What We Should Really Be Learning from John Walker

People miss the whole point and set themselves up for ridicule when they argue that Northern Californian open-mindedness (and all it’s cultural accoutrements – like hot tubs, Rolfing, and est) “produce Taliban warriors.”  The vast majority of Marin County residents haven’t booked a ticket to Bannu or Mazar e-Sharif yet, and probably never will.  So too, rap music doesn’t “create terrorists.”  I’d wager that there are more rappers in the U.S. military than in Al Qaeda.  Neither do overly permissive parents or divorce “transform high school students into terrorists.”  Millions of Americans have been exposed to all these risk factors, and only one joined Osama bin Laden’s jihad.

The truth is that Walker is the last data point on a massive bell curve.  He is the purest, most perverse example of what happens when we deprive children of the two most essential ingredients of a healthy childhood: values and structure.  Most kids who grow up in homes where everything goes won’t seek out weapons training in Pakistan.  However, to some degree they will be broken, alienated, and desperate for meaning and spirituality.

Although John Walkers are rare, broken kids aren’t.  About 1/3 of 12th graders in the U.S. get drunk at least once every 2 weeks.  Over 50% of fifteen- to nineteen-year-old girls and 60% of boys the same age have had sexual intercourse, and about 1/3 of U.S. births today are to unwed mothers.  A recent survey of over 1,000 U.S. high school students found that 2/3 of them would lie to achieve a business objective, and a higher percentage reported that they would inflate their business-expense reports to escape paying income tax.  Twenty percent of U.S. high school students recently admitted to carrying a deadly weapon to school.  On an average day in the United States, 13 children commit a murder. It could be that none of this is morally equivalent to using an AK47 assault rifle against American troops, but some of it comes pretty close.

We need to give our children values.  That translates into ideals, dreams, and a sense of heroism.  We need to teach the beauty of kindness, the glory of honesty, and the necessity of freedom.  We need to give our children permission to sacrifice for goodness.  Children possess a natural sense of mission.  They intuitively feel that their lives have a higher purpose.  If we fail to cultivate and refine this sensitivity, it can atrophy – producing apathetic cynics – or it can be hijacked – producing suicide bombers.  At best, children deprived of a loftier vision end up hurting themselves; at worst, they end up hurting someone else too.

Along with values, we also need to give our children structure.  Kids need to brush their teeth and go to bed on time.  Kids need to do their homework – every day.  Kids need to say please and thank you.  And kids need to spend some of their free time helping out, making positive contributions to society.  We need to impose all this on our children.  They need guidelines.  They need rules.  Some music lyrics are okay, and some aren’t; some movies, TV shows, video-games, and internet sites are okay and some aren’t; some friends are okay, and some aren’t.  We cannot be afraid to say “no”.

These are the real lessons we should be learning from John Walker.  Perhaps if we provide our children with rich values and sufficient structure, they won’t feel the need to seek the same elsewhere – sometimes from people who despise all that we hold precious.

by  Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen
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