Last March 24, two Jonesboro, Ark., middle-school youths ambushed and murdered four classmates and a teacher. A day later, a 13-year-old Daly City, Calif., boy, angered by a suspension, fired a shot at the school principal, who was fortunately not injured.
On the same date in Princeton, Texas, a male student slashed three teachers with a razor. Last week, a 15-year-old Yonkers, N.Y., girl, upset over her teacher calling her parents about poor grades, attacked the teacher with a hammer, hospitalizing her with multiple skull fractures.The National Center for Education Statistics reported 11,000 violent school incidents in 1997 where weapons were used. Those numbers don't include the untold thousands of school assaults where weapons were not used. And there's the nearly routine foul language spoken to or in the presence of teachers, not to mention the rampant drug use among our youth.
Being 62 years old, I can tell you that, even in the roughest of neighborhoods, what's routine today was unthinkable - possibly unimaginable - in the past. During those days, teachers' complaints were note-passing and chewing gum in class, talking in line and going up the down stairs.
But away from school, a number of kids smoked. Cigarettes were readily available. I used to purchase them "loose," three for 5 cents. We didn't smoke in front of adults; that was deemed disrespectful. If an adult happened along while we were smoking, we'd conceal the cigarette by palming it; we believed all adults were undercover agents for our parents.
In the wake of what's no less than a national moral meltdown among our youngsters, what do we expend our energies on? If you said, "Trying to stop kids from smoking cigarettes," go to the head of the class.
What we're doing reminds me of the story about a Paris police chief whose squad was summoned to stop a robbery in progress at a downtown department store. Upon arrival, the chief discovered that he didn't have enough men to cover all of the department store's entrances. What do you think he did? He assigned his men to cover the entrances of the building next door because it didn't have so many entrances.
Our teenage anti-smoking agenda, like the Paris police chief's strategy, is stupid. Our big problems with our youngsters are drugs, murder, rape, teenage pregnancy, gross disrespect for authority and scoring dead last, or nearly so, on international comparisons of academic achievement. Those problems threaten the nation's future, and what do we do? Like that Paris police chief, we cover the "entrances next door" - and go after teen smoking.
What's worse is that, while trying to stop kids from smoking, we are destroying our Constitution. At a recent meeting I had with leading members of Congress, I asked one of the congressmen to cite the article in the U.S. Constitution that granted Congress authority to do what's no less than extortion of the tobacco industry and its customers. I got no answer. There wasn't even an attempt to fabricate an answer using the "commerce clause" or the "general welfare clause."
Here's my prediction: The war on teen smoking is going to be just as successful as the war on drugs. Just as the war on drugs has weakened our Bill of Rights protections against unreasonable search and seizures (Article IV) and taking of property without due process of law (Article V), the war on tobacco promises to continue the process. When our Constitution is finally buried, a fitting inscription for its tombstone might be, "We Did It For The Children."