|A troubled teen...|
There was a black hole in his heart, having been raised without a father from a very young age, first separated by divorce and later by death, and having lost the one person he was closest to, his mother. She died unexpectedly from pneumonia last November.
He suffered bouts with anger and rage, including against his own mother, who repeatedly called police to try to keep him in line, getting suspended from school for fighting and later expelled for erratic behavior that included foul language, insulting teachers and other students, disobeying teachers and disrupting classes.
Neighbors said he terrorized the neighborhood, at times shooting animals with a pellet gun, vandalizing, stealing and having a cold eerie look in his eyes.
He was a loner, who according to family friends had few friends, if any, and was excluded and kept at a distance by others. Classmates described him, after the fact, as "scary" and often joking about one day "bringing a gun to shoot up the school."
He was like a canary in a coalmine engulfed in darkness and flapping his wings without direction or knowing which way to turn, except for violence. I believe that, in his mind, he was a guinea pig in what was a toxic and cruel world, left to his own devices, like the canary, to see if he could make it out alive.
Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old, accused of murdering 17 innocent people at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, ironically on St. Valentine's Day, was a troubled young man, who had received mental attention at the Henderson Mental Health facility in Broward, had been investigated for numerous incidents of domestic violence by police and the Florida Department of Children and Family Services and reported to the FBI for posting that he wanted to be "A professional school shooter" on YouTube last year. Yet, he fell through the cracks.
His public defender, Howard Finkelstein, told reporters after his first court hearing, "Every red flag was there and nobody did anything. When we let one of our children fall off the grid, when they are screaming for help in every way and we fail them, do we have the right to kill them when we could have stopped it?" Finkelstein pleaded guilty on Cruz's behalf to try to avoid the death penalty.
There is truth to what Finkelstein said. As uncomfortable as it may sound, we, as a culture, are partially to blame.
It's surprising that we don't have more Nikolas Cruzes or, maybe we do and it's a matter of time.
As a journalist, when the school massacre occurred, I couldn't help but react as I had in the past; Columbine (15 dead), the small Amish school in Pennsylvania (6 dead), Virginia Tech (33 dead), Sandy Hook (28 dead) and Umpqua Community College in Oregon (10 dead) among them.
We go through the motions; reaction, logistics, deployment. But, this one was closer to home. What can we confirm? How fast can we get on the air? What angles do we cover? Who do we send where? It becomes a frenetic race that doesn't allow much time for reflection on the enormity or gravity of what happened. We just react.
In the news business, as I'm sure to some extent in society as a whole, we have become desensitized to mass killings in recent years, including Las Vegas (59 dead), Pulse Nightclub in Orlando (50 dead), the Southerland Springs, Texas church shooting (27 dead), San Bernadino (16 dead), and the Aurora theater shooting (12 dead), not to mention the endless reports of international terrorist attacks.
But, after the smoke clears, and the stories get covered, to the best of our abilities, we are left wondering how and why it happened, especially when they hit home.
Some immediately blame gun control, as they do when all mass killings happen, or try to find other answers; mental health, school and public security, a lack of respect for authority, the media attention the killers, who are looking for attention, get, and so on.
Yet, to me, Cruz's problem, like most problems, begin at home.
We have diminished and reduced the one institution where any civil society stands or falls; the family.
I always go back to a quote by St. John Paul II, which stated, "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live."
Ironically, the late pontiff was raised under similar circumstances as Cruz. His mother died when he was young and his father when he was a late teen. However, he became a saint. The latter became a killer.
In any case, the family begins with marriage. Cruz's adoptive parents, the only ones he ever knew as parents, were divorced.
We've made laws so easy for marriages to dissolve with no-fault divorce that we're practically raising a new generation of partially orphaned children. Kids are growing up usually without a father in the house who, in generations past, represented authority, discipline, and to some extent, God, because, according to studies, as a child sees their father, they usually see God. Then, to make matters worse, because of economics, the single parent is forced to work long hours to make ends meet, providing little supervision or guidance for their children.
Marriage is the only institution that binds children to their parents and, with nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, and the rate increases for second and third marriages, we've made marriage strictly about the adults without much concern for the offspring. It's all about me and not about us.
No mother, no matter how strong can ever replace a father in the home and no father, no matter how nurturing can ever replace a mother.
Moreover, divorce is a vicious cycle. Children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves so the problem snowballs and the deterioration continues.
Unfortunately, without parental supervision many complex issues arise. One being violent and, more and more, realistic video games, where killing is how you score points and the more you kill, the more points you get. Boys are particularly susceptible to addiction to violent video games. Psychologists say it may have to do with their natural competitiveness. The Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza, is said to have been addicted to these killing games.
Also, we've made kids addicted to their smartphones. Sure some may argue that it's not the parents' fault that kids get addicted but when children as young as 8 or 10-years-old have smartphones and are spending more time on their phones than talking to their friends, whose fault is it? We're stunting their social skills. Not to mention, the other distractions kids have today; computers and access to the internet, where everything and anything vile in society, including pornography and violence, is at their fingertips.
In his very important and deeply insightful work, Amusing Ourselves to Death, in 1985 (before the internet), Neil Postman wrote about how television was defining reality in the minds and hearts of America, especially children. The culture's moral, ethical and social standards shown on TV superseded that of their parents. The problem is even more acute today.
Introversion has become much more common. Kids are turning inward instead of outward and shutting out the reality around them and, in turn, creating their own fantastical realities, disconnected, at least to some, from the real world.
Then, there's the greatest problem of all, we've taken God out of every aspect of public life; from the classrooms to the public square, making faith a taboo that is relegated to an hour at church on Sundays and kept as a private matter.
People get offended when you talk religion, they say. We've become a politically correct nation to the point where carrying a Bible to school can get a kid suspended. The ACLU has made a mission of removing any mention of God from public life. Yet, it's alright to mock God, faith or morality, especially by Atheist professors teaching our children at most major American universities.
As a consequence, many kids, are growing up in households where God doesn't exist or their belief is lukewarm at best. Parents are disengaged; so busy with their lives, so frantic, so distracted that, aside from the sense of obligation during Easter and Christmas, their participation in worship, prayer or catechizes is practically non-existent.
That is why, according to Pew research polls, the number of "nones" (not affiliated to any faith or religion) continues to grow every year.
In a recent homily referring to the massacre, our parish priest mentioned that where there is a disconnect from God, when we are not grounded in His Truth, spiritual maladies are more likely.
Sin, which is a four-letter word to some, does exist and we see it in the Nikolas Cruzes of the world. Dostoevsky once wrote, "If there is no God, everything is permissible."
Yet, through the darkness and despair, in the carnage and shortly thereafter, there were rays of hope and light. A light that shone through many of the victims, survivors and their families.
From the coach who is said to have saved some of his students by shielding them with his body. From students who kept each other calm and tried to help bleeding classmates. From a student who said, "I hid under my desk and started praying." And another who said, "I thought I was going to die today. I began to pray and I don't know what happened, but here I am." From a father of a survivor who was filled with joy, like never before, "I'm a happy Dad. I am happy because I have my son with me. I just thank you, Jesus." And, from the tears of a mother, whose 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa Alhadeff, died that Valentine's Day, "I know Alyssa is in heaven with God and she is safe there."
Churches were packed on Sunday and have been since the Parkland shooting. People turn to God for answers when the world can't give them any. It's like that old saying, when we have nowhere else to turn, we turn to God.
Above the altar at my parish, it states in Latin, Ego Sum Lux Mundi, which translates to I am the light of the world. And the world needs God's light amidst the darkness...