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December 19 , 2007
Finally, logically if belatedly, our community turns its attention to the fundamentally important issues raised by “Mr. Hawkins” shopping mall slaughter of eight people.
Finally, news media attention is shifting from an avalanche of coverage of details of the killings and continuing emphasis on the sorrow caused by “Robbie” Hawkins’ murder spree.
It was a welcome sight Monday to see a headline which read: “Gun control heats up as local issue.” Efforts in the direction of gun control certainly are commendable and should be pursued, but pursued with the recognition that they are very unlikely to be broadly effective. There are far too many guns out there - - guns by the thousands - - which are beyond the reach of any system of gun registration or any other effort at control.
So what’s to be done now? Crying for attention, it seems to me, is an obvious question: How could Hawkins’ slaughter spree have been prevented? An obvious answer to that obvious question: Hawkins should have been kept under the surveillance of - - if not in the custody of - - persons acting under the authority of Nebraska state government. Let’s learn from that failure.
Remember that after four years as a state ward during which the state spent more than $265,000 trying to help Hawkins with psychiatric problems and addictions, Sarpy County Juvenile Court Judge Robert O’Neal ended state custody based on, in the words of the court order, “an unsuccessful completion of the conditions, and the child is non-amenable to further services of the court.”
So a youth who isn’t responding to treatment of troublesome symptoms, including a possible tendency towards violence, is simply turned loose on Nebraska society.
In defending what the state had tried to do for Hawkins, Todd Landry, director of Children and Family Services for the State Department of Health and Human Services, said the court’s decision was based on agreement among HHS, the therapist, the court and Hawkins’ father. Landry also said - - I’m not making this up - - that “the most appropriate thing for this youth was the closure of the case.”
What about the most appropriate thing for the eight people Hawkins killed and the three he seriously wounded?
If any responsible official - - from Governor Heineman’s office on down - - is demanding that Judge O’Neal and Todd Landry explain how their decision was in the public interest, I haven’t heard or read anything about such a demand.
Next obvious question (largely overlooked until 12 days after the killings): What can be done to prevent such outbursts of murderous violence in the future? The initial emphasis has been on gun control, making guns somehow unavailable, or not so easily available, to potential killers.
An Omaha district court judge has suggested that using the licensing of motor vehicles as a model, the state require that all guns be licensed. It would seem obvious that a gun is a good many times smaller and more easily concealed than a motor vehicle. Guns which are hidden and brought out for violent purposes are an entirely different animal than motor vehicles which must travel in public to be of any practical use and can be traced by the license plates. Need I say more?
Mayor Mike Fahey and Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren support reinstating what was described as a “10-year federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.”
The facts are that there was no “assault weapons ban.” The ban was a federal law on importation of additional assault weapons of the AK-47 type (30 shots as quickly as you can pull the trigger, with another 30-shot ammunition clip attached to the gun) which Hawkins used in his shopping mall murder spree.
The federal law did nothing to affect the ownership of thousands upon thousands of AK-47s and other semi-automatic multi-shot weapons already in private ownership in this country.
Suppose Congress were to pass a law outlawing the ownership of semi-automatic, large-magazine weapons or perhaps requiring owners to register such weapons.
Some responsible owners might respond positively. But remember that responsible owners are not the ones who own thousands of weapons which aren’t registered and never will be because the owners want them available for illegal purposes or want to be able to sell them to others who want to use them illegally.
And remember also that even a successful ban on AK47-type “assault” weapons wouldn’t do anything at all to curb the one-at-a-time or two-at-a-time gunshot deaths which in Omaha to date this year have taken 26 lives, three times the number of Hawkins’ victims.
Control of handguns responsible for the great majority of deaths by violence in cities across the country requires, it seems to me, the approach that State Senator Ernie Chambers, who represents a North Omaha area where a good deal of the gun violence occurs, recently advocated. Chambers said: “We can pass any law we want to, and if it’s not going to be enforced, it won’t make any difference.
“These kids know where to go to get these guns,”
Police, Chambers said, should be able to figure it out as well.
Let’s finish today’s sermon with what I think may be the best answer to the question, How can we keep something like the shopping mall murder spree from happening again? No attack on the problem assures success, but the approach detailed below seems to me to offer a good opportunity. It has the advantage of not only possibly preventing shopping mall-type murder rampages but also the prevention of smaller-scale killings - - perhaps single killings. And the advantage of offering hope for cure or at least prevention of suicide for young people who need supervised help.
Dr. Michael J. Reznicek of Spokane, Wash., a psychiatrist, an Omaha native and a 1985 graduate of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, wrote a piece for The World-Herald’s “More Commentary” page. His concluding paragraphs:
“Now is a good time for Nebraskans to re-examine how they deal with troubled teens. At some point in the past, the collective wisdom of raising children was replaced with the trendy theories of the psychiatric profession, a shift that had less to do with science than with the romance of science.
