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A family apologizes for a son's murderous behavior

April 25, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

What do you do when your child shoots someone to death?

The parents of Dylan Klebold, one of the shooters in the Columbine school massacre, in October 1999 filed a notice of their intent to sue Jefferson County, Colo., claiming that authorities should have known their son's partner in mayhem, Eric Harris, had shown he was prone to violence in several previous incidents.

On Friday, the parents of Seung-Hui Cho, who slaughtered 32 at Virginia Tech, issued an apology through Cho's sister, saying they were "deeply sorry for the devastation my brother has caused."

Although it seems clear that her brother was mentally ill, there was no attempt to excuse what happened or to blame it on the bullying his high-school classmates said Cho underwent.

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Should Cho's parents have known he was so troubled? News accounts say the couple, who lived in poverty in South Korea, emigrated to the U.S. to get their children a good education.

To pay for that, mother and father worked long hours and young Cho, already known to many as the child who wouldn't speak, did not get the help he needed.

But as I could tell you from my own teenage experience, children can be adept at concealing from their parents what they don't want them to know.

The idea that many teens have a hidden life was explored in "Parents Under Siege," a book by researchers James Garbarino and Claire Bedard.

Reviewed by Amy Dickinson in Time magazine in September 2001, the book contains interviews with Klebold's parents, who Garbarino found to be loving and involved.

They might have been clueless about their son, but if that were true, Garbarino believes it was so because young Dylan engaged in elaborate deceptions.

Part of the book covers Garbarino's interviews with 275 freshmen at Cornell University, who reported doing a wide range of things that their parents were unaware of, including drinking and doing illegal drugs, having sex and even committing crimes.

Does that let parents off the hook?

Not really. According to Dickinson's review, Garbarino believed that parents need to build a relationship of trust with children early, before teen peer pressure leads them in other directions.

The Klebolds acknowledged in a 2004 interview with columnist David Brooks of the New Times that they had not seen the signs that their son was headed down the wrong path - even though he had been in what is called a "juvenile diversion program" with Harris for breaking into a van to steal tools and other items.

But Dylan's mother, Susan Klebold, rejected the idea that she had "done anything for which I need forgiveness."

Instead, the Klebolds said, it was a "toxic culture" at the school that allowed bullying and placed athletes on a pedestal that set their son off.

Perhaps it was, but the Klebolds' attempts to deflect blame upset parents of the victims, whose statements indicated they wanted some words of comfort as opposed to the "not my fault" stuff they got.

The Cho family might also have missed the signs that their son was on a dangerous path, but in my view they deserve some small measure of gratitude for offering a heartfelt apology instead of a bundle of excuses.

When U.S. Sen Robert Packwood's inappropriate sexual behavior was revealed in the mid 1990s, some women of my acquaintance said "Just like a man to believe he can get away with anything."

Now people of color are saying the same thing about Don Imus, the deejay whose racial slur of the Rutgers women's basketball team's members led to his firing.

The gist of their argument: White men can do what they want and only in rare cases is something done about it.

To all of those white men who still believe that this stuff is funny, it isn't. And the rest of us are getting tired of carrying your baggage.

If you truly believe that you are superior in some way, there is one way to prove it - by behaving as if you believe that it's the content of your character and not the color of your skin makes you that way.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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