Stop the Madness!

May 5, 1999

It's not clear yet that either of the two Littleton, Colo., students who unleashed their anger by firing on classmates and teachers . . . were encouraged by any racist hate sites on the Web. But there were indications that racism, hate, and the Internet played a role in their crimes.

-"Internet Gives Youths Path To Hate Groups," The Sun, April 22.

A foul influence has cropped up in our society, ladies and gentlemen. It's a place that offers easy accessibility to violence and racist-fueled speech, where grotesque ideologies and over-the-top hate language flow freely.

Don't believe me? I did a sample expedition. Within 30 minutes of searching, I came across these items: a piece of writing describing a 12-year-old girl tied to a bed and injected with drugs to keep her sedated for multiple rapes; graphic photos of Nanking citizens killed or horribly tortured during the Japanese aggression against China in World War II; a vivid depiction of two blood-drenched women in a fight (one is wielding a cleaver); and perhaps most disturbingly, Hitler's anti-Semitic Mein Kampf-in its entirety!

I suspect most of you know where I found this material. But in case you've lived underneath a rock for the past few years, I'll clue you in: a library. A public library not three miles from my home.

It's not clear yet that either of the two Littleton, Colo., students who unleashed their anger by firing on classmates and teachers were encouraged by any racist hate material they found in their local library. But there were indications that racism, hate, and libraries played a role in their crimes.

The frightening fact is that any teenager can just walk into the nearest branch of your government-funded public library and have access to a wide range of material, some of it clearly unsuitable for little minds. The barrier of entry is very low. Even those who can't afford a computer to access the Internet can freely check out a book filled with violence or hate speech! With no supervision! According to a pro-book lobbying group called the American Library Association, there are more than 120,000 libraries in the U.S. This should strike fear into the hearts of every concerned adult. Just think: Computer-catalogue-savvy kids in search of outlets for anger and adolescent rebellion can find them on the book shelves-and reference-desk personnel are eager to help them.

Once upon a time, scholars sought out libraries to find volumes otherwise unattainable. In this way, such services performed a legitimate function. Nowadays, book superstores are on almost every corner, rendering the act of burrowing into the stacks a quaint, outdated custom. Not that libraries today attract crowds so scholarly. The sad truth is most of their patrons have spent more time watching television than rigorously pursuing academic disciplines. How can they be trusted to handle responsibly the material they find? Can we be sure that every reader will achieve the contextual distance needed to understand the violence in a Dean Koontz novel or, for that matter, the perverted sexual mores espoused in Nicholson Baker's latest? Of course, most who read something like Mein Kampf don't buy into its absurd arguments. But a few do.

What's the answer? Unfortunately, doing away with libraries altogether may be politically infeasible-though outright elimination certainly would solve another huge problem associated with these "book lenders": piracy. Not only do libraries allow patrons to easily duplicate whatever pleases them on conveniently located "copying machines," but every time a book is checked out, the publishing industry loses a sale. In this way, untold millions in royalties slip away each year. Cash-poor authors are forced to teach, write advertising copy, or hang out in seedy bars drinking cheap beer with wanton floozies.

If we can't shut down libraries, we can work toward good stop-gap solutions. How about holding librarians legally responsible for the actions their books cause when they are loaned out? Is this too much to ask? How about requiring libraries to remove books we find indecent? Or at least restricting such materials to an "adults-only" section of the library? Here is where we can all do our part. Each and every one of us can pressure our elected officials to pass legislation that will make our libraries safe for children.

Let me tell you a scary story: When I was 15 years old, I went to the local library and, with no parental supervision, came across a copy of The Satanic Bible, written by Anton LaVey. Curious, I checked it out and took it home. Just like that! Although reading the book didn't send me on a shooting spree, it might have if I'd also had access to a trench coat, firearms, blood-spurting video games, and hate-filled German industrial music.

Let's stop this chain of madness before it's too late. Ask not what libraries can do to you, but ask what you can do to the libraries.

--Joab Jackson

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