MENTION morality in the United States, and everyone assumes you're talking about sex. Liberals, and others who consider themselves freed from the benighted scoldings of wizened clerics, squirm at any mention of a "breakdown of morality." They feel certain that they're about to be lectured on the sin of fornication.
But what if the lecture is about murder? What if the lecture included a tour of urban high schools and crack-selling districts in major cities where human life has come to equal the price of a radio? The experience might lead even the most steadfast liberal to consider a donation to Jerry Falwell.
Sean Smith, a 15-year-old from the northeast section of Washington, got into a fight when a classmate first admired and then demanded his new red ski jacket. Sean expressed some unwillingness to part with his property. He was shot dead. Kendall Merriweather, 17, was shot and killed for his "boom box" radio. "You gotta be prepared," explained a 15-year-old from Baltimore. "People shoot you for your coat, your rings, chains, anything."
Eric Prater is a former Marine who grew up in a tough part of Washington. His own childhood would not have qualified for a Norman Rockwell portrait, yet even he is shocked. "Now everybody is into the 9mm and the Uzi. It's one thing to see somebody pull out a handgun, but what's out there now is not to be believed. The police don't stand a chance now."
The statistics on kids and guns are chilling. In 1985, more than 27,000 youngsters between the ages of 12 and 15 were shot -- many by other children. Drug dealers, frequently under the age of 18, have established flourishing sidelines in gun rentals. For a small down payment, children can rent a gun for an evening. The next day, with the proceeds of the previous night's robbery, the full rental price of the handgun is delivered.
But far more frightening than the bald statistics on gun proliferation is the utter moral emptiness of the hearts behind the triggers. An inmate at a maximum security prison, questioned about his motive for murder, seemed bored by the question. "The guy was fat. I told him to go on a diet, but he wouldn't. So I shot him."
Two teen-agers (16-year-olds) expressed surprise that anyone would consider more antique styles of settling arguments, such as fistfights. "Why would you fight somebody when you can shoot 'em? If you fight, you could be up there all day. You could just shoot 'em and get it over with." Isaac Fullwood, assistant D.C. police chief, is incredulous. "There's a psychology in a lot of these young people. They don't place any value on life. They can shoot somebody, go home and go to bed."
Newsweek magazine, searching for answers in all the usual places, cites television violence, Clint Eastwood and, of course, the National Rifle Association, as culprits. What the magazine doesn't say, perhaps out of fear of sounding like a Moral Majoritarian, is that no one has ever taught those youthful killers lTC the simplest moral distinctions. Under the circumstances, the kids are being perfectly logical. It is a great time saver to shoot someone rather than spend an entire afternoon fighting with fists. And if 9mm semiautomatic pistols have become part of the costume of successful drug dealers -- along with gold Rolex watches and Fila tennis shoes -- fashion will prevail.
It's time to pay the moralists their due. The "breakdown of morality" isn't just the rallying cry of modern bluenoses clucking their tongues at sexual indiscretion. The moral bankruptcy of our inner cities has created a Clockwork Orange world, where cruelty and murder are as casual as sex and drugs.
The best sources of moral regeneration are the churches. It's too late for the gun-toting 15-year-olds. But for their younger brothers and sisters, Sunday school would make a difference. They could start with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, for those who haven't read it lately is not primarily about sex. The "grievous sin" which caused God to rain down fire and brimstone was not just sodomy -- it was cruelty.
Mona Charen gave birth to an 8-pound boy Sept. 15. This first column of her maternity leave was originally published in January 1988.