Finnish School Shooting: Helping The Young Find A 'First Life' Before They Lose Themselves In SecondLife.
The chilling murder this week of five students, a nurse and a volunteer teacher in a Finnish school should give us pause to think about the challenges facing Europe's young people.
I have visited Finland many times over the past decade, meeting with church and community leaders and speaking to crowds, large and small, which included many teenagers.
Violence, of course, is a very real possibility in any community, but having written about school shootings in the USA I never thought I’d be writing about such a thing in rural Finland.
Within Europe, Finland is famous for Nokia and Formula One racing drivers. It is better known for saunas than shootings.
When 18-year-old Pekka-Eric Auvinen walked into Jokela High School in the south of his country, carrying a 22 calibre handgun, he marked Finland with a terrible stain of sadness. And he showed that gun violence may become an issue in Europe, too.
Normally, Finnish people are carefree, outgoing and friendly in the long days of summer; then quietly stoic during the dark days of winter when sunlight is hard to find. Their standard of living is one of the highest in the world; and their education system enjoys some of the highest average test scores in Europe.
In today's globalised culture, however, small and well-off nations can no longer claim immunity from the social traumas normally associated with poorer regions and huge populations.
What, if anything, can we bring out of this tragedy?
First perhaps a reminder that communications technologies like the internet, while they’re a fantastic boon to our lives in so many ways, cannot substitute for healthy face-to-face human interaction.
In some cases, as here, they seem to encourage greater social isolation and feelings of alienation within an already troubled young mind.
Hours before his murderous spree, Auvinen posted sinister warnings of his intent on YouTube.
His first YouTube site had operated under the name ‘NaturalSelector89‘.
Auvinen was a self-confessed fan of social Darwinism, which applies Darwin’s theories of natural selection to society as a whole. Basically, it says, the weak must be jettisoned to help preserve and advance the strong.
YouTube decided that Auvinen’s violent rantings were at odds with its policies and removed his site. So he constructed another using the codename ‘Sturmgeist89’, taken from a German word meaning ‘storm-spirit’. It now seems a fitting name for his inner condition, but it was also the name of one of his favourite heavy metal bands.
Young people increasingly use the Internet to build friendships and to share their personal agendas and stories with their peers. In some of the world’s wealthier nations, teenagers will spend more time networking online than they do in face-to-face contact with others.
This is certainly true of Finland, which is one of the most wired nations in Europe. It has more mobile phones that almost any other nation on earth – in real, not simply proportionate, terms. And it was one of the first nations on earth to develop comprehensive and advanced broadband systems.
Finland’s deep winter darkness drives people indoors for long periods and raises national suicide rates and it has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe. Study after study the world has suggested that children do less well in fragmented families than they do in families that stay together.
In Finland, as in some other parts of Europe, kids will come home in the depths of winter’s darkness to parents and step-parents they don’t feel comfortable with, or can’t connect with. Then they’ll spend hours alone, relating to their world only through the artificial prism of cyberspace.
It’s a recipe for teen depression and alienation.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that all or most Finnish teens are depressed, or that they have a less than a warm relationship with their parents. I’ve spoken to hundreds of Finnish teens who are wonderful young people, with a real sense of destiny in life.
The fact is, though, that teens the world over find it hard enough as it is to fit into the adult world. The situation can only be made tougher by fragmenting families and the isolation of an entire social network built up only in cyberspace.
In an interview I conducted last year with Europe's leading futurist, Dr Patrick Dixon, we talked about how technology affects the fragmentation of society. Patrick noted that, for all their wizardry, Virtual Reality (VR) and other forms of web-based technology will always be limited in their ability to satisfy deep human needs. There is, he said, a huge and growing need for high touch in the age of high-tech.
As a society, we need to be consciously and deliberately creating new opportunities for young people to interact in positive and meaningful face-to-face environments. They need the chance to safely gather not just with people of their own age, but with those of different generations, so that they gain a rounded picture of the world and their place in it.
There is an even greater urgency with this as the push toward a virtual world increases. Churches, community clubs and school groups can do much to creatively inspire social interaction and cohesion.
We need to help the young find a ‘first life’ before they lose themselves in Second Life!
Secondly, this tragic shooting reminds us that many of Europe's young people are desperate in their search for underlying meaning in life.
The head of the British Army, General sir Richard Bennett, has said that when there is a spiritual vacuum in the nation, something will move in to fill it. In some parts of Europe, that something is radical Islamist fundamentalism.
In others it is rampant consumerism – and soulless secularism.
If we totally abandon our celebration of Christian values -- and the heroes who sacrificially exemplified them -- we leave our young people are adrift on a tide of vacuous pop culture. We leave them to worship celebrity, which tells them the best they can achieve is to be well known for being well known.
As a result, many young people try to find creativity in binge drinking and drugs, and some will look for significance through violence. The latter may only be a minority, but that shouldn’t stop us from being vigilant and striving to reduce it further.
There is no excuse for the moral evil committed by a violent young man in Finland last week. But we should take this opportunity to look again into the European soul and ask whether adopting a purely secular approach to life -- where moral relativism tears away at the fabrics of society starting with the family – is really advancing our culture.
We must stop seeing events like this as isolated, one-off, couldn't-happen-ever-again occurrences, and realise that our young people are looking to us for love, affectionate discipline and help in building positive parameters and a healthy destiny for their lives. We must not fail them.