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Jewish World Review March 20, 2001 / 25 Adar, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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The virtue of inhibition -- FOURTEEN-year-old Lionel Tate was just sentenced to life in prison for killing a 6-year-old girl - when he was 12. Fifteen-year-old Andy Williams allegedly killed two high school classmates and wounded a dozen others in America's latest school shooting spree in Santee, Calif. State and local governments across the country are enacting new rules to combat bullying in the public schools, and there is growing demand for even more draconian gun control.

Meanwhile, harassment law in the workplace continues to involve the federal government ever more deeply in prosecuting alleged crimes of inappropriate speech and personal conduct.

Wait a minute - am I really connecting the last event with the first two?

You bet.

It is all part of the same fabric - the heavy hand of the state having to step in to deter or punish where once personal inhibition, social restraint, and - dare I say it - a sense of shame were usually the most effective ways of holding our worst impulses in check. Yes, it has always been necessary for government to deter and punish wrongdoing that couldn't otherwise be restrained. But decades ago the "open-minded" among us started whispering "tsk tsk" to the inhibition of social restraint. In fact "inhibition" itself became a bad word. Soon the whisper became a cacophony urging personal expression above all, and urging as well the throwing off of the repressive shackles of societal constraints altogether. The "open-minded" folks were largely successful - and in the process they opened the door to personal barbarism.

So there was a time when a 12-year-old boy maliciously crushing the bones of a young girl's body would have been unfathomable, even more so his defense that he wasn't responsible for his crime because he was just copying what he saw in the popular culture. Today such a terrible tragedy merits little more than a shrug of the shoulders and a few newspaper articles. In contrast Lizzie Borden, though found not guilty of killing her father and step-mother with an ax more than a hundred years ago, is still a notorious character.

There was a time when children across America quite literally grew up handling guns, yet wouldn't have dreamed of killing a classmate with one, no matter how bullied they were. In any event it wouldn't have seemed conceivable that such a killer could be lionized by the major media as a victim, as Andy Williams has been.

So, too, it used to be that gentlemen - not all men, but gentlemen - behaved a certain way around women, and were careful not to offend them. Different ends of the same spectrum, certainly, but one on which today inhibition of every stripe and hue is gone. Surely it's ironic that the feel-gooders who encouraged us to throw off societal restraint must more and more resort to forcing upon us in its place the heavy-handed restraint of government at all levels. But what we are finding, of course, is that even that is not nearly enough to deter what common decency and personal inhibition once prevented or minimized.

There are countless other examples on that spectrum including out-of-wedlock births and deadbeat parents, easy divorce, rampant drug use, teen sexual activity, gratuitously violent and sexually explicit films and music targeted at young people, for starters. In every one of these and other areas, government has mounted severe legal or other initiatives to combat problems or excesses once held in far better check (though no, hardly eradicated) by a healthier, and yes more restrained, culture.

Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire.

We're in the fire now, and the question is: How do we put it out? The supposedly "open-minded" folks who've brought us to this impasse don't even see the irony in their denunciation of traditional social mores at the same time they demand Uncle Sam enforce speech codes. Much less do they see the futility of more draconian gun control when it comes to youths committed, even encouraged by our culture, to act out every impulse they feel - necessarily including the most aggressive and violent ones. Perversely these folks seem to prefer to be forcefully, yet ultimately less effectively, policed by the state - rather than have us each be held in better check by an appropriately formed conscience.

That means it's up to those of us who don't have minds like sieves to call our culture to a restoration of the virtues of a civil society. In other words, it's time to start making those who preach throwing off social restraint finally begin to feel some inhibition.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2001, Scripps Howard News Service