Blame Society First

Individual responsibility is the truly unthinkable.


An individual, or small group of individuals, commits a heinous act. The first reaction on the part of our nation's political and intellectual classes: Blame everyone else.

The Jonesboro tragedy is a case in point. A couple of kids commit an act of shocking villainy: summoning a group of their helpless schoolmates outside and shooting at them–aiming mostly, it appears, at girls. Five people are dead, 11 wounded.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee steps forward to publicly re-establish the modern moral order. He doesn't declare these kids an aberration, outside the pale of our society, deserving punishment. Instead, he declares them in essence representative of modern American society. "It makes me angry not so much at individual children that have done it as much as angry at a world in which such a thing can happen," Huckabee said the day of the shooting.

Maybe it's something in the feed at the executive mansion in Arkansas. Former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, now president, pulled a similar moral switcheroo during his recent Africa tour of apologies. It was one thing to apologize for slavery, for which the U.S. government he represents bears active responsibility.

But Clinton went a step further: It isn't only the things we do for which we must bear blame, but the things others do. The massacres in Rwanda, seemingly the direct result of mad, bloodthirsty tribal warfare between the Hutus and Tutsis, were, Clinton declared, something for which "the international community" must "bear its share of the responsibility." Evil, then, is not the responsibility of those who practice it; rather, it is the shame of everyone who does not somehow prevent it.

There's something untoward about a mind that will do anything to avoid casting blame on those who have committed atrocities but feels free to profligately spread the blame around on social forces, or "all of us," or the international community, or inanimate objects, or the media. But that mind is everywhere; Huckabee was no aberration. A USA Today headline states it baldly: "Who's to blame for school shooting? We all are."

Even if the blame-everyone-else-first impulse makes no discernible moral sense, it makes a great deal of political sense. After all, if only the perpetrators of crimes are to blame for them, then there's nothing much for government to do but nab those perpetrators, hold a trial, and, if a guilty verdict is brought down, impose a punishment.

But if social forces, or guns, or violent TV shows and movies are to blame, then cops and judges aren't enough. We need programs, crusades, and concerted government action to try to change the very nature of our culture and society. We need V-chips, gun control, a revived economy, and new forms of educational indoctrination. And for those things, we need the brave leadership of people like Huckabee and Clinton.

A Los Angeles Times headline on reaction to the shooting said it all: "Violent culture, media share blame, experts say." Indeed, who else would say it? The culture of experts demands complicated answers, even if they don't make much sense.

Alternately, evil could be traced to its root cause, the one thing that makes it possible no matter what outside forces are brought to bear: individual choice. But to the experts, it is too simple to say someone has done wrong and must be punished. The tangled web of "social forces" is always there to be pored over, analyzed, charted, and regressed.

Whatever social forces of gun worship, misogyny, and violent entertainment allegedly stewed the brains of the Jonesboro shooters, hundreds of thousands of other young men are exposed to the same influences. Yet only these two boys took guns in hand and started firing at their schoolmates. Depicting social forces as a dominant cause for individual atrocities explains too much, grossly overpredicting the actual amount of perfidy in our world.

The advantage the state takes from blaming social forces for individual mistakes or crimes goes beyond the sort of colorful violence that makes the newspapers. All sorts of social problems for which politicians scramble to find solutions, from single-parent households to drug abuse to long-term welfare dependence, result from the cumulative effects of bad decisions made by individuals–decisions that are never made by everyone in the same social milieu. Avoiding pregnancy, educating oneself, and becoming self-sufficient are within the power of most individuals, no matter the social forces surrounding them. Anger at the world shifts attention from where real change is both needed and possible–in the choices individuals make–and leads instead to further airy plans for state action–even though many of the "negative social forces" in America, from terrible public schools to drug-war-torn streets, are of the state's own making.

Never mind Governor Huckabee and his inchoate anger at the world. Be angry at the kids who did it.