It seemed like a routine fire drill on an early spring day as the middle-school students made their way out of the modern building in Jonesboro, Ark. But soon a teacher and four students lay dead or dying and a dozen others were wounded by a spate of well-directed gunfire.
Horrified by these senseless and apparently cold-blooded killings, the nation asks why. What dark forces could possibly drive two boys, 11 and 13, to commit what appears to be the worst juvenile-case murder in American history?
These were not kids living in grinding poverty or residents of a large city where the ring of gunfire is common. This school was located in a rural area a few miles from a town of some 51,000 that boasted a thriving service and agricultural economy, low unemployment and an extremely low crime rate.
So far there has been no mention of child abuse, domestic violence, drugs, alcohol or mental illness -- high on the list of suspected causes of juvenile violence.
Seeing the rows of houses and buildings that could have been anywhere in America, and watching the reporters interview people who could have been our own neighbors, we can barely contain our urge -- indeed our need -- to explain this tragedy.
It's too early to expect explanations, much less definitive answers. But already we have a good idea of where to look for causes.
First on the list are loose gun laws that make it easy for juveniles to have access to powerful firearms.
Like most juvenile homicides in America, the Jonesboro killings were accomplished with guns. Though most often associated with crime in urban areas, easy access to guns is also a fact of life in rural and semi-rural America, where sport hunting is an accepted part of the culture.
Whether in the hills of Arkansas or the valleys of Upstate New York, small-town kids grow up using guns for sport hunting but often lack the emotional maturity, training and adult supervision that would give them the credentials to "go hunting."
But guns are only partly to blame. In a common culture shaped largely by television, movies, video games and other media, American kids are bombarded daily by "entertainment" in which explicit violence is glorified and glamorized and the consequences of the carnage are rarely if ever seen.
Like sex, violence "sells," and the primary buyers are young people who lack the life experience and judgment needed to put it in perspective and see it for what it really is: an aberration that destroys both its victims and its perpetrators.
In the past, parents and other authority figures could be counted on to limit or at least counter-balance the negative effects of the entertainment media. Earlier generations, who had seen if not directly suffered the consequences of violence in combat, limited their children's exposure to violence and strove to teach them positive values.
But today, many parents are too busy with other concerns to do either. And even those who make a conscientious effort at good parenting often find their best efforts overwhelmed by social forces they cannot seem to control. All too often they find that their children's lives are shaped more by peers and popular culture than by the values they teach and preach or the examples they try to set.
Those killed and scarred physically and emotionally in Jonesboro earlier this week will never be the same, and no legal or social changes can ever restore what they and their families and neighbors have lost. But there is at least the possibility that some good may come of this tragedy if we acknowledge that what happened in Jonesboro could happen here and accept responsibility for doing our share to prevent it from happening again anywhere.
As parents, we can and must put our children first and refuse to allow their values to be dictated by popular culture.
As adults in the community, we must accept the responsibility for teaching all our children by example.
As citizens, we must continue to press for less violence in the lives of children and in the media that "entertain" them.
Finally, as voters, we must support legal efforts to make gun owners more accountable and to keep guns out of the hands of those who understandably lack the maturity to use them responsibly.
CHARLES PATRICK EWING, a forensic psychologist and author of "Kids Who Kill" and "When Children Kill, is a professor of law at the University at Buffalo.