“If current psychiatric knowledge cannot even explain consciousness, why do we think it can explain the more complex arena of human behavior?
“The alternative to the status quo is not to build teen gulags, of course. But we might want to consider returning to an era when we had smartly run institutions for children who had no parents - - orphanages, I believe we called them.
“Designed correctly, these institutions would be highly structured, set high standards, punish bad behavior, reward good behavior and pay less attention to how children feel about it all.
“If we spent more time shaping young minds and less time labeling them as mentally ill, we would gain happier, better-adjusted children and a safer environment for all of us.”
* * *
Isn’t this presidential campaign - - swelling in volume more than 10 months before the election in November of 2008 - - more noisy, more marked by hypocrisy, irresponsibility and cheap shots than other campaigns in the post-World World II era? Whatever, this campaign is bad enough, no matter how it compares with the past. Consider:
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a guitar playing, wise-cracking former television evangelist (not the most respected of American vocations), seems determined to use the Iowa caucuses as a stepping stone to the Republican presidential nomination by persuading voters that he is the candidate most committed to the Bible and to Jesus Christ. His environmental policy, he has said, is based on the simple belief that we are living in “God’s House” and we should, therefore, take good care of it based on our religious principles and respect for God, our landlord.
And in a swipe at rival Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, and Romney’s Mormon faith, Huckabee asked a New York Times interviewer if the Mormon faith isn’t the one that believes Jesus Christ and the Devil are brothers.
Could it be that Huckabee has been so busy preaching the Christian religion according to Baptist interpretation that he isn’t aware of the legend - - some would call it a religious belief - - that the Devil is a fallen angel sometimes referred to as Lucifer and has, in biblical teaching, no relationship to Christ?
Or could it have been a cheap shot that Huckabee thought he could get away with? In any case, when challenged, he apologized.
In one of the countless televised debates, Huckabee was joined by former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee in suggesting that Romney’s background of wealth both as a child and adult somehow disqualifies him as a president who would look out for the welfare of the common man, compared to a candidate who had grown up in a rented house as Huckabee had.
Such a standard would, of course, have disqualified past presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush, all of whom came from wealthy backgrounds.
On the Democratic side, we have John Edwards, sounding somewhat desperate as he lags behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Edwards’ TV ads have him declaring that he has spent his life (one assumes he means his adult years after he graduated from law school) working for common people against corporations. He doesn’t mention that he became a multi-millionaire, now with a multi-million dollar North Carolina estate, as the result of a very well-paid career as a jury-swaying trial attorney.
Then there is Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois who seems comfortable with the fact he has virtually no record to defend since he is in his first term in high office. So he can campaign on promises of what he will do without having to spend time defending what he has done - - or not done.
Obama was joined on the campaign trail by superstar Oprah Winfrey, justifiably popular as a TV talk/variety show host. Oprah’s enthusiastic endorsement seemed to make even clearer that inherent in Obama’s campaign appeal is the fact that he would be America’s first black president. That appeal, I think, represents something of a gamble. His color (half black/half white) is not likely to appeal to a good many voters as somehow ranking among the qualifications which the American public expect in a president.
* * *
I didn’t join the crowd mobbing Coach Doc Sadler and his victorious Cornhusker basketball team on the Qwest Center floor after the Huskers 88-79 win over sixteenth-ranked Oregon last Sunday. But I was among the 11,000-plus fans delighted by the Husker victory and hopeful as to what it might mean for more success down the season-long road.
But perhaps my reaction was too restrained. A print journalism coach/commentator enthused over the “signature moment” in Sadler’s tenure at Nebraska, a win which showed that the Huskers will have a chance to win in every Big 12 game to come except possibly against KU. He also wrote that Oregon, if playing in the Big 12, would be the second best team in the conference.
I wonder if such rhetoric does justice to Coach Sadler and his team. The win was a good one, but why describe it in terms so extravagant as to very possibly unfairly raise expectations of what the Huskers should accomplish during the rest of the season?
* * *
Scattered among the expressions of sorrow for the victims of “Robbie” Hawkins’ killing spree were occasional words of sympathy for the troubled youth himself. The head of an institution providing state-sponsored care and custody of troubled young people said the state had failed young Hawkins by releasing him too soon from state supervision.
Somehow these well-intentioned expressions of sympathy for Hawkins brings back memories of a World-Herald headline when Charles Starkweather’s 10-murder spree came to an end nearly half a century ago. The headline in the Thursday morning World-Herald January 28, 1958 read:
“Punk’s Blood-Stained String Ends
at 10 Dead With Wyoming Capture”
Today, how might the story have been headlined, assuming that psychiatrists and child welfare counselors had been asked for their comments. Perhaps something like this:
“Troubled Youth Arrested After Killing 10;
Some Say That Society Failed Him.”
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