I recall as a child watching with innocent joy the film, Peter Pan. Nearly all movies require “suspension of disbelief”—that marvelous choice to dive into a make-believe world, to ignore plot holes, to accept the impossible, and simply to be entertained—but Peter Pan requires it in spades. Eternally a boy, Peter moves between an alternate world and this one. He flies, he fights Neverland pirates in floating galleons, and he leads a motley gang of pre-pubescent swashbucklers, all of whom adore a pixie-dust covered fairy named Tinker Bell. It is a wonderful movie, but only if you’re willing to “suspend disbelief.”
But even as a child I knew when to return to reality. Although I enjoyed the movie, I never sprinkled dust on my head and attempted to fly out of a second story window. A movie is a movie. Gravity is gravity.
It might be odd, then, if I were to allow Peter Pan so to influence my thinking that I attempted a pixie-dust fueled flight from my rooftop. But it would be odder still if in response to my broken bones society rose up, condemning the film for having planted anti-gravity ideas in my mind. It would be odd for the simple reason that the overwhelming majority of all the people who ever have watched Peter Pan have not jumped from rooftops or balconies or second story windows. That tends strongly to suggest that the fault would lie with me rather than the film.
But in America today, if a young man commits a public crime, the press, politicians, and rank and file citizens alike join in suggesting that he broke the law because he first watched a film that depicted criminal violence, or because he indulges in racist chat groups, or because the President said something derogatory about immigrants, or because he lives in poverty. A never-ending list of supposed “causes” could be added, and as these “causes” mount the responsibility of the criminal himself fades. Now, don’t get me wrong. I tend to think that films that glorify criminal violence are foolish. Racist websites offer both bad ideas and often, bad grammar. Our President, much to his shame, rarely speaks without saying something derogatory about somebody. And although poverty and crime often unite in the press, the vast majority of poor people are honest, hard-working, law-abiding folk. But with increasing frequency, the common American narrative describes a criminal’s action as the fault of the media he consumes or the groups with which he affiliates or his socio-economic status. As a result, individual responsibility dies. Never mind that millions of people watch films that glorify criminal violence, but commit no crime. All of us have been exposed to racism online, in print, in the media, and in person, and yet most of us love our neighbors of every color and nationality and religious persuasion. Millions daily listen to the inane and often derogatory comments of politicians of both parties, but manifest no violent behavior on account of it. Neither poverty nor wealth makes a man a criminal. These supposed “causes” of criminality don’t cause much of anything except annoyance and frustration in the vast majority of people exposed to them.
The truth that our society seems slowly to be forgetting is that a man is more than the information he receives, the media he consumes, the groups to which he belongs, or the quantity of money he makes. He is a morally accountable agent. And some morally accountable agents choose to respond to this world or their frustrations or their neighbor’s opinions criminally. Not because they must, but because they choose to do so.
No society would condemn Peter Pan for the folly of a man who failed to leave pixie dust behind when he left the theater. But America seems determined to blame cultural and political and socio-economic scapegoats rather than to embrace the simple truth that some people do wicked things. And the reason for their crimes resides in their mirror.