiness”, trespassing, verbal abuse of teachers, even that wide-open category described as “physical conflicts among students.”

A combination, perhaps, of irresponsible media reporting, political hype and claims by a slew of social and religious groups peddling their respective agendas (whether its for random drug testing of students or bringing back unison prayer in public school classrooms) has had its desired effect. The truth is that parents are so nervous that they often overstate the likelihood of violence in schools. Just last week, a USA TODAY poll followed up on an April, 1999 study and asked “How likely is it that the kind of shooting like the one at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., a year ago could happen in your community.”

As in April, ‘99 a whopping 30% said that a Columbine-type shooting was “very likely,” 33% said “somewhat likely” (and that’s down a bit from 38% a year ago), and 24% said “somewhat unlikely,” and only 12% said “very unlikely.”

Forty-eight percent agreed, “Government and society can take action that will be effective in preventing shootings like the one at Columbine, “ and 49% disagreed.

Forty percent are much more concerned about the safety of their youngsters in school despite the statistic profiles of actual violence, Another 30% say they are “somewhat more concerned.”

* It’s in this kind of crisis atmosphere that we need to be especially careful of some of the claims and solutions that are being offered, and as atheists and state-church separationists, this means challenging a lot of the legislation which has been proposed.

In the weeks and months following Columbine, the House of Representatives passed a slew of legislative remedies. In June of 199, less than two months after Columbine, Congress voted to pass a Ten Commandments display bill introduced by Rep. Robert Aderholt; that cleared 248-180. During a late night debate, Aderholt and other supporters cited the violence at Columbine; he declared “We have freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. And it was in this debate where Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia made his rather ridiculous comment that had the Decalogue been displayed at Columbine high school, the shootings might not have occurred.

In October, on the floor of the U.S. Congress, several representatives including Joseph R. Pitts of Pennsylvania threw what can only be described as a tirade against the separation of church and state during a series of “Special Order” speeches. By now the Columbine incident was being melded with other hot-button, culture war like the “Sensations” art exhibit in New York. Another issue was the “charitable choice.” North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes attacked “some Members of this body who demand that we misrepresent the views of the American people. We have heard them in a number of our debates in recent weeks objecting to any acknowledgment of God and even objecting to permitting citizens to choose faith-based programs....”

This was a reference to House Amendment 201 which permits government to solicit bids from faith-based groups seeking to administer social welfare programs. That measure passed 346-83 and, yes, Columbine was even mentioned in that debate. Another measure was the so-called DeMint Amendment offered by Rep. James DeMint. That measure disallows attorney fees in any legal action challenging establishment clause violations in public schools, it cleared the House 238-189.

My favorite piece of legislation, though, that owed its political fortunes to Columbine was a resolution offered by Rep. Helen Chenoweth from Idaho which called upon Americans to observe a national day of fasting, prayer and “humiliation” in response to violence. It attracted 275 votes, but because it was introduced on a fast-track, it fell short of the 2/3 majority necessary for passage. And last but not least, at this time Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma dragged out the Religious Freedom Amendment which would overturn MURRAY v. CURLETT, ENGLE v. VITALE, ABINGTON TOWNSHIP v. SHEMPP and all of other supreme court cases having to do with separation in schools, and allow prayer once again in classrooms.

Let me close with some suggestions for all of us as atheists and state-church separationists. What do we do in this type of hysterical climate?

* Get the facts and present them. It’s important that people know the actual situation regarding violence in schools -- and in many schools, particularly those in impoverished, inner-city areas violence is a problem.

* Be skeptical of quick-fixes and instant solutions, especially if they involve violating the separation of church and state or, indeed, any of our constitutional freedoms.

One of the frightening things about Columbine is that it has precipitated a rash of so-called “zero-tolerance” policies; Nadine Strossner of the American Civil Liberties Union warns that if we are not careful, we risk becoming a “Fortress America” where we unnecessarily trade our freedoms for the illusion of security. I personally would be skeptical of any solutions which involve curtailing any of our constitutional rights.

* Be skeptical when you hear political leaders, religious figures, public policy gurus and especially political candidates calling for “action.” We have gotten in the unfortunate habit of crafting public policy as a form of crisis response. Putting the name of a child on a particular piece of legislation for whatever reason does not mean that it is sound law. I sometimes wonder if we don’t need a constitutional amendment that says that no legislation shall be enacted within a two year period of any crisis, emergency or disaster. We should recall the words of H.G. Wells who , “The crisis of yesterday is the joke of tomorrow.”

* Stand up against the “religionization” of social issues.

It’s unfortunate, and you see this in the debates in congress over proposals like the Ten Commandments bill or “charitable choice,” but too many of our elected representatives are apologizing for the First Amendment separation of church and state. The religious right has adroitly made the First Amendment into an inconvenience or embarrassment that its supporters have to apologize for. In the debate over school prayer and the Commandments, for instance, I can’t tell you how many congressmen and congresswomen felt compelled to preface their remarks by saying “I’m a religious person, but...” The separation of church and state is not an embarrassment or an inconvenience, it is a right and protection enjoyed by all of us, and that is not limited to just people who believe in a god!

* Columbine is also a signal that we need to oppose the “religionization” of political campaigns.

I think that George Bush and Al Gore and Hillary Clinton and just about everyone else running for political office feels that they must drag their respective political road shows into the nearest church, mosque, temple or Bible college; that they have to be seen with priests, ministers, rabbis; that they must go out of their way to speak positively of religious beliefs, institutions and practices; and even suggest that sectarian groups have more, not less, of a roll in determining the future of the American polity. Al Gore, for instance, called for a “faith-based partnership” between the church and state one month-and-six-days after the Columbine shorting, George Bush followed suit in July with a proposal for an $8 billion program that includes a “federal office of faith participation.”

With all of this religion-centered campaigning, I don’t think it’s too extreme for us to ask that candidates at least make the effort -- if they possibly can -- and refrain from trying to enlist God as a voter.

As for Columbine, be wary. Be wary when any issue is held up as a crisis, an emergency, and excuse to surrender one’s liberty. Be wary when especially the First of the Amendment is obliterated as a protection of that liberty, and reduced the status of a shabby inconvenience or something which we feel compelled to apologize for. Be wary when political leaders propose religion as a solution, or proclaim their religiosity not a private matter, but rather a credential for public office.

Like most of you, I don’t believe in a god or a devil. But I know that the poet Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu, was in a sense metaphorically right when he declared:

“I know that a community of God-seekers is a great shelter for man. But directly this grows into an Institution it is apt to give ready access to the Devil by its back door...”

Thank you very much.

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