A Moral Wilderness

Making Sense of Senseless Crime

Dartmouth, Massachusetts: Three schoolboys surround a ninth-grade classmate and stab him to death. Afterward they laugh and trade high-fives. Like basketball players after a slam dunk. Washington, D.C.: An eight-year-old boy swings a baby around the room, repeatedly bashing his tiny head on the floor. The young murderer tells police: “I was just playing.”

This is the disturbing new face of crime in America today. Crime as sport, murder for the fun of it.

In the past most crimes were motivated by some recognizable human emotion: hatred, greed, or envy. But many of the crimes in the headlines today are different: young people who murder without motive, without reason, without remorse.

Crime without conscience.

Why are so many youngsters growing up without a sense of right and wrong? In his new book The Moral Sense, criminologist James Q. Wilson says everyone is born with a moral capacity. It’s inherent in human nature, like the capacity for speech.

As Paul writes in Romans 2, everyone has a natural tendency to judge certain actions right or wrong, just or unjust.

But to influence behavior, conscience must be trained, just as we must be trained to speak a language. Feral children growing up in the wild are unable to speak despite their inborn capacity. In the same way, children raised in a moral wilderness are unable to judge right from wrong.

The most critical training takes place in the family. Parents teach their children by example and by the kind of behavior they require. But today, divorce and dual-career families have left many homes with precious little adult presence. Statistics show that today’s parents spend 40 percent less time with their children than their own parents spent with them.

And their job is made harder because we have lost any public standard of virtue. Modern thinkers have discredited the very idea of a transcendent morality-like Darwin, who said morality is merely the extension of animal instincts. Or Freud, who said the repression of impulses is the source of neurosis.

Under this onslaught, public support for a common morality has crumbled. When children are raised in this climate, their moral sense remains unshaped, untutored. Like children growing up in the wild who cannot speak, many children today are incapable of drawing moral distinctions-or controlling their passions and impulses.

The front line in the war against crime, then, is not in Congress or the courts. It runs through every living room in every home in America, where parents teach their children virtue.

A society cannot survive if the demands of human dignity are not written on our hearts from early childhood. No number of police can coerce civil behavior; no threat of punishment can enforce it. Steel bars cannot reach the human heart.

There is no solution apart from character and creed.

Unless we learn this, the horrific murders in Dartmouth and in Washington are only harbingers of what will soon spread to every city across the country. A generation without conscience will push us beyond the bounds of legality, beyond the outer limits of civilized behavior.

It’s happening faster than we think.


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