It’s Not Just Violence

As a family-oriented newspaper, we generally try to minimize reporting — let alone editorializing — on violent crimes. But every so often a story occurs that is so shocking or outrageous that it calls for national introspection.

An example is the experience of Margaret E. Smith of Slaughter Neck, Delaware.

When two teenage girls approached the 89-year-old African American woman two weeks ago and offered her money to drive them to the other end of the small Delaware town, Ms. Smith was at first inclined to turn them down. But instead, she decided to be kind and let the two youngsters, one aged 14 and the other 15, into her Buick LeSabre. They directed her to drive from one house to another, and then grabbed her keys and forced her into the trunk of the car.

The two youngsters — and two other teenagers who joined them — drove wildly over the roads, not caring that their captive had neither food, water, nor the medication she needed to regulate her heart and blood pressure. At one point they opened the trunk, forced her to hand over the $500 in her pocket, then locked her in the trunk once more.

Two long days later, they dumped Ms. Smith in a remote cemetery filled with weeds and sand. But the senior citizen soon proved that her time had not yet come. A passerby noticed her and called police. After a stay in the hospital, she had recovered sufficiently from her ordeal to be interviewed by the media.

Smith described what she would do at her next encounter with these teenagers. “I would just look at them, because I can’t understand how those little kids think they are going through life doing the things that they have done,” she said. “It was a horrible experience.”

“Horrible” is an understatement.

The four suspects were indicted this week as adults by a Sussex County grand jury, and authorities said on Tuesday that they will be charged as adults.

Carjacking and kidnapping anyone — regardless of the victim’s age — is a heinous crime that ought to be punished harshly. But the fact that this particular victim was an elderly woman who had just agreed to do them a favor is a tragic indicator of just how low American society has sunk.

While it would be unfair to judge a generation by the acts of a handful of deranged individuals, the reality is that juvenile criminal violence — though statistically lower than it once was — continues to plague the United States. Juvenile arrests numbered 1.6 million in 2010, the last year for which such records are available.

But this story isn’t only about youth violence against the elderly; it is also about how today’s youth perceive their elders.

This country has long been notorious for the arrogance of its youth. In direct contrast to the Torah’s approach, which mandates honoring and respecting the elderly, America worships its youth. In a world dominated by technological inventions, it is the youngsters — who comfortably navigate the latest gadgets — who seem to have all the answers. The wisdom derived from long decades of experience is considered meaningless in an age when morals have been replaced by the ranting of bloggers and values by social media posting. Concepts such as independence, individualism and self-reliance have replaced those of friendship, bonding, and family relationships.

In a particularly tragic part of this breakdown of basic values, humans are judged primarily by what they currently can produce rather than by their innate qualities. Instead of looking at retirees as fountains of knowledge and sources of inspiration, all that seems to matter is how much money, time and effort it will cost the next generation to care for seniors. The fundamental importance of exhibiting gratitude to our parents and grandparents has all but disappeared.

As Torah Jews, we must do all we can to battle this pervasive culture that, despite our best efforts, invariably seeps into our community as well.

Our elders are beloved crowns, beacons of light, and links in the chain that connects us to our ancestors. It isn’t only our sacred obligation to care for them; it is also a great privilege. At every opportunity we must ensure that they are accorded the honor they so richly deserve, and that we try to tap into the wealth of knowledge they have gathered through their life experiences.