What Has Happened to America?

I remember where I was on April 20, 1999 when I heard the news that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had murdered 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School. I remember how the nation was stunned. And then two and a half years later we all remember when terrorists flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon.

Since then it seems that mass killings have become a way of life in America. Though we continue to respond with outrage, I do not think we are surprised by it anymore. What has happened?

This past Saturday, journalist Peggy Noonan shared her perspective in The Wall Street Journal. She said:

A way to look at the question is: What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?

We know. We all say it privately, but it’s so obvious it’s hardly worth saying. We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution. The family blew up – divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal. Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and splattered all over the screen. (The Columbine shooters loved and might have been addicted to “Doom.”) The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life. An increasingly violent entertainment culture – low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth. The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation – you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

So much change, so much of it un-gentle. Throughout, was anyone looking to children and what they need? That wasn’t really a salient aim or feature of all the revolutions, was it? The adults were seeing to what they believed were their rights. Kids were a side thought.

At this moment we are in the middle of a reckoning about how disturbed our sexual landscape has become. This past week we turned to violence within marriages. We recently looked at the international sex trade, a phrase that sounds so 18th-century but refers to a real and profitable business.

All this change, compressed into 40 years, has produced some good things, even miraculous ones. But it does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005. Deinstitutionalization swept health care and the psychiatric profession starting in the 1960s, and has continued since. The sick now go to the emergency room or stay among us untreated. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.

And here, to me, is the problem. A nation has an atmosphere. It has air it breathes in each day. China has a famous pollution problem: You can see the dirt in the air. America’s air looks clean but there are toxins in it, and they’re making the least defended and protected of us sick.

Ms. Noonan clearly seems to be saying that America has become a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually toxic place to live and raise a family. It is hard to argue with her.

In the late 1940’s the great British historian Arnold Toynbee engaged in a magisterial study of the rise and fall of world civilizations. Toynbee’s insights into history and the dynamics of his own time are startlingly prophetic.

Based on his study of twenty-one world civilizations – ranging from ancient Rome to imperial China, from Babylon to the Aztecs – Toynbee found that societies in disintegration suffer a kind of “schism of the soul.” They are seldom simply overrun by some other civilization. Rather, they commit a kind of cultural suicide.

In disintegrating cultures, people stop believing in morality and yield to their impulses at the expense of their creativity. They also succumb to truancy, that is, escapism, seeking to avoid their problems by retreating into their own worlds of distraction and entertainment.

There seems to be a pattern in history, where civilizations begin with a strong foundation of law and moral order. This foundation enables them to grow strong and become prosperous, but then over time they decline and eventually die from what Toynbee called “cultural suicide.”

You see this pattern with God’s people in the Old Testament. God lead them into the promised land where they prospered and were blessed. However, over time, as God describes it through the prophet Hosea:

“As they had their pasture, they became satisfied, and being satisfied their hearts became proud; therefore they forgot Me.” Hosea 13:6.

This is what the great Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed in his own country:

Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

We are told by the Psalmist that God is the fountain of life. He is the source of all truth and wisdom. He lays out the choice we have to make as we seek to live our lives and build our communities:

“I call to heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life . . . “ Deuteronomy 30:19, 20

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