The devil made me do it

The Western Star - - Life - Ed Smith Ed Smith is an au­thor who lives in Spring­dale. His email ad­dress is ed­[email protected]­pa­

I’m try­ing to ab­sorb and oth­er­wise deal with the lat­est “in­hu­man­ity to man” story out of our neigh­bour to the south.

Some ac­counts of how we some­times re­act and re­spond to each other leave one in­cred­u­lous. Surely that did not hap­pen the way they say it did. Or­di­nary peo­ple do not act that way — do they? It’s ex­ag­ger­ated, or some­one got their facts screwed up, in­ten­tion­ally or oth­er­wise. Or, we in­voke the gen­eral dis­missal of the un­ac­cept­able or un­be­liev­able: there are cra­zies ev­ery­where.

A re­cent head­line sim­ply leaves one shaken.

A dis­turbed man walked into a small pond near his house un­til the wa­ter was over his head and he drowned. Cir­cum­stances sug­gest he wanted to take his own life. De­spite the fact that he was in ob­vi­ous dif­fi­cul­ties, a group of teen boys watched with­out mak­ing any ef­fort to help him. In fact, they video­taped his death strug­gles while taunt­ing him as he drowned. When he had dis­ap­peared be­neath the sur­face for the last time, they laughed and cheered.

A cou­ple of days later they posted their video for all the world to see.

This is no hor­ror scene from the over­ac­tive imag­i­na­tion of a Stephen King. It hap­pened only a few days ago in Co­coa, Fla., deep in­side one of the most ad­vanced na­tions in the his­tory of the planet. Nei­ther was it within a cul­ture in which males were still club­bing fe­males over the head and life had no value of it­self. This act of supreme in­dif­fer­ence to an­other’s suf­fer­ing took place in the con­text of a cher­ished be­lief in the sanc­tity of hu­man life.

That’s what makes it so bloody hor­ri­fy­ing. De­spite the con­vic­tion that our laws and con­sti­tu­tions are firmly rooted in the best of al­tru­is­tic and re­li­gious thought, we can still pro­duce the very an­tithe­sis of what that thought rep­re­sents, even in our young. When they were in­ter­viewed af­ter the in­ci­dent, they showed no re­morse and even “smirked” when telling au­thor­i­ties about it. As one thor­oughly ex­as­per­ated so­cial com­men­ta­tor put it, “If our youth are our hope for the fu­ture, God help us all.”

In the uni­ver­sity cour­ses of my day, the de­bate be­tween na­ture and nur­ture was very much alive. What is the strong­est fac­tor in the de­vel­op­ment of the child in be­com­ing the per­son they even­tu­ally turn out to be? The qual­i­ties they were born with or the man­ner in which they were raised? Are we who we are be­cause of our genes, or the fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment in which an ac­ci­dent of birth placed us? From where came the lack of com­pas­sion in those five boys for a fel­low hu­man be­ing? Our so­ci­ety seems to want to as­cribe blame when things go wrong. So who or what is re­spon­si­ble for these kids and their tragic at­ti­tude?

Af­ter all the dis­cus­sions, and af­ter a life­time of work­ing with and among chil­dren and young peo­ple, the an­swer to that ques­tion is to me as di­verse and com­pli­cated as chil­dren and adults are them­selves. Al­ready the devil has come in for his or her fair share of blame. I’ve heard par­ents and teach­ers cas­ti­gated al­most in the same breath. The ex­cesses of our mod­ern cul­ture and the lack of di­rec­tion young peo­ple, es­pe­cially, seem to find wher­ever they turn has also been pin­pointed as the supreme cause of ev­ery­thing that ails us.

I be­lieve no child is born “bad.” How­ever, we are born with equal po­ten­tial for in­tel­li­gence, the ca­pac­ity to love, to em­pathize, to learn and so on. As we grow and de­velop we are con­tin­u­ously be­sieged by the mil­lion and one ex­pe­ri­ences “that flesh is heir to.” It is how we re­act to those ex­pe­ri­ences, and the na­ture of those ex­pe­ri­ences them­selves, that de­ter­mines who and what we’ve be­come. Noth­ing to do with ba­sic bad­ness — that de­vel­ops later as we in­ter­act with the world around us; in other words, nur­ture of the po­ten­tial with which we are all born.

It is with an aware­ness of this prin­ci­ple that those of us in­volved with the de­vel­op­ment of chil­dren should teach and par­ent and treat, and not with the dan­ger­ous and silly no­tion that lit­tle chil­dren are born bad.

And where should the blame lie for those five kids and count­less oth­ers like them?

Some­one said it in an­other con­text and in other words, but the same idea ap­plies.

“I have seen those re­spon­si­ble and they are us.”

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