The tragedy this week in Jonesboro, Ark., reaches deeply into the country's conscience. The question of motivation - why an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old would do this - echoes from one end of the US to the other.
That question can be approached from a number of directions. One is the easy availability of guns. Without question, communities, states, and the federal government need to reassess laws, and customs, that allow firearms to fall readily into the hands of unsupervised youths. The resistance to change in this area is politically potent. But the need for it is morally undeniable. Jonesboro makes the case, yet again, for stronger controls on gun ownership and availability.
Another approach points to the media and entertainment environment enveloping America's young. Violence is too often portrayed as "coolness," killing is tossed off as "fun," and brutality triumphs. Do we really think the violent themes of many movies, TV shows, and video games have no impact on adolescent thinking? One of the boys being held for the Jonesboro killings was said to have split his time between video games and gun-toting.
But the fundamental answer to the question of motivation lies deeper. These youngsters - and others who have perpetrated similar acts in recent months - have been deprived of something basic: moral sense, an ability to weigh the thoughts and impulses coming to them against something immutably right. And then to listen, and follow that higher direction.
"Thou shalt not kill" is more than a religious teaching handed down over the millennia. It's a law connecting humankind to a caring God who not only demands moral progress, but opens the way for it. Such keynotes of moral teaching demand reinforcement. Kids must have the guidance of right-thinking parents, teachers, ministers - people who are themselves morally listening.
This is the basic need. This tragedy should make us redouble our efforts to meet it.