Coming to Grips with Kosovo and Littleton

The fragile balance of political and culturalural conditions that make a fully human life possible have been tested in events in Kosovo and Littleton. Among the most basic of these conditions are the rule of law and respect for the human person.

In a perilously short time, the rule of law was overthrown in both places — either in the name of one man's idea of ethnic purity or of two students' uncontrolled desire for revenge. Life's daily normalcy in these communities will never be the same.

When the rule of law is shattered by violence, the other necessary condition for life — respect for the person — is no longer adequately protected.

In Kosovo, the devastation families have suffered is a humanitarian tragedy. It is a sad reminder that basic political realities must be in place in society if families are to be able to live out their vocation as families. Politicians try to find a face-saving strategy to end the violence, but meanwhile families have lost homes, property, jobs, documents and fortunes. They are surviving in temporary shelters, not knowing if they will ever return to their own homes or ever know peace again. War has brought complete chaos and misery to their lives.

In this case, respect for law has been abolished by a tyrannical power that is coercing hundreds of thousands of people to conform to one man's totalitarian vision. The Milosevic approach uses “ethnic cleansing” as a tool for sorting out which groups are more worthy than others to live in Serbia. Power, not law, is calling the shots.

Ironically, in Colorado, where society is predominantly governed by law, and where Littleton residents assumed, until now, a certain level of mutual respect, two seventeen-year-olds disrupted the life of the community in a shooting spree killing thirteen people and then themselves. They violated the most basic law protecting human life and opened a gaping hole in society's sense of security — a sense of security that results when the rule of law is effectively in place.

The boys' behavior was especially dramatic because of their age. This slaughter, perpetrated by two college-bound students, has raised fears that there may be more young people out there growing up with little regard for the law, willing to “express themselves” with anarchic behavior at a moment's notice.

In Kosovo, first ethnic cleansing and then NATO's bombing have decimated a nation's societal structure, a structure that protected family life. In Littleton, two troubled youngsters shattered a community's sense of identity and raised questions about how people are raising their children.

The students, Klebold and Harris, were driven by wounded egos, revenge, a love of death (they were known as “Goths,” a subculture group fascinated with death) and the radical individualism that infects today's culture with excessive self-absorption. After the fact, parents and teachers are asking themselves about the unnoticed behavioral signs of the boys' emotional and moral disturbance, and about their own indifference to the signs they may have seen.

In both places, anarchy destabilized the basic order that is necessary for human life. What is the fragile balance that has been shattered? It is the balance that underlies all democratic societies: respect for law, a working economy that provides jobs and resources for families, and a culture that promotes the good of the individual and encourages virtue, or, at a minimum, decency. Without respect for law, the economy and the culture cannot continue to function, as we have seen in Kosovo, which is now a land emptied of people except for roving bands of Serbian troops. In Littleton, the balance has been shattered by the breaking of the law through a cancer in the culture, a lack of moral virtue in the lives of two students and the community that did not seem to notice.

We fail to realize that political stability is based on law and guaranteed by law. The balance of institutions that form our society is fragile. It is not magical; nor is it everlasting. Without law, and law informed by morality and religion, there can be no democracy, as the Pope has so often warned us.

These events are shock waves that remind us of our individual responsibility for the democratic order we have. We see how easily the veneer of civilization can be lost when respect for law is swept aside by one man or two students.

Mary Ellen Bork, a board member of the Catholic Campaign for America and the Institute for Religion in Democracy, writes from Washington, D.C.